The first time Dtjunga Dtjunga Yunupingu heard his nephew sing he thought: “That’s a good tune, you know.”
“I said: you could be the instrument. You could tour, go somewhere where you can make money.”
Dr G Yunupingu died this week after a long battle with kidney and liver disease. He had been receiving dialysis treatment in Darwin for more than a year, meaning he was rarely able to return home to his Elcho Island community of Galiwink’u.
His death prompted tributes from across the world and sadness at the loss of a talented man taken too soon. In the Northern Territory the loss is felt more keenly and more personally. On Thursday evening family members and friends recognise Dtjunga Dtjunga in the streets of Darwin and mourn with him, visibly devastated.
The evening before the man he helped raise is laid to rest, Dtjunga Dtjunga recalls the earlier days on their country in remote Arnhem Land.
A member of Yothu Yindi, the Saltwater Band and then a solo artist that brought international fame and accolades, G Yunupingu began in humbler beginnings.
“We moved to Nanyingburra, an outstation 65km away from Galiwink’u. We lived there for 21 years. That’s where he started to play with tins, drumming,” his uncle says.
“When he grew up, about 15 or 16 years old, he started going to church with me and my wife, Susan, his mother and his father. We started going to church together. I taught him only three chords: E, D, and A probably.
“Then he used to play guitar in the church for us. From there he got the rhythm. From anywhere – I don’t know where he picked it up from,” he laughs.
When Yunupingu returned from tours, he would visit family and tell them stories. Helen Guyula describes his account of meeting the Queen: he arrived wearing yellow, the totem colour of his Gumatj clan. So did she, Guyula laughs.
“She must be Dtjuturra - Gumatj woman,” says Dtjunga Dtjunga.
Almost a year ago to the day, in the post-Garma festival buzz, the Next Generation band from Milingimbi played at the rear of Nhulunbuy’s Arnhem Club, and Yunupingu and some family members sat in the audience.
Within a few songs, Yunupingu was on stage. Helped by band members, he was first seated at the rear of the band, in the shadows with his guitar, then eventually moved front and centre, singing some reggae.
It was not an uncommon occurrence and top end pubs such as the Arnhem or Darwin’s Railway Club where he joined in a Skinnyfish label launch, are full of anecdotes about a quiet midweek beer interrupted by an impromptu performance from the world-famous singer.
“The first time I saw him carrying an award, like a trophy, he was showing me: ‘Look papa this is what I got,’” Dtjunga Dtjunga smiles.
“I said ‘keep on going’. He toured locally, Australia, then he visited overseas. He was building a bridge from one culture, from Yolngu to Balanda, bringing them together. That message went right through, for reconciliation, talking about land talking through his songs, his yolngu matha songs.”
Yunupingu’s songs brought the sounds and stories of remote Yolngu life into the lives of people who had barely thought about it before. Since his death, there have been countless anecdotes of what his music meant to people – and particularly children – and how it helped them.
“He navigated both worlds so immaculately, in an entertaining, clever, shy, bold, intuitive and engaging way,” his manager and long-time friend, Michael Hohnen, wrote in News Corp this week.
“Throughout our life together I saw him able to engage everyone, from any culture or any walk of life. Throughout Asia when we travelled, there was enormous deference and respect, throughout Europe there was fascination and reverence, throughout America there was a deep respect.”
Away from the limelight, Yunupingu was funny and passionate about his people and his home.
“He got injustice. He got the need for people to have access and all that kind of stuff,” says his former nurse and friend, Michelle Dowden.
“Even though he was the silent, behind the scenes guy, he really understood the struggle, and the need … if he knew that he could help with his higher profile, he was totally into it,” she says.
Yunupingu, “aware of his own good fortune”, established a foundation to support Indigenous-driven arts and culture programs for children and young people. The foundation, which bears his name, aims to make a “serious difference alleviating the damaging effects of poverty, ill-health and substance abuse, disadvantage, lack of education and employment opportunities, cyberbullying and youth suicide”.
The programs operated in remote communities, such as Yunupingu’s home, which is among several communities trying to address the problem of petrol sniffing by young people.
Says Dowden: “Because Galiwink’u is such a huge community, and somewhere that’s kind of off the radar – everyone knows it for Dr Yunupingu and its incredible culture, but in terms of infrastructure: they don’t have lights on the oval, they don’t have a great program for diversion stuff for young people.
“It’s had a lot of neglect for a long time.”
Through his own struggles, Yunupingu raised awareness of the shamefully disparate, disproportionate and desperate health inequality for Indigenous people.
Last year, when a hospitalisation went wrong and the ensuing fracas escalated to accusations of racism and attention-seeking, Yunupingu released his medical records to set the facts right and to try to prevent other Indigenous people from going through the same thing.
“He was very aware of everything in his life,” Yunupingu’s doctor, Paul Lawton, says.
“Because of his engagement with his family, the community, his Yolngu people and other Indigenous people, he knew very well the effect his actions in his professional life as a musician, and in his other roles as a leader and advocate for Indigenous people, had.”
Dtjunga Dtjunga says he wants to correct the public statements that have been made about the days before his nephew’s death.
Yunupingu is understood to have missed some recent appointments, and was reportedly found at a local Darwin beach in a known drinker’s area, but Dtjunga Dtjunga rejects that he was sleeping rough – known as “long-grassing” – and says he had a home to go to in Darwin.
“The other day I saw that when they were talking about long-grassing,” he says.
“But he wasn’t. He was feeling that death was coming for him, he knew he was going to die. There’s a law in our culture that when we feel we’re going to die we go to the family. Most of his family – his uncles and aunties – they stay at the beach. Sometimes he just goes there to sit there with them and then goes back in the afternoon.
“From my understanding that’s why he went there, just to go and sit down with them. He didn’t want to tell anyone that he was going to die.”
He says he is sad and angry at family members who did not visit and care for his nephew in Darwin as much as they should have.
“He was sad because the dialysis was slowing him down, he had to stay here in Darwin all the time,” Dtjunga Dtjunga says.
“He was tired. He was tired of going. He had a long battle, trying to get well. Then he got tired.”
Yunupingu’s death has raised tough questions about the state of the health system and what it means for others if someone of his prominence and support network found it so difficult, by his family and doctor’s accounts, to navigate. Lawton says Yunupingu would be proud to leave a legacy if his passing would prompt quicker government action on renal patient support.
Regardless, his family says they are proud of the legacy he’s already left – bridging two cultures and taking Yolngu music to the world.
His successes led him to be awarded an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Sydney, something Dtjunga Dtjunga says was well deserved.
“It’s a lot of hard work, telling Balanda to learn about us. Because most of the Balanda, they don’t know our background. It’s good that he went there.”
• For cultural reasons, the full name and images of the late artist are not being published