This charming song was released in 2008 and is sung in Dr Yunupingu’s native Yolngu Matha language. It peaked at #3 on the ARIA charts. The album was released on went Platinum three times and has now sold more than half a million copies. It won the ARIA Best World Music Album and the Deadly Awards in all categories. He also released a beautiful ‘Gospel’ album in 2015.
Wiyathul captures the essence of and offers the listener the splendour of the Yolngu Matha language. Dr Yunupingu was from the Galiwin'ku community on Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land (Northern Territory). He was born blind and suffered the ongoing effects of his childhood hepatitis B infection and kidney disease.
In spite of these afflictions his talent grew. He was self-taught and proficient in a number of instruments. In particular the guitar, which he played left-handed and upside down. He was an original member of Yothu Yindi, contributing to their 1989 hit ‘Treaty'. Although a quite person and exceptionally talented he suffered racism throughout his entire life and was treated with disdain by some because of his heritage, a travesty of which our nation must atone for and ensure is no longer part of our psyche. Although he suffered serious health problems throughout his life, he should not have died so young, and he should not have spent his final days without shelter or care on a beach. He should have been able to look forward to a long life, with equal access to the care offered to other (white) Australians.
His tragic death is often repeated in many Indigenous communities across Australia. Oxfam states that ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can expect to live 10–17 years less than other Australians. Babies born to Aboriginal mothers die at more than twice the rate of other Australian babies, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes’.
The song Wiyathul offers an insight into the deep spirituality of Dr Yunupingu and his people. It tells of Djilawurr, the Orange Footed Scrub Fowl, who cries out for his home country, the old man who cries out ‘from the drink’ and the mothers who cry out for their sacred places Guwalilna, Warradika and Yumayna. We all have our sacred places we long for and therefore can develop some empathy for Indigenous people who long for their Country. We know of the pain Indigenous people have suffered since European settlement and can all strive to personally bring about Reconciliation in the things we say and the way we think of and behave towards our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Furthermore, as Catholics, we are called to go out to those in need, speak out against injustice and protect the dignity of all, especially the vulnerable and those who are marginalised.
We pray for all artists who help us find God in the wonder of their art. We pray especially for the soul of Dr G Yunupingu, who died so young. We pray that as a nation we are inspired to commit more fervently to the process of Reconciliation and offering justice to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. We give thanks for the life of Dr Yunupingu, and the beauty found within his legacy. We pray Lord that he has been welcomed home and that when we see the rainbow in the sky, we are reminded of the spirit of Dr Yunupingu, yothu djarrimir (the rainbow child).
Artist: Dr G Yunupingu (b. 22 January 1971 – d. 25 July 2017: 46 years of age)
Song: Wiyathul (released 2008)
Link to the song on Youtube (Warning - includes the artist's full name).
Purchase the song on iTunes (Warning - includes the artist's full name).
Brendan Nicholls is the liturgy coordinator at St Ignatius College, Geelong.