Yothu Yindi biography Writing in the Sand addresses ‘a really important story that hadn’t been fully told’

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Yothu Yindi biography Writing in the Sand addresses ‘a really important story that hadn’t been fully told’

Former Yothu Yindi members Dr G Yunupiŋu and dancer Malati Yunupiŋu onstage at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin in 2013. Photo: Matt Garrick

For those of a certain age, Yothu Yindi's 'Treaty' is an inextricable part of their upbringing.

Be it the original or the remix, you’ve likely heard it on the radio and seen it on the television – to borrow a phrase – more times than you’ve had hot dinners.

30 years on, it remains one of the most culturally-significant songs in Australian history. Matt Garrick, a longtime ABC broadcaster and journalist, has memories attached to the song from as young as six.

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“I can remember being at the Powerhouse Museum, and there was an exhibition running about Australian music,” he recalls. “That song was already part of it even then – it really did feel like it was everywhere you looked.

“My dad took me to a Santana show at Centennial Park in Sydney, and Yothu Yindi opened. It was incredible – hearing the didgeridoo ringing out across the park really made me feel something I’d never felt before.”

Little could Garrick have known at the time, but his connection to Yothu Yindi would only grow stronger as an adult.

Relocating to the band’s native East Arnhem Land in the early 2010s, Garrick began working in the Territory around the time that the band were being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.

Within a year, Garrick had seen the band through triumph and tragedy: the former being the group’s induction in late 2012; the latter being the passing of frontman Mandawuy Yunupingu in mid-2013.

“I had someone describe his passing as like when JFK or John Lennon died,” Garrick recalls. “You could feel it around Arnhem Land – there was so much shock and grief.

“The day he died I headed to the pub, and a few of the Yothu guys were there. We sank beers as they all told stories, and it really made me realise how beloved he was.

“Kevin Rudd even turned up to his memorial service – he’d only just gotten the Prime Minister job back.”

As Garrick spent more time reporting on Yothu Yindi and spending time with them, something became clear: theirs was “a really important story that hadn’t been fully told yet.”

With the blessing of founding member Stuart Kellaway, as well the Yunupingu family themselves, a greater story started to formulate.

The end result is Writing in the Sand, Garrick’s first book, which details the band’s history and specifically hones in on the success of ‘Treaty’ on its 30th anniversary.

“It was very organic,” Garrick says of putting the book together.

“We were out at this memorial gig for Yunupingu, at this tiny remote Gumatj homeland called Biranybirany.

“It’s where he wrote the first lines of ‘Treaty’ with Paul Kelly. It was originally supposed to be for an article, but the more that Stewart and Yalmay [Yunupingu, Mandawuy’s widow] kept telling stories, the more I knew this was really more than that.

“A book had to be done, and it had to be done properly.”

Over 100 interviews were then conducted by Garrick to paint a complete picture of the band’s history – which continues with its surviving members to this day.

‘Writing in the Sand’ is out now through Harper Collins. You can buy the book here.