By Jakelin Troy
With the passing of Dr G Yunupingu, Australia has not only lost a monumental musical talent but tragically also one of the greatest ambassadors for the cause of our Aboriginal languages.
We can no longer say his full name, because this is the Yolngu way. But his legacy to the world is an achingly beautiful body of music in Yolngu Matha, the language of his country, Elcho Island in north-east Arnhem Land.
Yolngu Matha is the name of a group of languages and dialects. These are among the last 13 or so groups of languages that are still “strong”, spoken by all generations in their communities for all purposes as identified in the most recent comprehensive survey of Australian languages in 2014.
They are the last of what is now estimated to be as many as 407 languages.
In Aboriginal traditions across the country people “sing” to each other to maintain connections, to have fun and to preserve traditions.
Dr G Yunupingu’s music draws on ancient stories of his own people that resonate across all human experience.
His multi-awarded, ARIA-winning albums and individual songs tell of his connection to country, family and community.
In Galupa, written in 2008, he wrote, “go ngilimurru nhina yarrarrayan yolngu Bandirriya dharwulngurana” (come let’s sit all lined together ancestors at Bandirriya under the dharwal shade tree) and “nhyenydja ngamaku miling’milngthurruna Nambangura Bandirriya” (you my country are bright in my eyes).
Behind from the start
Humanity is the essence of his music and it is all the more poignant that he died as a direct result of the inhumanity of his life circumstances.
Aboriginal people in remote Australian communities are still less likely to live healthy lives and to grow old.
This is clear from research conducted as part of the Close the Gap campaign that is premised on the statement that “the poorer health of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when compared to the non-Indigenous population is no secret — and something can be done about it”.
Growing up as an Aboriginal child in remote Australia, Dr G Yunupingu was less likely to receive the basic health care that other Australian children enjoy.
As an adult he suffered from complications of hepatitis B, a disease that can be avoided by a simple vaccination.
We lost an inspiring and compassionate leader, an artist and advocate for our endangered Australian languages because his health was compromised through entirely preventable diseases.
The violence of racism runs deep
He was also the victim of persistent racism, often treated poorly in wider society, turned down when attempting to take taxis and left to wait longer than seemed necessary to receive medical attention when he was suffering acute incidents such as major internal bleeding.
Instances of neglect and rejection were reported by his colleagues in the music industry.
Mental trauma sustained by even “micro” racist incidents is known to have a direct effect on the wellbeing of Aboriginal people.
It is one of the indicators being researched by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership in Mental Health group in connection with mental and physical ill health.
A very public high achiever in the competitive music industry, for which the University of Sydney awarded him an honorary doctorate, Dr G Yunupingu lived with avoidable illness and the violence of racism.
It is uplifting that he gave the world music in Yolngu Matha that put our languages on the global map in the most beautiful and memorable way.
I have written before about the Queen of England having an Indigenous soul, bonded as she is with her country as are we the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Maybe it is no coincidence that Dr G Yunupingu was chosen to sing at her 2012 Diamond Jubilee concert in London.
The sorrow is that he died because he suffered complications from an illness for which most people are now vaccinated.
His symptoms were complicated but treatable and avoidable.
This is the story for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than should be the case.
My own experience has been of losing young Aboriginal people in my world from avoidable and treatable illnesses who should have lived on to make their mark as great leaders for all Australia in all walks of life.
I look around and so many have gone.
There is a saying in Aboriginal Australia that if you reach 50 you have done very well and every year beyond is a gift.
Professor Jakelin Troy is director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney, and has studied widely in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, visual arts, education, archaeology and language learning.