COMMENT | I’ve just spent a week in Yirrkala on the tip of North East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory, and as I walk the wet streets of Redfern in Sydney to catch the train to work all I can think about is: “There is more talent in Yirrkala per capita than anywhere in the world”.
By
Danny Teece-Johnson

7 Jul 2016 - 5:57 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2016 - 9:20 AM

This isn’t just a passing thought, it’s a belief. I’ve seen it with my eyes; I’ve felt it in my heart.

I know all Aboriginal communities are talented in their own way. But I’ve never experienced anything like the Yarrapay Music and Dance Festival on the weekend.

It truly moved me and as it’s NAIDOC Week I want to celebrate this story with you.

They say there is something in the water in Yolngu country. That’s why they are so talented. But I reckon that line is just something tourists say because they don’t fully understand what’s happening in this community.

The truth is the secret lies with the Elders. They are the ones who are nurturing the confidence of the youth. They are the ones encouraging 4 and 5 year olds to get on stage with them and dance their traditional dances. They are the ones allowing their young women the opportunity to walk the catwalks of the world and they are the ones who are picking up the youth when they fall.

In the days leading up to the Festival, the community is buzzing with workshops, sound checks and rehearsals.

I’m sitting in the studio at the Art Centre in Yirrkala listening to 'Gurtha' (which means “fire” in English) -  the song Dhapanbal Yunupingu did with Shellie Morris. Standing over Dhapanbal’s shoulder giving her words of encouragement is her mother Yalmay, widow of the great Dr. M Yunupingu, the front man of Yothu Yindi.

I rush to get my camera out as I feel something really special is happening here. I ask Yalmay if it’s okay to film. She simply nods with a smile that could light up the world and I realise just how proud she is of her daughter and her culture.

If you don’t know much about the history of Yothu Yindi, I urge you to find out. Briefly, an unnamed Aboriginal band merged with a white band called the Swamp Jockeys - namely Cal Williams and Stu Kellaway.

Yothu Yindi, which means “Mother and Child” was born.

They became a musical missile for reconciliation and 30 years on, you can still find Stu Kellaway rocking that stage in Yirrkala with his trademark cheeky grin.

Witiyana Marika is a legend of Yothu Yindi and his stage presence is as strong as it was in 1986 when the band formed.

Watching Witiyana that night I understood why these Yolngu kids are so talented. I understood how the elders in Yirrkala are keeping the culture strong. And I understood the pride in the Yolngu.

Witiyana spent the night singing, dancing and supporting the young Yolngu to get on stage and express themselves with all of their heart.

I could see by the look on his face the absolute joy and pride he took in seeing the next generation of Yolngu take on the world.

It’s the commitment from the Yolngu elders that is the key to keeping the culture strong.

It’s a full time commitment that not only made me question my own parenting but made me realise how much we can learn from these special elders.

And it all comes from the heart and the deep connection to their Songlines and culture.

The legacy of Yothu Yindi runs as deep and as strong as the Arafura Sea which flows by Yirrkala.

While the rest of Australia gathered at the polls to vote in the election, we gathered on the grounds of the Art Centre to witness that legacy, as a host of bands paid tribute to their heroes.

I watched Witiyana’s son Yirrmal sing a song called 'Young Blood' about a conversation he had with Uncle Archie Roach - and it left me with tears of joy.

I watched Stu Kellaway’s son Roy and his band Mary Handsome perform 'Tribal Voice' with Witiyana, Yirrmal and family members that gave me goosebumps.

I watched our Miss World entrant Maminydjama Maymuru model the Yirrkala catwalk to an ovation that could register on the Richter scale.

I watched the amazing Shellie Morris (who can sing in 18 different languages) and Yirrmal sing 'My Island Home' by the Warumpi Band in Yolngu Matha. I've never heard that song, which is Aboriginal Australia’s unofficial anthem sung in its traditional language.

I watched 14-year-old Sienna Stubbs sing her own song “Magic Pearl”as her big sister cheered from the side of stage like she had just won Australian Idol.

I got to watch my Ezy 5 brothers rock northeast Arnhem land with their music like they were at Woodstock.

And I got to see Yolngu - young and old - sing out Songlines to each other from one side of the community to the other.

They do it to test each other on their knowledge and how much they know of their history. It’s one of the most beautiful cultural expressions I’ve witnessed and listening to it was like receiving healing. It really was.

As I type this story sitting in my office in Sydney, surrounded by the concrete jungle, I can still hear my friend Araluen Maymuru teaching me language.

I didn’t know it at the time. But now I know she is helping me listen to my tribal voice.

The Songlines that are our stories. Our backbones. Our life.

Manymuk.

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