Thursday, 27 July 2017

RIP Dr Yunupingu

I will honour the request of his family and not use his given name here. (For those of you who live in other parts of the world it is a cultural taboo among many indigenous Australians to use the given name or a picture of a deceased person, particularly a recently deceased person.)
I am, as my friends well know, no fan of modern "pop" music. Bands like Yothu Yindi, of which "Dr G" was a member don't attract me. His real contribution to music was something far greater than that. He sang in his Yolngu/Yolnju languages. 
Yes, he sang in English as well but it is the solos in his native languages that made the greatest impact. He was blind but he saw the earth in a way that few other people see it. He knew instinctively that, if he was to share what he saw, he had to do it in his native languages. He knew that something gets lost in translation, something changes.
Dr G was born on Elcho Island - a remote part of Arnhem Land, which is in itself remote. He was blind from birth and never received the education he should have received. He never learned Braille, never had a guide dog and never used a cane - things he would have been taught in almost any less remote place. His musical education was  simply listening to the traditional songs around him - and the hymns in the Methodist church on Sundays. When he finally found a guitar he taught himself to play it. He was left handed and it was strung for a right handed person so he learned to play it "upside down" - something he did for the rest of his life.
Years ago, before he became well known my late friend R, herself an indigenous person, ... said of him, "That young man has a true voice of his country. He will go far." He did. 
His contribution to music was recognised not just in the music industry but in academia with an honorary doctorate. An indigenous friend once said to me, "One of the few honorary doctorates I have ever approved of."
Places like Elcho Island have severe health hazards. His physical health was never good. He had hepatitis as a child and was later diagnosed with diabetes. It was a combination of those two things which caused his death on Tuesday - at the age of 46. 
Yes, as people like Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil said, he was gone too soon.
And his contribution towards the preservation and use of his native languages was immense. I hope that will be recognised too. Language is power - and music makes it more powerful still.

1 comment:

Frances said...

Lovely words. Thank you.