Yothu Yindi’s ‘Treaty’ – A 60,000+ year beat that echoes on

05 FEB 2024

Image by Lachlan Douglas, Some FX
Words by Rachael Kerruish, in consultation with Yothu Yindi.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this article contains the names and words of people who have passed away.

No one could have predicted just how massive Yothu Yindi would become.

Founder and frontman, Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu AC was the unlikeliest of rock stars. An Aboriginal man in an Aboriginal band, singing in an Aboriginal language about the Aboriginal fight for land. As the airwaves of 1990s Australia pulsed with the beat of Yothu Yindi’s platinum hits like ‘Treaty’ and ‘Djapana’, for the first time, the words of a 60,000+-year-old culture reached every radio, TV set, car ride and corner of the nation.

For all the epic tracks they’ve produced in their three decades as a band, ‘Treaty’ has a legacy unrivalled by any other song in Australian history. Three years prior to reaching the airwaves, the conversation came to a boiling point in June 1988.

At a music festival 80 kms south of Katherine in the remote community of Barunga, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke signed the Barunga Statement and promised a treaty by 1990. The treaty never came, but the band didn’t want the nation to forget there was a broken promise, or for those affected to lose hope.

Collaborating with Paul Kelly and Peter Garrett, Yothu Yindi released ‘Treaty’ in 1991 as a powerful protest song against the lack of progress made between Indigenous Australians and the Australian government.

‘Treaty’ was a worldwide hit. It was the first pop song ever to be sung in a Yolngu Matha language, spending 22 consecutive weeks in the ARIA charts, and peaking at number 11.

As powerful Yolngu lyrics jumped across radio waves from Houston to Helsinki, it marked the first time that ancient Aboriginal beats had leapt into popular culture. The band married the ancient drone of the Yidaki (didgeridoo) seamlessly to contemporary electronica beats and thumping rock ‘n’ roll. The result was a never-before-heard sound created by a band of blackfellas and whitefellas, with a political heart beating throughout it all.

At the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Yothu Yindi performed ‘Treaty’, broadcast to 2.4 billion viewers across the globe. The following year, the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) recognised it as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time, and in 2009, it secured a place in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia’s prestigious Sounds of Australia collection. Yothu Yindi were inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame in 2012.

Words from the timeless anthem continue to reverberate into present-day conversations. In late 2023, Triple J’s Blak-Out host and proud Yuin and Thunghutti man DJ Nooky played ‘Treaty’ on repeat for an entire hour, in response to Australia’s unsuccessful Voice to Parliament Referendum.

Rarely has a group formed with such a clear and focused vision, not just for their music but for the impact they leave on the world. Now thirty years on, featuring original band members and fresh talent from the next generation, Yothu Yindi shows no signs of stopping.

Yothu Yindi perform at Brisbane Powerhouse’s OHM Festival on Sat 2 March 2024.