Vale Mr G Yunupingu, Doctor of Music (Honoris Causa)

The voice that connected with people the world over Image: Stuart Sevastos

The University of Sydney is deeply saddened by the recent passing of one of Australia’s much-loved and admired musicians, Mr G Yunupingu, whose extraordinary voice connected with people across the world.

His highly successful, international career saw him perform for royalty and country leaders including Queen Elizabeth II, US President Barack Obama, and Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark.

Commenting on the talented singer-song writer, Professor Anna Reid, Dean and Head of School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, said: “His music spoke to the soul of people worldwide, enabling them to understand the importance of place and culture in their lives.

“His exquisite and tender voice, coupled with his innovative approach to instrumental music, created a sound world that reached the essential core of listeners alerting them to the beauty of land and our place within it. His music transcended culture and he will be missed hugely,” she said.

In recognition of the contribution he made to music and culture in Australia and overseas, the University of Sydney awarded Mr G Yunupingu an honorary Doctor of Music degree in 2012. At the ceremonial event, Professor Reid had cited that his “extraordinary voice combines fragility with emotive power to sing about his identity, spirit and connection with the land, its elements and his ancestors.

“Yet the inspiration he takes from his homeland resonates far beyond northeast Arnhem Land. Coupled with his quiet, reserved demeanor, his music has forged a spiritual bond with audiences in Australia and around the world.”

He was a Gumatj man from Elcho Island. He had the unique ability to use voice to convey his identity, spirit and connection with the land, its elements and ancestors.

A largely self-taught musician, he also played drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo. In the 1980s and 1990s he became a member of the Yothu Yindi band and later joined the Saltwater Band.

The release of his debut solo album in 2008 led to international acclaim and sold half a million copies worldwide. His second solo album, Rrakala, in 2011 had a similar impact with Rolling Stone magazine calling him “Australia’s Most Important Voice”.

In 2008 he was nominated for four ARIA awards, winning Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release. He also won three Deadlys – the awards that honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievement in music, sport, entertainment and community.

Acknowledging the impact that he made beyond music, in 2009 Mr G Yunupingu was the Northern Territory recipient of the Australian of the Year award. In the same year, he was the subject of a portrait by artist Guy Maestri that won the Archibald prize.

His music success came even though most listeners would not immediately understand the lyrics of his songs as he rarely sang in English. Nevertheless, as a Sydney Morning Herald reviewer once said, “it is impossible for the listener to remain unmoved. It is as though Yunupingu has reached into a wellspring so deep it transcends cultural barriers. He has found an emotional bridge, which is genuinely universal. Listen… and you will instantly surrender to the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded.”