Dr G Yunupingu obituary

Singer and guitarist whose soulful voice and songs blending western musical styles and Australian Indigenous culture made him a world music celebrity

The soulful, high tenor voice of the singer and guitarist Dr G Yunupingu, who has died aged 46, brought him international celebrity, even though he mostly sang in the Australian Aboriginal languages of Gumatj, Galpu and Djambarrpuynu. He performed at concert halls around the world, sang for the Queen and for Barack Obama, and was hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as “Australia’s most important voice”. His bestselling albums achieved triple platinum status.

Yunupingu showed his unique appeal at his debut solo London concert in May 2009, when he was still little known in the UK. He sat motionless throughout, singing and playing the acoustic guitar, backed by a string quartet and the double bass work of his friend, producer and manager Michael Hohnen. He said nothing, apart from a final “Thank you”, but dominated the hall with his gently powerful and heartfelt singing. His melodies were straightforward, powerful and accessible, with their blend of folk, soul and gospel influences, along with a dash of reggae, and his poetic lyrics dealt with nature or his ancestors.

He started the performance with Wiyathul, a song that explaining the importance of the orange-footed scrubfowl to the Gumatj nation, and ended with a highly personal song in English, I Was Born Blind. Afterwards, he sat in the dressing room, still not speaking. “He won’t talk,” explained Hohnen, “but I can feel that he’s happy.” It was clear that he would become a world music celebrity.

Yunupingu was born blind, in Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and was a member of the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people. The first of four sons born to Ganyinurra (Daisy) and Nyambi (Terry) Yunupingu, he became fascinated by music as a child. Following local custom, his aunts Dorothy, Anne and Susan all played a major role in looking after him, and sang him hymns they had learned at the local Methodist mission.

Later, Yunupingu joined the mission choir, and began singing standard hymns – Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross or To Be a Pilgrim. He was a fan of western pop, particularly the songs of Dire Straits, Cliff Richard and Stevie Wonder, but these were matched against other, more ancient influences – the beliefs, customs and songs of his people. In later life his often spiritual compositions would blend western musical influences with lyrics that dealt with clan traditions and beliefs.

He first learned to make music when his mother and aunts arranged empty tin cans on the beach for him to hit with sticks. Then he was given a toy piano accordion, capable of playing 12 notes, by his parents, and his uncle gave him a guitar, strung for a right-handed player. Yunupingu was left-handed so he flipped it over, a style he never altered throughout his career.

He never learned braille but was naturally skilful as a musician, playing the guitar, keyboards and drums, and he soon became celebrated far beyond Elcho Island. In 1989, at the age of 18, he was invited to join Yothu Yindi, which had been co-founded by his uncle, Mandawuy Yunupingu. The band included both Aboriginal and white musicians, was influenced more by rock and country than Indigenous styles, and became successful by mixing music and politics. Their song Treaty, which appeared on their bestselling 1991 album Tribal Voice, was influenced by a visit made to the Northern Territory by the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, in which he talked of a treaty between black and white Australia.

Yunupingu played guitar, keyboards and drums with Yothu Yindi, sang backing vocals, and joined the band for tours across Australia and beyond, including concerts in the US and Canada. But after three years, older relatives decided that he should quit: the lifestyle was bad for him. So he returned to his family on Elcho Island, where he remained for four years. At 25 he was offered another musical opportunity, this time by Hohnen, a young white music teacher working with TaFE, the Australian further education programme.

Hohnen’s brief was to encourage Indigenous young people to make music, and he had access to instruments. He suggested to one of Yunupingu’s friends, Manuel Dhurrkay, that he should find musicians and start a band. Yunupingu was recruited, along with several members of his family, and together they founded Saltwater Band, mixing Indigenous influences with reggae. Hohnen had hoped that TaFE would finance the album, but when that failed to happen he started his own independent record label, Skinnyfish, with a friend, Mark Grose. The first Saltwater album, Gapu Damurrun, sold an encouraging 10,000 copies, and was followed by further albums: Djaarridjarri (2004) which was nominated for a world music award, and Malk (recorded in 2006 and released in 2009).

Saltwater Band were a success, but in 2007 Hohnen suggested to Yunupingu that he record a solo album, with a quieter, acoustic setting. Gurrumul, released by Skinnyfish in Australia in 2008, included new songs and songs from the Saltwater repertoire, with Yunupingu singing and playing the acoustic guitar and other instruments, and Hohnen adding the double bass. It became a major success, first in Australia and then around the world, selling half a million copies.

Yunupingu now began to tour as a solo artist, with Hohnen a member of his new band, acting as his interpreter and spokesman. He gave concerts across Australia, in London and New York, but in 2010 he became seriously ill, and had to cancel his first US tour, along with summer dates in the UK. For several months he refused to see a doctor. After he eventually agreed to medical help, his condition improved and his remarkable career continued.

In 2011 he performed for the Queen in Canberra and later took part in the diamond jubilee celebrations in London, where he met his heroes Cliff Richard and Stevie Wonder. Later that year he sang for the US president Barack Obama in Darwin. He performed alongside Bob Dylan, of whom he was said to do an impressive impersonation, at the Byron Bay festival. His second solo album, Rrakala, released that year, proved to be another well-received bestseller.

In 2015 he embarked on his first, long-delayed US tour, and was praised by Quincy Jones for his “one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I’ve heard”. He also released The Gospel Album, a “reimagining” of the church songs of his childhood that included an emotional treatment of Amazing Grace. He became ill once again at the end of that year, and cancelled an Australian tour in early 2016.

Yunupingu is survived by his daughter, Jasmine.

• Dr G Yunupingu singer, songwriter and musician, born 22 January 1971; died 25 July 2017

For cultural reasons full name and images of the late artist are not being published


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp