Yothu Yindi hailed from the north eastern Arnhem Land community of Yirrkala in northern Australia. The band consisted of both Yolngu (as the people of Arnhem Land refer to themselves) and Balanda (non-Aboriginal) musicians and embodied a sharing of cultures. Other Aboriginal bands like Coloured Stone, the Warumpi Band and No Fixed Address had already utilised the sounds and instrumentation of Western rock'n'roll, but Yothu Yindi was the first to combine that with ancient song cycles and traditional dance performances.
By working those indigenous songs and dances into the context of a contemporary performance, Yothu Yindi created a unique example of world music. The name Yothu Yindi (`yo-thoo-yin-dee') translates from Yolngu `matha' (Aboriginal language) to English as `child and mother' or `children of the earth' and is essentially a kinship term referring to the connection that the Yolngu clans of north east Arnhem Land have between themselves. In his role as principal of the Yirrkala Community School, lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu implemented a radical two-way curriculum which combined Western and Aboriginal educational processes designed to present students with the best aspects of both cultures. Yunupingu was named 1992 Australian of the Year in recognition of his commitment to forging greater understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
Yunupingu came from the Gumatj tribe and he formed Yothu Yindi in 1986. Yunupingu and Witi-yana Marika also toured with Cal Williams and Stuart Kellaway's band The Swamp Jockeys. Even before Yothu Yindi had signed a recording contract, the band had gained valuable exposure around the world. In August 1988, the band was invited to perform at the South Pacific Festival of Arts in Townsville, Queensland. In September, the band represented Australia at the Cultural Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. In early 1989, Yothu Yindi performed at the inaugural Aboriginal Rock Music Festival in Darwin, which was recorded and filmed by a joint ABC/Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) venture for the documentary Sing Loud Play Strong.
In late 1988, Yothu Yindi supported Midnight Oil on the 36-date Diesel and Dust to Big Mountain tour of the USA and Canada. Upon returning to Australia, Yothu Yindi signed a deal with Mushroom Records which resulted in the release of the groundbreaking debut album Homeland Movement (May 1989) and its single `Mainstream'/`Gudurrka (Brolga)' (March). Produced by Leszek Karski and recorded in one day, the album featured one side of politicised rock and one side of traditional songs. `Djapana (Sunset Dreaming)'/`Gunumarra' was lifted as a second single in August. Yothu Yindi also contributed `Gudurrka (Brolga)' to the Various Artists album Burning Bridges on CBS. By that stage, Yothu Yindi had added Bart Willoughby (ex-No Fixed Address, Coloured Stone) on drums.
Between 1989 and 1991, Yothu Yindi toured extensively throughout Australia (including a tour support to Neil Young), as well as performing in Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, New Zealand (with Tracey Chapman) and the UK (at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the European Focus Festival in Glasgow). By 1991, the line-up comprised Mandawuy Yunupingu, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Marika, Mununggurr, Williams and Kellaway, plus Hughie Benjamin (drums; ex-Lifesavers, Big Storm, Steve Hoy Band), Makuna Yunupingu (yidaki, vocals, bilma), Mangatjay Yunupingu (dance), Sophie Garrkali (dance) and Julie Gungunbuy (dance). In August 1991, the band was invited to play three showcase gigs at the New Music Seminar in New York, securing a six-album American deal with -Hollywood Records (a division of the Disney organisation) in the process.
Yothu Yindi gained national recognition when it became the first Aboriginal band to achieve a Top 40 hit in Australia with the epochal `Treaty'/`Yolngu Boy' single. Featuring a dance re-mix by the Filthy Lucre production team (which included Robert Goodge, ex-Essendon Airport, I'm Talking), `Treaty' (Filthy Lucre mix) peaked at #11 nationally in September 1991. Mandawuy Yunupingu collaborated with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett in writing `Treaty'. The `Treaty' video won the Australian Video Award at the International MTV Awards held in Los Angeles. `Treaty' was lifted from the band's second album, Tribal Voice (October 1991), which sold 20000 copies within three weeks and initially made the national Top 20. It went on to peak at #3 in June 1992 and, after a Top 40 stay of 41 weeks, it had sold over 140000 copies (double platinum). Produced by Mark Moffatt, Tribal Voice yielded two further singles, a re-recorded version of `Djapana (Sunset Dreaming)' (#13 in May 1992) and `Tribal Voice' (#51 in October). As well as Benjamin, veteran South African producer Ricky Fataar (ex-Beach Boys, Rutles) and American Allen Murphy contributed drums to the album sessions.
