It’s a sad day for the Northern Territory, and for the whole of Australia. The “rock that stands against time” passed away last night.
Mandawuy Yunupingu was born in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal Reserve in the northeastern part of the Northern Territory of Australia. He was a member of the Yolngu people, and was an outstanding Aboriginal Australian musician and educator, most notable for being the front man of the band Yothu Yindi.
Mandawuy and Yothu Yindi were driving forces of the Garma Festival, which was a massive celebration of Yolngu cultural inheritance, open to the public and featuring Yolngu music, dance, storytelling and crafts, as well as being the annual event that united the far-flung groups of Yolngu leaders and their people to divide government funding, thresh out their laws and political stances, make big decisions that would affect all of the Yolngu.
Kris and I went to the Garma Festival several times as volunteers and, later, as working tent crew. We’d get there a week before the opening of the festival, and leave a week after it closed. In our own way we fell in love with the lonely site, Gulkula. That high, windswept forest of stringybarks—sighing and rustling endlessly— atop the escarpment overlooking the Gulf of Carpentaria was a sacred and serene place (at least before, and after, the thousands of Festival participants had been there) that we wandered in our spare time. I remember the bonfires at night, star gazing or listening to one of the tent crew play a guitar…and then turning in to burrow underneath thick woolen blankets in our tents (Garma was always held in the coldest part of winter).
The magic of Gulkula was palpable…it wrapped us up in a powerful energy. It was as loving as a strong but tender mother, and it made a child of us. Barely a month there and we felt as though we belonged there, never wanted to leave…the land inspired such a fierce loyalty and attachment in us, foreigners and strangers though we were.
If anyone belonged to that land, it was Mandawuy. I envy his soul, his eternal child, having a mother like that waiting for him, to return to. RIP.