Yunupingu was born on Galiwin'ku, Elcho Island, in the massive Arnhem Land, one of the five regions that make up Australia's Northern Territory. A member of the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people, despite being a world traveler, he lived there throughout his life. The oldest of four, he was born blind and never learned to read Braille.
His interest in music was cultivated by his mother and aunts. They would arrange empty tin cans on the beach for him to hit with sticks to develop a rhythmic sensibility. At four he was given a toy piano accordion by his parents, and he became proficient in learning 12-note scales. At five his uncle gave him a guitar. Though left-handed, he learned to play the instrument upside down (à la Jimi Hendrix
). Following local custom, his aunts played a major role in furthering his musical studies by singing him hymns they'd learned at the local Methodist mission. With his interest piqued, Yunupingu began singing in a mission choir a few years later, even as he discovered pop. As varied as his musical interests were as he grew up -- he loved Cliff Richard
as well as Dire Straits
and Stevie Wonder
-- they were second to devotion to the traditional music, customs, and spiritual beliefs of his people. No matter how popular he became as a performer, these chants and hymns, many centuries old, remained central forces in his musical and personal life.
Eventually Yunupingu joined his uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu's band, the influential Yothu Yindi
, in his late teens. He played keyboards, guitar, and drums, and sang backing vocals. He traveled with the band across Australia and played concerts in the U.S. and Canada. During his three-year tenure, the group had experienced its greatest commercial success and global recognition. At 21 he left Yothu Yindi
and returned to his family on Elcho Island, where he remained until he was 25, when he met a white music teacher (Michael Holnen, who would become his manager, producer, friend, interpreter, and bandmate), who was trying to get indigenous people to make music and had access to instruments. Yunupingu was restless for music when he was approached by his friend Manuel Dhurrkay -- one of the teacher's students -- to start a band. The group they founded was the renowned Saltwater Band
, which also included other relatives. Their initial sound melded indigenous music and influences with reggae. They issued their independently released debut, Gapu Damurrun, in 2002, followed by Djaarridjarri in 2004 (which was nominated for a World Music Award) and Malk in 2006 -- the latter remained unreleased until 2009.
Encouraged by Holnen, Yunupingu left the band in 2007 to go solo, and Holnen also exhorted him to explore the natural qualities in his voice as well as a softer, acoustically based sound. Holnen's Skinnyfish
label released Gurrumul in 2008. Yunupingu offered an aspect of Aboriginal music rarely heard outside his community. Where other bands focused on traditional instrumentation, Yunupingu used a soft double bass and an acoustic guitar. Rather than focus on the political aspects of Aboriginal culture, Yunupingu offered a deeply personal account. His piercing voice was primarily articulated in the Yolngu languages of Gälpu, Gumatj, or Djambarrpuynu, though he also sang in English. The album captured the attention of Australians across racial and social spectrums. His solo release debuted in the top spot on Australia's ARIA independent charts, and peaked at number three on the national charts soon after. That year he was nominated for four ARIA Awards and won two for Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release. He also won three Deadlys (the Australian Grammys), for Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Single of the Year for "Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)." In November 2009, Yunupingu was named Best New Independent Artist, and Gurrumul Best Independent Release and Best Independent Blues/Roots Release, at that year's Jägermeister Australian Independent Record (AIR) Awards.
Yunupingu formed a band and toured across the country as well as playing concerts in London and New York. He had planned an entire U.S. tour in 2010, but his trip was cut short by kidney and liver illness. Going back into the recording studio, he followed up his smash debut with 2011's Rrakala, which also landed at number three on the best-selling albums chart. That year he performed for the Queen in Canberra and later traveled to England to take part in her diamond jubilee celebrations -- where he met his heroes Wonder
. Back in Australia, he opened for Bob Dylan
at the Byron Bay Festival and performed for American President Barack Obama
when he visited Darwin. In 2013 the live album His Life and Music with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was released, but it only reached the lower rungs of the Top 50 -- it seemed Australians liked Yunupingu's music without so much fanfare. This was confirmed when he released The Gospel Album two years later. Its revisioning of the church songs he'd heard as a child resonated across the nation. He hit number three again and the album went multi-platinum; its single, a compelling rendition of "Amazing Grace," peaked at number one. Yunupingu finally embarked on his first North American tour in 2016, receiving unanimous praise from critics. He was celebrated by legendary composer/producer and arranger Quincy Jones
with the words "...he has one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I've heard." After several years of treatment for kidney and liver disease, Yunupingu died in July 2017. He was 46. ~ Adam Greenberg, Rovi