Mandawuy Yunupingu Interview (Yothu Yindi)

In 1992, I was supposed to go on a press junket to South Australia to cover the Adelaide Festival. The whole thing was last minute and I didn’t think it was going to happen. I lived in Boston at the time, and for some reason, I found myself at a psychic in Salem, Massachusetts (home of the witch trials, sort of) who told me that I was definitely going to go on the trip and that I was supposed to hook up with “Aboriginal energy.”

Yeah, right, I thought.

The trip did happen, and other than visiting an Aboriginal museum, I can’t say I did much hooking up with their energy. (Ironically, I was a guest on an Adelaide radio show, where I talked about the Salem Witch trials, which I had been studying.)

But, as I explained in a previous blog post, I did meet Paul Kelly, who opened my eyes to a lot of great Australian music, which led to a phone interview with Manduwuy Yunupingu, lead singer of the Aboriginal rock band, Yothu Yindi, which ran in a folk/rock/roots magazine called Dirty Linen. After the interview, Mandawuy invited me to meet the band backstage at an upcoming Boston-area concert, which I did. I also met up with them when they returned the following year.

Here’s the interview.

Yothu Yindi is an Australian band that mixes traditional Aborginal and contemporary music. Their single, Treaty, put them at the top of the Australian charts. Tribal Voice, their first American release, is on Hollywood Records.

I spoke with lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu by phone at his hotel room in Buffalo during the band’s recent six-week tour of the U.S.

How did you get started playing music?

Well, music is in my blood. I grew up with music. It’s always been in my family background. There’s been music there ever since I was born, mostly traditional. Throughout the years, I got to know the white man’s music, particularly Gospel music. When I started to get into the white man’s music, I was listening to gospel and country & western music, basically.

I was surprised to find out how popular country & western music is in Australia. 

That’s how I got familiar with the white man’s music. Later on, I got to know music that the Beatles were into. Of course that was a revolutionary movement for the whole world. It meant changes for young people of the world and changes for Aboriginal people, to a large degree. From there on I started to get into other music as well—basically alternative thinkers, people like Pink Floyd and Presley. That’s basically where my love for music is.

In 1986, I was studying at Victoria University and I got to know this group from Darwin, it was an all-white band, The Swamp Jockeys. I would go to their gigs on weekends. I got to know the guys from the band and made friends with them. And every now and then I’d get up on stage and do my songs and a couple of covers from other black bands. That’s how I got interested in forming my own band. I didn’t want to just form a band that would be like any other bands that were already out there. A lot of black bands were doing the usual sort of rock & roll/reggae type of thing. I wanted my band to be different. So I got the idea of bringing in traditional music as part of the act, as part of something I’d sort of build on. I went back to my community and asked my family members if they would be willing to play the didjeridu or the clapsticks and sing the traditional lyrics in the traditional language. We were breaking new ground, trying to bring our world into the white man’s world, which meant that we had to let go of some of the cultural restrictions that we were subjected to.

As time progressed, I really had to really rely on my Elders to guide me and give me wisdom as to how I was going to set up the band. We did a lot of experimental work. It was a new idea. No one really knew what it was going to sound like. We used to go down to the other cities, Sydney particularly, and do pub gigs with the Swamp Jockeys. They invited me down to Sydney and we’d play pub gigs – we’d appear as guest artists. I’d bring my family members with me. We started out with three: Witiyana on the clapsticks, Milkayngu on yidaki (the didgeridu), and me. That’s how we got things moving. In ’88 we borrowed some money from our family. We get compensation from our tribal clan which is royalty monies from bauxite mining. Our families gave us $10,000 so we could go to Sydney and record a demo tape. We did that in early ’88. Of course, that year was the year that the Australian people were celebrating the Bicentennial, 200 years of white settlement. It was really meaningful to record our first album, Homeland Movement that year.

We were invited by Midnight Oil in September, I think it was, of ’88 to tour the United States and Canada with them, which was a big break for us. It was an opportunity that we’d been waiting for. That was the first time that we toured as a band, outside of Australia. It was a learning process. I’m really glad that it happened because I got to experience what life is like on the road.

