Arrestingly direct, one of his most well-known English songs opens with the line “I was born blind and I don’t know why,” going on to tell of his parents “crying their hearts in confusion” when learning of his condition. This week, many more tears were shed after he died at the age of 46 in the Royal Darwin Hospital after a long struggle with kidney and liver disease.[Editor’s note: Indigenous Australian mourning protocol mandates that the full name of the deceased cannot be used, nor an image of the person’s face. A modified version of the name is often used in place of the actual name. We respect that practice here.]
The local music community, the country’s politicians, his friends and family, and his thousands of fans are all mourning the far too early loss of a gifted musician who “brought the Northern Territory to the world”. He toured the globe; performed for Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama; and once shared the stage with Sting, performing a duet of “Every Breath You Take” (singing his part in the Yolngu dialect of Gumatj), live on French television.
Many leading Australian commentators are calling his death a shameful event for the country, seeing it as a reflection of the inequality and discrimination suffered by indigenous Australians. He sold the most records of any aboriginal artist ever, but he suffered chronic health problems which many close to him have said were a product of the poor quality of his childhood healthcare. Australia’s indigenous people have a lower life expectancy than non-indigenous people, and even younger indigenous people aged 35-44 die at five times the rate of the non-indigenous. Dr Yunupingu voluntarily ended his kidney dialysis, after years of suffering from the complications of Hepatitis B, which could have been avoided by a simple vaccination when he was a boy.
Dr Yunupingu was born on the tiny Elcho Island, a remote region 500km east of Darwin only 55km long and 6km wide, and home to the Galiwin'ku community of roughly 2,000 people. His prodigious musicality emerged young. He grew up singing in a mission choir and listened to the music of Dire Straits, Cliff Richard and Stevie Wonder. As a young child, his mother and aunt set up empty tin cans of different sizes on the shoreline and gave him sticks to play with to craft his own sounds and rhythms. Later a plastic toy accordion with twelve notes was his instrument until the age of six, when his uncle gave him a guitar that he turned upside down and played left-handed—an unconventional method he would persist with the rest of his life.
Along with this upside-down playing technique; Dr Yunupingu had a distinctively haunting tenor voice that cut through convention with its unusual beauty. He began his career with a three-year stint playing drums and touring America and Canada with his uncle’s successful band Yothu Yindi, and he later played with a band called Saltwater. But much greater renown came with the release of his first solo album at in 2008: it reached number three on the Australian charts. A reviewer at the Sydney Morning Herald declared that his was “the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded”, and the album cemented his place in Australian music history.
His evocative voice and the rolling acoustic guitar he accompanied it with speak to the indigenous storytelling tradition, rather than the activist movement. He dealt with themes like his spiritual connection to the country, his relationships with his family and the importance of continuing bonds with one’s ancestors.
He preferred to communicate through music. He was so intensely shy that he would not speak to the press, and did not like to speak in public. As one journalist lamented, his “strategy when he's cornered with a question he doesn't want to answer is, well, not to answer it...It's a strategy he's employed with every journalist who's ever sat with him, notebook in hand, waiting in futile expectation for something to put on a page.” This made his few public pronouncements transfixing to audiences. In one rare moment, during a performance of his song “Bayini” on Australian prime-time television he said: “Yolngu are deep thinking philosophical people. The words in the song refer to many families sitting together on the beach looking to waves and sea, the horizon, contemplating.
He did not read Braille, have a guide dog or use a stick. As his friend Michael Hohnen once told America’s National Public Radio, “He doesn’t wear glasses, so it’s very obvious...you stare straight into his eyes without pupils and it’s quite-in-your-face... it’s quite confronting”. He relied on others to lead him around and would entrust himself to new acquaintances, asking that they guide him and guard him. His performances were renowned for bringing out strong emotion in audiences. With such a powerful presence, Hohnen explained, his playing pushed “people over the edge to cry”. “In a good way if you know what I mean.”
On the beach where he was camping in Darwin, in a hollow Dr Yunupingu had dug out and rested in towards the end of his life, his friend Vaughan Williams has poked a circle of casuarina branches into the sand—a simple and poignant tribute to a musician whose work must now live on without him, among a people for whom memory means so much.