Earlier today Warren Snowdon and Peter Garrett, two men who knew the former singer of Yothu Yindi well and over many years, spoke to the media about his passing.
This is the transcript of their press conference. I note that use of the man’s name has been omitted in accordance with cultural sensitivities.
THE PASSING OF AN ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN MUSIC LEGEND
WARREN SNOWDON – Thank you for joining us this morning. Minister Peter Garrett and I are here to express our sadness at the passing of a very great Australian. Someone who made his name initially as a great leader in education. A great believer in Both Ways education. Someone who was the first Yolngu principal of a school in the country.
Someone who became a great messenger to all of us about the issues facing the Yolngu people in North-East Arnhem Land, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in general across this country. Someone who gave great insight into what it was to be a Yolngu person, but also to give us a great message about the need to reconciliation.
I am deeply saddened and I know Peter is as well, about the passing of this great man. I was in Nhulunbuy in only the first week of May at a workshop, a renal workshop, he was responsible for organising and he was present there for the whole day. He was hopeful of being well enough at some point to have a transplant, sadly that was not to be.
I know his family, his community and we are all devastated by his passing, but he leaves an enormous legacy. One which we can all learn from. He was a great Australian, that much was demonstrated when he was awarded Australian of the Year.
PETER GARRETT – Thanks Warren. I am wanting to pay tribute to somebody who was a beacon for his people, who always spoke from the heart and who gave an immeasurable amount, both to his own community and to the wider Australian community. This is someone who we will sorely miss, not only for his family and the people of North-East Arnhem Land. The Australian music community and Australians at large as well will mourn the loss of this great Australia.
I do know that it comes as a shock this morning to hear that he has passed away. I would say that it is a reflection for us of the considerable challenges for us in health that we still have yet to successfully confront and deal for too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people going too early.
Another thing that I wanted to reflect on was the really significant contribution and achievement of someone who took a band with a vision from the North-East part of Arnhem Land to the world. I don’t think we can underestimate the significant achievement that it was. Yirrkala and Nhulunbuy and Yolngu country are a long way from the rest of Australia and even further away from the cities of Europe and America and yet with Yothu Yindi, he was able to lead a band that performed play the songs that expressed very strongly it’s culture in all parts of the world.
I was very privileged with my colleagues, Midnight Oil, to have been part of enabling that to happen, but I know I speak for the whole of the Australian music community. Many musicians, Neil Finn, Andrew Farris, Paul Kelly, just to mention a few, who have been involved with him and Yothu Yindi.
But just to say, that we have to take the hope that is there, for someone who lived his life in this way, for his people and for all of us, recognising that he sang about reconciliation and that he always aimed to serve his people. His legacy is immeasurable and the loss is great.
JOURNALIST – Warren, you know him well, what personally did you learn from him?
SNOWDON – I learnt, I guess in many ways, and I was reflecting on this, I learnt a lot of what it was to have faith. Not in the sort of church sense, but faith in the ability to be able to convince people that change is worthwhile and due. In the context of his life, he was able to convince many, many, many people, in the music industry and in my early dealings with him, in the education field about the need for change. Need for change to attitudes, change to the curriculum and that we needed Yolngu leadership to provide a context for developing educational programs that were two-way. That to me was really very important.
He had such enormous faith in his ability to talk to people, deliver a message and ultimately he had a faith in people, that good people make the right decisions when they get the right presentations made to them.
He really was a significant contributor and I think for those who might not have understood his past, he made an enormous contribution to education, prior to becoming a musician. Although I suppose he was always a musician, but the messages he gave as a musician were of themselves also educational. So when you put it that way you can say this bloke made one hell of a contribution to the Australian community and certainly has been a very significant leader for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around this country.
JOURNALIST – Peter, one of his greatest songs and one of the favorites among black fellas in this country is Treaty, he sung about treaty and the need for a treaty, which is his legacy for us, not only for Australians but for black fellas as well. How do you see that folding out in the future?
GARRETT – When Paul Kelly and I inducted Yothu Yindi into the ARIA Hall of Fame, it was an very proud moment for both of us and I think absolutely fitting of Yothu Yindi’s contribution, and that song was a very important song. It’s a song which reflected for this Aboriginal leader and musician, how crucial it is that we finish business. Reconciliation , constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and any other settlements that are appropriate.
So for me he was a beacon of light for his community. An eloquent spokesperson, a really good musician, who took songs and words, sometimes in language and with strong messages out to Australians and farther afield. I think that in amongst the daily blur of what comes to us by way of politics in this place, and in people’s daily lives, I know I am just going to take a little time to just step back a little bit and think about just what a difference he made, not only to his own people but to the rest of us as well.
JOURNALIST – What was your best memory of him?
GARRETT – I guess my favorite memory of him, was sitting back stage, surrounded by the boys dressed up and painted and of course Gurrumul was in the group as well. And inviting other people to come in and meet the band. Having him speak to them in a very gentle way about culture, a very gentle way about how his heart said that we would all work together on reconciliation. He was very much someone who said very clearly that was a journey we take together. We bind our hands and our hearts together. You saw it on the stage, you heard it in his words and we’ll remember it in his passing.
JOURNALIST – Minister, this death also raises issues around the health of Aboriginals in these communities and what is being done to help them.
SNOWDON – Absolutely, as I said, we had a conference that we were able to facilitate and support at his instigation and his wife’s, Gurruwun’s instigation to discuss renal issues and renal failure for people in remote communities, specifically in this case North-East Arnhem Land.
It’s a huge issue for us and something which is not going to go away and we are going to have to work with the State and Territory Government’s who have principle responsibility for renal issues around this country. To work with on providing services to make sure people, if they possibly can, don’t have to travel away from their country.
The unfortunate and very sad point to be made here and I’ll let it rest at this is that fortunately for this great man, he was at home when he passed away. Too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to travel from their home when they have end stage renal failure to go and live in a place like Darwin or Alice Springs and ultimately to die there away from their country and that is the saddest thing. There is a lot that we have to do, but now is not the time to talk on that.
NOTE TO MEDIA – Use of the man’s name has been omitted in accordance with cultural sensitivities.-