It gave us a chance to get established, to let the American people and the music industry know who we were. And it paid off in the end, because with that experience we were able to come back this year and do a six-week tour of the United States and Canada. It’s something that the band has always wanted to do.

We got the second album out, Tribal Voice, and of course, we got a single out and people are starting to recognize us as a musical group and as a culture too. Our style of music is our own style. It’s not copied. And of course, traditional music is the root of where we’re coming from.

What was the audience reaction to the band during the first American tour?

Well, it was really amazing, from my point of view. I mean, considering most of the audience were white, they were just mesmerized! We’d come in with our traditional intro, traditional songs, about four or five songs, and then go into the contemporary music. People were blown away and appreciated it. I think it was just the way we presented ourselves on-stage because we were culturally dressed in all the things that we wear when we’re back at home: clay and nagasand feathers, all that type of thing. That’s basically just to give us power when we play so we can perform better.

Are you concerned that people will see Yothu Yindi as a novelty act?

I think it’s more than that. I think that there is a new way of looking at things. Attitudes are shifting towards an appreciation of what indigenous people can offer.

What we’re trying to do is flood the options. Options are an alternative way of looking at things that’s consistent with whatever is available in the world. We’re one with nature, we’re one with the universe. We’ve never isolated, like the white man has isolated science from nature. That’s their biggest mistake. We’ve always seen the world with the two together. The world of science that we know is within nature.

What’s it like playing in the US. where you’re not well-known, as opposed to back home where the band is very popular? 

The gigs so far have been really great for us. It has been overwhelming, really. American people want to know more about indigenous music and other styles of music. The old stuff is starting to become stale. We’re categorized as part of world music and I think that’s a good indication as to the acceptance and appreciation of our music. You can mix and find the right chemistry using the high-tech up-to-date society to go back 8000 years and still be part of the world. That’s something that’s quite amazing from my point of view.

Treaty deals with the treaty between the Australian government and the Aboriginal people. Has there been progress in that area recently?

Yeah. There’s been a recommendation that came out last year by the Royal Commission on Black Deaths in Custody and that’s one aspect of that. All the recommendations from that are going to be part of the Reconciliation package. The government’s appointed a group of people to a Reconciliation Committee. They are common figures in Australia, black and white. It’s a ten year process where these committee members gather all the information to get the government to shape and map out what the treaty’s going to look like. But at least it’s happening.

What Yothu Yindi’s about is to bring about a black-white relationship, a better black-white relationship. We don’t distinguish between or divide people. Our objective is to bring people together because we’re addressing something that’s important – important for our people and for the country itself. From an Aboriginal point of view, white man is going to stay. We’re stuck with it. There’s no way we’re going to send them back to England. It’s not logical. So what we do is we keep up a kind of momentum with our culture and our situation.

For 200 years we’ve been able to resist some of the aspects of white man’s ways. We’re still part of the world, part of one nation. I think what we’re addressing here, now, at this present time, is that we can offer things to the white man, things that they don’t know about. One part of that is looking out for the land, looking out for the country, looking out for the Earth. And appreciating the uniqueness of our culture as part of Australia. And white man’s got to know that. And I think that white man is looking for it, too. White man’s rapidly approaching a dead end. Bad things are happening.

People are dying. Look at the greenhouse affect, pollution, mining, those type of things. The Aboriginal people have been able to look after the land for 80,000 years. What else can we do ?

In ’88 when we toured with Midnight Oil, we met up with the Hopi Indians. That was a great highlight of the tour for me. We talked about spirituality. We talked about relocation. We talked about mining. We talked about social problems and we could see just how much similarity existed between Australia and America as far as Indian and Aboriginal people are concerned. The experience was something that we were able to take back with us and tell our people what sort of situation Indian people are facing.

What would you like to see for the future of the band?

We have a six album deal with Hollywood records. What I’d like to do is keep going the way we are. I think a major thing in our lives would be to meet up with other artists of the world and record with them and maybe even hook up with other indigenous people of the world.

Maybe an Indian-Aboriginal collaboration…


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