When I first heard Yothu Yindi’s song “Treaty” I recognised the drive of the dance beats but failed to pick up on the drive of the lyrics. I still get a kick out of listening to it but now I see that there is more going on in this iconic song.
In 1988, the Jawoyn community in Barunga, Northern Territory and by their declaration “the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia”, invited the Australian Government and people to “recognise our rights” through the Barunga Statement. The Prime Minister of the day, Bob Hawke, responded by saying that there would be a Treaty between Indigenous Australians and the Australian Government by 1990.
Yothu Yindi band member Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu said: “Bob Hawke visited the Territory. He went to this gathering in Barunga. And this is where he made a statement that there shall be a treaty between black and white Australia. Sitting around the campfire, trying to work out a chord to the guitar, and around that campfire, I said, "Well, I heard it on the radio. And I saw it on the television." That should be a catchphrase. And that is where 'Treaty' was born.”
In 1991, the dance beats of Yothu Yindi’s song Treaty pulsed their way up the charts in the most popular version of the song, the Filthy Lucre remix. It currently has over 1.5 million hits on Spotify and the lyrics are mainly in Gumatj, the Yolngu Matha dialect of Yothu Yindi’s lead singer, Dr Yunupingu.
The original lyrics, written by Yothu Yindi members Mandawuy Yunupingu, Kellaway, Williams, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Mununggurr and Marika along with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil’s frontman Peter Garrett, were much more political:
This land was never given up
This land was never bought and sold
The planting of the Union Jack
Never changed our law at all…
Nhima gayakaya nhe gaya' nhe
(You improvise, you improvise)
Nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini walangwalang nhe ya
(You improvise, you keep going, you're better)
You improvise, You improvise, You improvise...