From Arnhem Land to global acclaim: Dr G Yunupingu’s incredible journey

Dr Yunupingu made his way from a tiny remote community in Arnhem Land to global fame and acclaim.

Dr Yunupingu made his way from a tiny remote community in Arnhem Land to global fame and acclaim. Photo: Getty

As Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II appeared on stage at the climax of her Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012 outside Buckingham Palace flanked by musical greats, directly behind her stood Dr G Yunupingu – the blind shy Indigenous musician from Arnhem Land.

Dr Yunupingu died this week aged 46.

His presence was the culmination of a journey unlike any Australian musician in recent memory.

Congenitally blind, living in a remote village on Elcho Island, Yunupingu grew up amongst the hymns of the choir. By happenstance, tapes of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, and Stevie Wonder songs landed in his hands.

Yunupingu was later a founding member of the musical group Yothu Yindi, playing keyboard, percussion, and right-handed strung guitars left-handed. His uncle was lead singer.

A later solo album was the catalyst for his rise. His close friend, musician and producer Michael Hohnen, became his eyes and voice.

Hohnen first met Yunupingu on the island whilst running a musical program.

“That night he appeared in the doorway.” Hohnen recalled in an NPR interview.

“It’s quite confronting when you first meet him, but he relies on people to lead him and guide him, and finds that’s the most reliable way, because he’s constantly asking you, ‘What’s this like? What’s that like?’.

“He’s quite physical with you and he sat down and started playing and singing and we were immediately struck and recognised how special he was.”

Yunupingu’s own songwriting carved a different path away from the political message of Yothu Yindi’s music, towards lyrics about identity, his blindness, heritage, family, nostalgia and the native orange-footed scrubfowl.

His collaborations with musicians included greats such as Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins, Delta Goodrem, and Gary Barlow.

He opened for Elton John and enjoyed audiences with Prince William and Kate Middleton, Barack Obama, Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark and the Pope.

During a tour of Europe in 2009, Yunupingu was approached by musician Sting to duet with him, live on French TV.

The song was to be Every Breath You Take. Yunupingu was indifferent.

“He was having too much of a good time [on tour] to commit himself to a whispery song with lyrics that deal ambiguously with love and longing,” the biographer Robert Hillman wrote.

In jest, as he grappled with the impending duet, Yunupingu had fun with the lyrics.

A blind man couldn’t sing, “I’ll be watching you”.

“Every word you say,” Yunupingu started to sing, “I’ll be listening to you … cos I won’t be watching you.”

The real lyrics were sent home to family members on Elcho Island, to translate into the Gumatj language. Their live performance showcased the collaboration of languages.

“There’s always something to learn from other musicians. They will surprise you with what they can do or what they can add to your own music. Or you can teach them.” Sting would later say.

Yunupingu may have shared the staged with British royalty, but it was music royalty in 2015, the iconic record producer Quincy Jones, that said of him: “This is one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I’ve ever heard. His voice paints a story that you won’t want to miss.”

Sadly, that celestial voice has been silenced.

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