Tribal Voice won the band Best Indigenous Record at the 1991 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards. The group also took out ARIAs for Best Record Cover, Song of the Year and Best Single (`Treaty'). After receiving a $30000 grant from Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in early 1992, the band performed at the United Nations in New York to help launch the International Year for the World's Indigenous People. To top off a successful 1992, Keating's federal Labor government named Mandawuy Yunupingu as Australian of the Year on Australia Day, 26 January 1993.
With the release of the band's third critically acclaimed album, Freedom (November 1993), Yothu Yindi won three major MO Awards: Australian Performers of the Year, Australian Showbusiness Ambassadors of the Year and Rock Performers of the Year. Freedom produced the CD singles `World Turning' (October 1993), which reached #56 in November, `Timeless Land' (December) and `Dots on the Shells' (March 1994). On the album, Mandawuy collaborated with Crowded House's Neil Finn (`Dots on the Shells'), not drowning, waving's David Bridie (`Timeless Land') and INXS's Andrew Farriss (`Our Generation'). The Yothu Yindi line-up on Freedom comprised Mandawuy, Gurrumul, Makuna and Mangatjay Yunupingu, Marika, Williams, Kellaway, Benjamin and Mununggurr plus newcomers Banula Marika (vocals, dance), Bunimburr Marika (yidaki), Natalie Gillespie (vocals) and Jodie Cockatoo (vocals). Gumatj clan leader and Chairman of the Northern Lands Council Galarrwuy Yunupingu also contributed bilma and vocals. Session players included Americans Bernie Worrall (Hammond organ) and Allen Murphy, plus Andrew Belletty, who had been the band's original drummer.
On a historical note, Galarrwuy Yunupingu had actually issued a single, `Gurindji Blues', on RCA in July 1971. It was released to raise money for the Gurindji tribe in their fight for land rights. Galarrwuy pleaded his case on `Gurindji Blues' over didgeridoo and bilma backing.
During November 1993, Yothu Yindi joined Rick Price and New Zealand singer Margaret Urlich as part of Export Music Australia's (EMA) Wizards of Oz showcase concert tour of Japan. Following a hectic touring schedule for the first six months of 1994, which took in dates across Australia, the USA, Canada and Europe, long-time guitarist Cal Williams left the band. Colin Simpson took his place. Yothu Yindu also added two Papua New Guinean musicians, Ben Hakalitz (drums; ex-Sanguma Band, not drowning, waving) and Baruka Tau-Matagu (keyboards; ex-Sanguma Band).
Apart from a gritty reworking of `Jailbreak' contributed to the AC/DC tribute album Fuse Box: The Alternative Tribute (on BMG, May 1995), Yothu Yindi was quiet on the scene for the next two years. The absence was broken in August 1996 with the release of the band's fourth album, Wild Honey (Birrkuta), and its single, `Super Highway'. Wild Honey continued Freedom's move towards a broader musical horizon while retaining a strong commercial appeal. Yothu Yindi contributed `Gapu' (from Freedom) to the Mantra Mix compilation, Australia's first Tibet benefit album. The compilation album saw release during the Australian visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he conferred the historic Kalachakra Initiation in Sydney.
Yothu Yindi’s fifth album, One Blood (June 1999), featured re-recorded greatest hits and some new material produced in Ireland and Germany. The old songs were reappraised and rearranged rather than rehashed. Tracks included ‘Treaty ’98’ (the third version of the song), ‘Mainstream’ transformed into an Irish lament with help from Hothouse Flowers Liam O’Maonlai and ‘Dots on the Shells’ freshly re-recorded with Jim Kerr on vocals (in place of Neil Finn). ‘Dots on the Shells’ appeared as a single (May 1999). One Blood managed a relatively disappointing #43 on the national chart.