In 1989, Mandawuy Yunupingu walked into the Yirrkala Literature Production Centre and heard a song which unleashed a creativity that would result in the composition of one of the greatest Australian songs of all time.
Rita Metzenrath

13 Jul 2019 - 2:19 PM  UPDATED 13 Jul 2019 - 2:23 PM


Yothu Yindi's Treaty was a worldwide hit and remains one of Australia’s most iconic songs. It was voted APRA Song of the Year (1991), ARIA Awards Song of the Year and Single of the Year (1992) and was the first song in an Aboriginal language to gain major international airplay.

Treaty was released in 1991 and combined balanda (non-Indigenous) and Yolngu rhythms together with stridently political lyrics calling for a treaty between the Australian government and First Nation peoples.

Treaty is most often referred to as a ‘rock song’, however it might be better described as a Yolngu imprinting on the western rock song tradition. This is not only evident in paying homage to djantpangarri, a Yolngu popular music form, but also the incorporation of  Gumatj language verses into the song and the use of the ganma metaphor.

The ganma metaphor is a concept grounded in Yolngu law that describes the mixing of freshwater and saltwater giving rise to a different by-product and is expressed in the lyrics:  

 "Now two rivers run their course/Separated for so long/I’m dreaming of a brighter day/When the waters will be one."

Treaty also references community disappointment with political events following the presentation of the Barunga statement to then Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1988.

The Barunga Statement was a painted declaration that included the aspirations of “the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia” and a request to the Australian Government and people to “recognise our rights and freedoms” and engage in treaty making.

However, by 1991 no progress had occurred on treaty making and – as lead singer Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu would later recall – the song was written to raise public awareness and encourage the Government to honour its promise.

Djantpangarri influence on the song

Between 1952 and 1953, American anthropologist /musicologist Richard Waterman made 16 hours of sound recordings in Yirrkala in the various languages of NE Arnhem Land.

Waterman donated this material to AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) and in 1989 AIATSIS funded ethnomusicologist Jil Stubington to return copies of the Waterman recordings to Yirrkala.

These recordings became the basis of the community tape archive at the Literature Production Centre at the Yirrkala Community School.

Among the material repatriated was the djantpangarri / djedbangari song ‘Storm’ performed by Rrikin Burrarwanga (singer), Djeila (singer), Djalalingba (singer) and Djinini (yidaki).

Mandawuy Yunupingu recalled hearing this song at the Yirrkala Literature Production Centre in 1989. Later he noted that, though it borrows from rock ’n’ roll, the whole structure of “Treaty” is driven by the beat of the djatpangarri.

"It was an old recording of this historic djatpangarri that triggered the song’s composition. The man who originally created it, Rrikin Burarrwanga, was my gurrung (mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s brother’s son) and he passed away a long time ago in 1978. He was a real master of the djatpangarri style," wrote Yunupingu. 

The djantpangarri dance and song form is attributed to Dambidjawa, a Gumatj speaker of the Yirritja moiety and brother of Rrikin. It is a form of song that is about fun and entertainment and which dominated the popular music scene among Yirrkala youths from the 1930s through to the 1970s .

The Waterman collection features a number of recordings in the djantpangarri style. This includes songs by Rrrikin, Dadaynga, Djeila and Dhambutjawa. The album ‘Tribal Voice’, which contains ‘Treaty’, is dedicated to these masters.

Locating the djantpangarri Storm in the AIATSIS Collection has enabled long term scholar of Yothu Yindi's music, Professor Aaron Corn, to confirm that the two verses in Yolngu in the song 'Treaty' are taken directly from this recording.

Nhima djatpangarri nhima walangwalang  (You dance djatpangarri, that's better)
Nhe djatpayatpa nhima gaya' nhe marrtjini yakarray (You're dancing, you improvise, you keep going, wow)
Nhe djatpa nhe walang gumurrt jararrk gutjuk (You dance djatpangarri, that's good my dear paternal grandson)

Nhima gayakaya nhe gaya' nhe (You improvise, you improvise)

Nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini walangwalang nhe ya (You improvise, you keep going, you're better)
Nhima djatpa nhe walang (You dance djatpangarri, that's good)
Gumurr-djararrk yawirriny' (My dear young men)
Nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini gaya' nhe marrtjini (You improvise, you keep improvising, you keep going)
Gayakaya nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini walangwalang (Improvise, you improvise, you keep going, that's better)
Nhima djatpa nhe walang (You dance djatpangarri, that's good)
Gumurr-djararrk nhe yå, e i, e i, e i i i, i i i, i i i, i i (You dear things)

The original recording of the djantpangarri Storm made a comeback on Yolngu lands on June 7 2018 where it was heard on the occasion of the unveiling of a plaque and monument in honour of Dr Mandaway Yunupingu at Birany Birany.  Dr Manduwuy Yunupingu wrote the song Treaty with Paul Kelly at Birany Birany. The event also formally concluded the mourning period for Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu.

Three decades after the event that inspired the song, ‘Treaty’ continues to be a powerful reminder of First Nation people’s desire for ‘self-determination and self-management, including the freedom to pursue economic, social, religious and cultural development’.

This land was never given up

This land was never bought and sold

The planting of the union jack

Never changed our law at all

Now two rivers run their course

Separated for so long

I'm dreaming of a brighter day

When the waters will be one

Treaty yeah, treaty now, treaty yeah, treaty now

AIATSIS chief Craig Ritchie said locating the recording of the djantpangarri Storm in the AIATSIS collection has meant that it could be heard on Yolngu lands again.

"It has also answered an important question in musicological studies related to Yothu Yindi and provides a compelling case for the importance of long term preservation of recordings at AIATSIS and the impact of repatriating recordings to communities of origin”, he said.

More about the recording can be found here.

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