Sat in a tiny ABC studio in Southbank, Melbourne, with a live feed in my ear, the camera in my face and a monitor playing out-of-sync below my eye line — that’s a strange place to hear one friend announce the death of another. On that monitor, Mark Grose from Skinnyfish Music was pouring his heart out about Dr G. Yunupingu. It’s hard to sum up a person so succinctly within the conventions of TV. Only so much can be said about a person’s life and impact in a short segment, and watching Mark, I realised I was about to attempt the same kind of tribute.
Counting down, I felt almost like I was trying to solve an equation in my head, trying to find the correct answer. I could feel the pressure of time, coupled with the enormity of the subject. My friend. Every avenue of his being seemed to open into more and more variables, which only complicated my objective. How could I do him justice? But once I started talking, my brain locked into autopilot. I went back to my regular approach: say what you feel. Talk about G, because he liked to be talked about.
Dr G, as much as he was a virtuoso, was also a loving, humorous and gentle person. He was a consummate showman, but also of the boys. To me, Dr G was an anomaly, not an enigma or the mystic “figure of the dreamtime” you would find mentioned in Facebook comments. I find these descriptions kind of a disservice to the actual person he was, while understanding they come from the most kind and good-natured of places. Dr G, Mark, Michael Hohnen, and James Mangohig would read these comments and laugh, knowing the real cheeky human behind the stoic and striking press photos.
Michael Hohnen (aka ‘Non-Indigenous Michael’) introduced me to Dr G on a balcony of a Southbank Hotel in 2013. Dr G was unassuming — he didn’t talk much if he didn’t know you. I shook his hand, and he hand the long fingers of a guitar player, as well the soft touch of a classical musician. Meeting him could be an awkward moment for the uninitiated, but I spoke to Dr G about the one thing we had in common: music.
As I stood talking with G he sat quietly, smelling the air as Michael picked the onion from his butter chicken. I told him that our people, my family (Yorta-Yorta/Wemba-Wemba) and his (Gumatj/Yolngu), have had a history of working together and doing great things, and that he and I were going to make great music together. He replied simply with ‘Ma’ (Yes/Ok). I have a picture of this exact moment; Michael had the foresight to capture it and I’m fully aware about how fortunate I am to have this.
Michael assured me that G’s curt response was more than Sting of the Police had received (and that’s Michael’s story to tell). It wasn’t until our ride to the ABC studios for an interview that our friendship started to take form. We stepped out of the van and a pair of fans approached Dr G and instantly turned to water. They were fawning over him like you’d expect for a teen pop sensation, “Oh my God, you have the voice of an angel!” After they left I quipped “Shit, I wish my fans were like that.” G cracked up, I’d never seen nor expected him to laugh like that. Suddenly I found another thing we had in common probably more than music. It turned out Dr G really loved jokes.
I knew we were going to create something special in music, but I didn’t account for the friendship that would follow. Dr G and I connected through music and laughter, the same way I’ve connected with many other friends. And that’s where I learned Dr G wasn’t a figment, he was a character like us. I remember calling the Skinnyfish studios one afternoon to see what they were working on. That conversation took a detour, and I convinced a reluctant Michael to relay my ‘inappropriate jokes’ from down the phone, to howls of laughter from G in the background.
Dr G was very particular about his recording environment, even specifying the temperature. Walking into a room where he was running the show was like walking into a sauna. “31 degrees even” was on the tech specs for our Triple J Like A Version performance of “The Hunt” and “The Children Came Back”. I had to remind Michael that there were three South Eastern blackfullas in this performance, and we would not make it through. An electric blanket and two heaters were sourced for Dr G.
On our Like A Version you’ll hear him reply to the host’s introduction with a cheeky “Hello!” Dr G rarely spoke to the media, but this is one of the moments he did. It makes me the happiest because I knew that response meant he was really enjoying the space he was in. Surrounded by people who loved him, cracking jokes, sharing our talents and making music together.
When you’re in a moment, you’re not always aware it’s a moment. The instance you become aware you’re in a moment, you’re somehow automatically removed from it, you go from being part of it to being a spectator. That Like A Version performance was one of those moments so was performing on stage at Barunga Fest together, or when we accepted a National Indigenous Music Award.
While I was around Dr G I was definitely aware of his talent. It was impossible not to be aware of it. He could play any instrument you placed in front of him, and his voice would cut through symphonies, bands, and rap tracks effortlessly. His musicianship felt infinite. While he was playing, I could say “Great Wawa, play up the neck for me on the next bars”, and Dr G had the ability to hit every note you thought about in your head. Then he’d give you the notes you didn’t know you needed.
In all this, I forgot to mention my friend Dr G, was blind. When you first met him, that’s one of the first things you’d notice, but after you knew the man, it’s the last thing you’d remember. He even acted as a GPS for my cousin as they drove around Darwin. I have no idea how he did that — I can only imagine he memorised turns and hills? It doesn’t matter – we had more important things to talk about, like us playing in a band when I came to Darwin next, to which Dr G emphatically replied with “Oh yeah!”
I wish he was all the magical things his loving fans thought he was, but sometimes the truly magical elements are the most human. The fragility of life, and the moments we are able to create with people we love within that given time – the ones that will live on after us. That’s where the magic is.
I’m going to miss my friend. Through our friendship we got to change things. We changed everyone’s ideas about what was expected from both of us. There’s so much to say but at the end of the day I’m just going to miss you, Wawa.