'So much left to give': Dr G Yunupingu, key member of Yothu Yindi, dies

Award-winning Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter has passed away in the Northern Territory, aged 46, after a long illness

Singer-songwriter Dr G Yunupingu has died in Darwin, aged 46.

Dr Yunupingu was a multi-award-winning, internationally recognised artist who lived in his home community of Galiwin’ku, in remote north-east Arnhem Land.

He was born blind, and grew up a member of the Yolngu Gumatj clan.

In recent years he spent significant amounts of time in Darwin for medical care, including an admission to hospital that highlighted the experience of remote-living Indigenous people in the health system.

Yunupingu died at Royal Darwin hospital about 5pm on Tuesday. His family are expected to be offered a state funeral.

Yunupingu was a key member of the band Yothu Yindi. He was later introduced to the music producer Michael Hohnen, who worked on three albums with Yunupingu’s next act – the Saltwater Band – before convincing him to make a solo album.

“I knew if we could capture that spirit across a whole record, there would be something really special,” Hohnen told the Guardian last year.

“We just tried to make that record, which had that mood, to try to seep into people’s consciences and hearts and minds without actually having the listener have any responsibility to listen and work out what someone’s saying. Anyway, it worked.”

Over the past nine years Yunupingu has toured extensively, performing in some of the world’s best venues in front of world leaders, with fellow Australian music royalty at festivals, as well as frequently popping up on stage at various Northern Territory pubs.

“At such a moment we’re reminded of the impact that such a quiet, unassuming musician has had on the world,” a tearful Mark Grose told media in Darwin on Wednesday.

“On this day of too much noise Dr G Yunupingu showed us that music is a powerful force for reconciliation. One of the greatest achievements any of us can have is to touch the hearts of others and this is what Dr G Yunupingu did over and over again.”

Notoriously media-averse, he was renowned among friends for a sharp sense of humour as well as his phenomenal musical talent.

“He had an amazing sense of humour and at no stage did he ever consider himself to be disabled. There was no barrier to what he could do, what he wanted to do, or where he could go,” said Grose, the managing director of Skinnyfish, speaking on behalf of Yunupingu’s uncle, David Djunga Djunga Yunupingu.

“My fondest memory is his gentle nature. He was a beautiful beautiful gentle human being and you couldn’t help but fall in love with that gentle smile he would give. There are so many memories, it’s hard to pull up a favourite one.”

In 2013 he was presented with a special recognition award at the National Indigenous Music awards for his ongoing contribution to Indigenous music, one year after winning “act of the year”.

In 2012 he won a Deadly award for male artist of the year, performed at the Arias where Yothu Yindi were inducted into the hall of fame, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by the University of Sydney.

In 2011 Yunupingu was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone as “Australia’s most important voice”.

Australian musician and former federal minister Peter Garrett tweeted: “My dear friend Dr Yunupingu – a truly great musician – is gone. Very sad news. Too young, so much left to give. Heart goes out to family.”

My dear friend Dr Yunupingu - a truly great musician - is gone. Very sad news. Too young, so much left to give. Heart goes out to family.

— Peter Garrett (@pgarrett) July 25, 2017

Indigenous rapper Briggs, half of AB Original rap duo, said: “I’m really going to miss my friend, Dr. G Yunupingu. I’ll find the right words soon. Love to his family n Mark & Michael.”

Two of our tallest trees have fallen in the space of a few days,” said the singer, Paul Kelly.

“Dr. G. Yunupingu, with the voice of sweet longing. And my old friend, Y. Lester, with the big laugh and smile, who as a child saw an atomic bomb fall on his country at Maralinga. Both were blind yet far-seeing. Both were fighters. Both will be sorely missed and long remembered.”

His publicist issued a statement describing him as a “great Australian”.

“Dr G Yunupingu is remembered today as one of the most important figures in Australian music history, blind from birth and emerging from the remote Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land to sell over half a million copies of his albums across the world, singing in his native Yolngu language,” the statement says.

“His debut album cemented him as the Australian voice of a generation, hitting triple platinum in Australia, silver in the UK and charting in multiple other countries across the globe.

“The highest-selling Indigenous artist in history, Dr G Yunupingu released two subsequent top five studio albums Rrakala and The Gospel Album, achieved a swag of Aria awards, performed across the globe for audiences including Queen Elizabeth II and Barack Obama and released the first Indigenous language single to reach the top five, all the while continuing to call Elcho Island home.”

His music label Skinnyfish music recognised him as a one-of-a-kind recording artist.

“His high tenor voice and aura-like persona create emotion, compassion and a feeling of peacefulness and longing with audiences in Australia and around the world,” their statement read.

In 2011 Yunupingu performed for then US president Barack Obama, which the US embassy in Australia recalled as “a generous gift from an extraordinary artist and community leader”.


— US Embassy Canberra (@USAembassyinOZ) July 26, 2017

Tributes also poured in from across the Australian political spectrum, with many drawing attention to Yunupingu’s early death in the context of the Indigenous health gap.

Malcolm Turnbull offered his prayers for the family and friends of the “remarkable Australian”.

Dr G Yunupingu was a remarkable Australian sharing Yolngu language with the world through music. Prayers for Galiwin'ku & family & friends

— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) July 25, 2017

“We use words about death like ‘taken too soon’ but they are very true words in this case,” Bill Shorten told ABC radio. “The gap between health outcomes for our first Australians and other Australians is shocking.”

On Twitter he said Yunupingu “helped Australians see the wonder of the world’s oldest living culture”.

Dr Yunupingu. A great Australian gone too soon. Blind since birth, he helped Australians see the wonder of the world's oldest living culture

— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) July 25, 2017

Labor MP and the first Indigenous woman to serve in federal parliament, Linda Burney, tweeted her condolences and remarked that his passing was “another one of our young men gone too soon”.

The Northern Territory chief minister, Michael Gunner, said the NT and Australia had lost “a true musical icon”.

“He was one of the territory’s most celebrated artists, whose voice and music was rich with his language and culture, which he shared with millions of people around the world,” Gunner said.

The former prime minister Kevin Rudd tweeted: “The premature passing of a good man, the son of a great people and a voice which could evoke an extraordinary magic.”

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


Helen Davidson in Darwin

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