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Treaty (M Yunupingu/P Kelly/P Garrett/G Yunupingu / M Mununggurr/B Marika/S Kellaway/C Willians) – Yothu Yindi 1991

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In 1988, Australians celebrated the anniversary of 200 years of European settlement, the Bi-Centennial was not however a time for rejoicing for Australia’s indigenous people who had lost not only their traditional lands following European colonisation but had endured the disintegration of much of their culture and social and economic independence.

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In an attempt at political appeasement the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke (above), attended the Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory, and was presented with a statement of Aboriginal self-determination which became known as the Barunga Statement. Hawke agreed that a treaty should be drafted and executed by 1990 that would enshrine the Barunga Statement in a legally binding document.

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Yothu Yindi’s Mandawuy Yunupingu (above) recalls this meeting in the opening verse of the song Treaty Well I heard it on the radio/And I saw it on the television/ Back in 1988, all those talking politicians”.

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The promised treaty did not materialize, in 1991 Yothu Yindu (Yolngu for mother and child) began a collaboration with white musicians sympathetic to their cause to re-boot the protest action to secure a treaty.

Paul Kelly had become aware of indigenous artists, culture and values after reading The Other Side of The Frontier by Henry Reynolds in the 1980’s and connecting with the Aboriginal band No Fixed Address. Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil had worked closely with the Warumpi Band and were long-time supporters of Aboriginal causes, expressing their views vehemently in a quartet of songs including Beds Are Burning, Dead Heart, Maralinga and Truganini in the 1980’s. 

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Kelly and Garrett contributed to the development of the protest song that became Treaty, a blending of western and indigenous styles consistent with the bi-cultural approach of the notion of yothu-yindi and unified in its condemnation of the inaction of government to honor their promises-“ Words are easy, words are cheap/ Much cheaper than our priceless land/ But promises can disappear/ Just like writing in the sand.” At the 2012 ARIA Awards Yothu Yindi were inducted into the ARIA HAll of Fame, in the picture above Mandawuy Yunipingu, Peter Garret, and Paul Kelly appear with the other members of the group.

The collaborative process of writing the song presented challenges for Kelly, who recalled when writing with Mandawuy Yunupingu “He has a particular idea in mind, so he asked me to write with him. It was hard because we had completely different approaches to songwriting. He thought songwriting was a way of teaching … songwriting for me is more finding out stuff rather than teaching stuff. But there are all kinds of ways for it to work.”

Some time passed before the song started to really take shape, Kelly recalls meeting Mandawuy at a motel in Glebe (Syd) where, under pressure from Mushroom Records to finish the song, they completed the lyrics, by now Kelly’s phrase “treaty yeah, treaty yeah” had become the chorus. At Mandawuy’s suggestion they took their demo tape and a guitar to Peter Garrett who suggested that they add a bridge featuring counterpoint backing vocals “Promises! Priceless land!”, all agreed, and Peter Garrett got a writing credit, along with the other seven co-composers.

Treaty is not only a protest anthem  it is also a song infused with a sense of optimism about future change and a reconciliation between black and white culture “Now two rivers run their course/ Separated for so long/ I’m dreaming of a brighter day/ When the waters will be one.”

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The song was included on Yothu Yindi’s debut album Tribal Voice, it incorporated traditional indigenous instruments such as bilma (clapsticks) and yidaki (didgeridoo), with keyboards, guitar, percussion and manikay (traditional Aboriginal vocals). It struggled for commercial airtime and did not chart, the original promo video featured images of the Barunga Festival meeting with Hawke, the band performing, and footage of bauxite mining on the Gove Peninsula (Northern Territory).

But Treaty would enjoy a much bigger international audience in 1991 after Melbourne DJ Gavin Campbell suggested that the song was ripe for a dance-oriented re-mix and the Filthy Lucre team of Campbell, Paul Main and Robert Goodge, former I’m Talking guitarist, re-mixed the song in association with Yothu Yindi, exercising due sensitivity for the preservation of the cultural imperatives embedded in the original version.  

The remix is almost completely in the Yolngu language, the only two English words that remained in the re-mix is the addictive chant “Treaty yeah”. The re-mix was more radical in that it placed an indigenous language front and centre for the first time in a popular recording, but the deletion of the English lyrics robbed the remix of its political bite and obscured the original message which now became more implied and less overt.

The re-mix did however more heavily accentuate the didgeridoo and clapstick instrumentation and this haunting version became an international dancefloor smash hit, it charted #11 in Australia, #6 on the US Billboard Dance Club chart and was a top forty hit in Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

The album Tribal Voice was also successful charting #4 nationally, but it was Treaty which blazed a trail for indigenous songs on the popular music charts, and became a civil rights anthem for a national treaty, a binding document, such as the Treaty of Waitangi, which has been in existence for Maoris in New Zealand, since 1840, but has still yet to materialize in Australia. The re-mix promo video featured the band in concert, ceremonial Aboriginal dancing, and front man Mandawuy Yunupingu singing over a blazing fire with children dancing around him on a beach.

In 1992 lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year, Yothu Yindi sang an updated Treaty 98 version of the song at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and in 2001 Treaty was voted one of the best thirty Australian songs in the period 1926-2001 by APRA, and the band collected eight ARIA Awards over their career. In 2013 Mandawuy Yunupingu sadly passed away and in 2017 co-composer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who had gone onto a celebrated solo career after leaving Yothu Yindi, also tragically died. 

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