Portrait

Sharing stories with Dhapanbal Yunupingu By Kristina Olsson.

Singer-songwriter Dhapanbal Yunupingu

It began, she says, when she was a little girl, listening to her father singing, the music playing out across the landscape it rose from. Listening to her mother, to the old women crying the sorry songs, singing souls back to the soil.

Music was everywhere, in the red earth and the sea of Yirrkala, in the language and stories of her Gumatj people. For Dhapanbal Yunupingu, it was like a slow fuse. It first sparked with Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty”; its emblematic beat, her father’s voice leading the band and rolling over a hundred heads, black and white. “I loved hearing him sing,” she says.

Dr Yunupingu died three years ago, but for Dhapanbal, her five sisters and her mother, Yalmay, it might be yesterday. Australia remembers a charismatic singer in a tricolour headband, an educator and leader; Dhapanbal remembers a tender father steeped in tradition and song. Now she is emulating him: after years of hesitation, she is recording her own music, writing her own songs, engaging deeply with culture and politics.

We sit in Yirrkala’s Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and Museum, renowned for its bark paintings, intricate weavings, the decorative ceremony poles and yidaki. This community has never conceded its own power, famously dispatching bark petitions to Canberra to protest land grabs by miners, the saltwater bark paintings to demonstrate their responsibilities to land and water. Strong reminders that Yolngu people have always used art, from painting to song, to affirm their connection to place.

It is here, in an annex that houses audiovisual equipment and a small recording studio, that Dhapanbal works with Yothu Yindi founding member Stuart Kellaway, who has mentored much of the young emerging musical talent in Yirrkala. As the first contemporary female artist from the community, she is a role model, he believes, strong, headstrong. She knows what she wants, he says.

Still, Dhapanbal’s first experience behind a microphone came as a surprise.

When she was a child, her father took his daughters to Melbourne, to visit his friend Jimmy Barnes. The two musicians wrote a song for children. She remembers them saying, “How about we get the kids to sing it?”

“We had no idea that was going to happen.” A slow smile lights her face. “They took us all into Jimmy’s studio, Jimmy’s kids and us, and we did this recording. It took about a week, but we had a lot of fun.”

That was “School Song”, famous now in Yirrkala, where it often blares from loudspeakers about eight in the morning. “To get the kids out the door,” Dhapanbal grins, “to school.”

The song gave Dhapanbal her first taste of professionalism: when it was done she thought, “I like this”. Up until then, she’d wanted to be an electrician. As a young girl she’d fix the broken tape recorders and video players her mother and sisters collected at garage sales.

“I would just sit for hours and fix them,” she says. “And then other people started to bring me their broken things, and I’d fix them, too. Mum was watching. She’d been nagging me about music, but one day she said, ‘I think you’re going to be an electrician’.”

It wasn’t to be. Dhapanbal had her own children young; she gave her time and energy to them. Listened to Yothu Yindi and Mariah Carey on television. But in the aftermath of her father’s death, when she and her sisters played his music on an endless loop, she began to write. The patience and steeliness she’d brought to repairing machines she now invested in the music itself. I am the rock/ that stands against the tide/ I see my father/ smiling back at me. The first words of her first recorded song, “Gurtha” (“Fire”), reveal a young woman claiming her place.

“I think a lot about the lyrics,” she says. “The first version takes about three weeks, then the second version. In between I think about it, about how I’m going to sing it. The songlines.

“Normally when I’m sitting with my sisters and talking, that’s when ideas come. We share thoughts and ideas and I write them in notebooks. Then I write the music and words. When I’m at ceremonies, I listen carefully to the sound of the clap sticks and singing and try to get that sound into what I am doing.”

Frequently, her lyrics come out of questioning, mystery, the ongoing lessons of her elders. “A few weeks ago, I wrote a song of a story I heard. It was something I wanted to understand better. I go to the people who know the meaning. I go to my aunties here.”

“Gurtha”, recorded in June with the Northern Territory artist Shellie Morris, won the country section of the NT Song of the Year Awards. It was followed by “Kakadu” and “Crying”, which represents one of Dhapanbal’s strongest cultural and musical preoccupations. Milkarri are the grieving or crying songs sung only by women after the death of a community member, to sing their spirits back to ancestral homelands. To those from outside the community, the sounds might be haunting, distressing, but to Dhapanbal they are intrinsic to life, precious.

“I have always listened when the old ladies do this crying. They are crying to the country. If someone in my family passed away we would sing to this area, here, to receive them,” she says. “It is very special. I’m learning this now, the songlines and the storylines.”

The crying traditionally takes place on ceremonial land, during grieving ceremonies that may last weeks. They are private occasions, restricted. But recently a sense of urgency has surrounded these songs. There is a fear milkarri are not being passed on to the younger women. Elders see the crying as a crucial component in keeping country strong.

This tradition might distinguish her in the male-dominated explosion of talent out of Arnhem Land – East Journey, Yirrmal, Gurrumul. Like theirs, Dhapanbal’s music fuses old and new, English and language, clap sticks and yidaki and guitar. Then there’s the voice: strong, confident, already like her father’s. And not just the sound. “I want to encourage young women to be themselves,” she says. “And to fight for the rights of Indigenous people. We are still crying for treaty, for constitution.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Finding the songlines". Subscribe here.

Kristina Olsson
is a Queensland writer and journalist. Her most recent book is the award-winning memoir Boy, Lost.

Continue reading your one free article for the week