Mandawuy Yunupingu, the former lead singer of Australian indigenous band Yothu Yindi and one of the country’s most famous Aborigines, has died, Australia’s prime minister said Monday. He was 56.
Yunupingu, who gained worldwide fame in the 1980s and 1990s with his hits Treaty and Tribal Voice, died Sunday night at his home in a tiny Outback Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory, Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon said. Officials haven’t released a cause of death, but Yunupingu struggled for years with kidney disease.
“We have lost a uniquely talented musician, a passionate advocate for Aboriginal people and a truly great friend,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a statement.
Yunupingu began his career as a teacher, and became the first indigenous Australian to be appointed a school principal. He developed what he called the “both ways” educational philosophy, which utilised both Western and Aboriginal teaching techniques.
His penchant for blending cultures carried over to his music career, with the formation of his band Yothu Yindi in 1986. The group included both Aboriginal and white musicians and won fans with its unique combination of traditional indigenous sounds and modern pop and rock. Yothu Yindi, which released six albums, toured the United States and Canada as a support act to Midnight Oil and toured Australia with Neil Young.
The band’s most famous song, Treaty, was written in response to an unrealized promise then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke made in 1988 – the bicentennial of European settlement in Australia – to formalize a treaty between the government and Aborigines. In 1992, Yothu Yindi performed the song in New York at the launch of the United Nations’ International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.
“He was able to lead a band that performed and played its songs and expressed very strongly his culture in all parts of the world,” Education Minister and former Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett told reporters. “His legacy is immeasurable but the loss is great.”
Yunupingu was named the 1992 Australian of the Year for his role in “building bridges of understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.”
In recent years, he was forced to undergo dialysis three times a week as he struggled with kidney disease. In 2009, Yunupingu told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television that he had battled alcoholism before he was diagnosed. Alcohol was not the direct cause of his kidney failure, but worsened his other health problems.
“I had the whole world in front of me, and this small, little kidney problem got me right where it hurts,” he told the ABC. “I have to be dependent on a machine. I never thought it would happen to me.”
Aborigines, who make up 2.3 percent of Australia’s 23 million people, die more than a decade younger than other Australians. They are four times more likely to die of chronic kidney disease than other Australians, and are far less likely to receive an organ transplant, according to a 2011 report by the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
“This is one of the real problems in modern Australia – too many Aboriginal people die too young,” opposition leader Tony Abbott told reporters. “He was obviously a very significant cultural figure to the wider Australian community as well as amongst Aboriginal people and it’s tragic that he’s gone.”
Yunupingu is survived by his wife Gurruwun Yunupingu and six children.