Treaty - Yothu Yindi

Post date: 
Friday, 12 July 2019

This blog post reflects on how the repatriation of sound recordings from the Waterman Collection, held in the AIATSIS Collection, inspired the creation of this classic song.

‘Treaty’ was a worldwide hit and was the first song by a mainly Aboriginal band to peak on the ARIA Singles chart and the first song of Aboriginal Australian language to gain extensive international recognition, peaking internationally at no. 6 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play singles chart.  It remains one of Australia’s most iconic rock songs.

Released in 1991, 'Treaty' was composed by Yothu Yindi members Mandawuy Yunupingu, Stuart  Kellaway, Cal Williams, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Milkayngu  Mununggurr and Witiyana  Marika, and Aussie rockers Peter Garrett  and Paul Kelly. The song combined balanda (non-Indigenous) and Yolngu rhythms together with stridently political lyrics in response to the Hawke Government’s broken promise of a Treaty between Indigenous Australians and the Australian Government by 1990.

The Waterman Collection of sound recordings was donated to AIATSIS by American musicologist Richard Waterman who worked at Yirrkala, in the Northern Territory, in 1952-53. Copies of Waterman’s recordings were later repatriated to the community via ethnomusicologist Jill Stubington in 1989 while she was there on AIATSIS funded fieldwork. The Waterman collection contains over 15 hours of recordings including the djantpangarri / djedbangari song ‘Storm’ performed by Rrikin Burarrwanga (singer), Djeila (singer), Djalalingba (singer) and Djirnini Dhamanandji (yidaki).

Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu, the lead singer of Yothu Yindi, recalled hearing this song at the Yirrkala Literature Production Centre in 1989. He noted:  

“Though it borrows from rock ’n’ roll, the whole structure of “Treaty” is driven by the beat of the djatpangarri that I’ve incorporated to it. It was an old recording of this historic djatpangarri that triggered the song’s composition. The man who originally created it, Rrikin Burarrwanga, was my gurrung (mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s brother’s son) and he passed away a long time ago in 1978. He was a real master of the djatpangarri style.” (Yunupingu in Marett et. al. 2006)

You can hear the Storm djantpangarri below:

AIAS.015.CS-000081149 - Dances being performed from Goyulan and Djambidj - Kopanga Outstation, Blyth River, Arnhem Land. (1982)
Dances being performed from Goyulan and Djambidj - Kopanga Outstation, Blyth River, Arnhem Land. (1982)

The djantpangarri dance and song form is attributed to Dambidjawa, a Gumatj speaker of the Yirritja moiety and brother of Rrikin (Stubington, 1994, p. 254). It is a form of song that is about fun and entertainment and which dominated the popular music scene among Yirrkala youths from the 1930s through to the 1970s (Knopoff, 1997, p. 603). The Waterman collection features a number of recordings in the djantpangarri style. This includes songs by Rrrikin, Dadaynga, Djeila and Dhambutjawa. The album ‘Tribal Voice’, which contains the song ‘Treaty’, is dedicated to these masters.

Nhima djatpangarri nhima walangwalang
(You dance djatpangarri, that's better)

Nhe djatpayatpa nhima gaya' nhe marrtjini yakarray
(You're dancing, you improvise, you keep going, wow)

Nhe djatpa nhe walang gumurrt jararrk gutjuk
(You dance djatpangarri, that's good my dear paternal grandson)


Nhima gayakaya nhe gaya' nhe
(You improvise, you improvise)

Nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini walangwalang nhe ya
(You improvise, you keep going, you're better)

Nhima djatpa nhe walang
(You dance djatpangarri, that's good)

Gumurr-djararrk yawirriny'
(My dear young men)

Nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini gaya' nhe marrtjini
(You improvise, you keep improvising, you keep going)

Gayakaya nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini walangwalang
(Improvise, you improvise, you keep going, that's better)

Nhima djatpa nhe walang
(You dance djatpangarri, that's good)​

Gumurr-djararrk nhe yå, e i, e i, e i i i, i i i, i i i, i i
(You dear things)


(Corn, 2011, p.23; SBS News 2013)

1993 AFL Grand Final half-time entertainment - dancers and band Yothu Yindi performing with lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu (centre) and Archie Roach (sitting cross legged behind Yunipingu)

Three decades later, ‘Treaty’ continues to be a powerful reminder of First Nation people’s desire for self-determination and self-management, including the freedom to pursue economic, social, religious and cultural development.

The Commemorative plaque at the birthplace of ‘Treaty’ includes lyrics from the song.

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
Now two rivers run their course
Separated for so long
I'm dreaming of a brighter day
When the waters will be one
Treaty yeah, treaty now, treaty yeah, treaty now

On 7 June, 2017, the original recording of ‘Storm’ made a comeback on Yolngu lands when on it was heard at the unveiling of a plaque and monument in honour of Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu at Birany Birany, the site where the song was composed.

Commemorative plaque at the birthplace of Treaty, 7 June 2018, Birany Birany. Photo courtesy Aaron Corn
Commemorative plaque at the birthplace of Treaty, 7 June 2018, Birany Birany. Photo courtesy Aaron Corn

AIATSIS would like to acknowledge Yalmay Marika, members of Yothu Yindi,  Aaron Corn and Gavin Campbell for their support.

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  • Corn, A 2011, ‘Treaty Now: Popular Music and the Indigenous Struggle for justice in Contemporary Australia’ in I Peddie, Popular Music and Human Rights, 2 : World Music, Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, pp. 17-26
  • Marett, A., Yunupingu, M., Langton, M., Gumbula, N., Barwick, L., & Corn, A. (2006), ‘The National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia: year one in review’ in Backing Our Creativity: the National Education and the Arts Symposium, 12-14 September 2005 (pp.84-90). Surry Hills, NSW: Australia Council for the Arts.
  • Knopoff, S. 1997. "Accompanying the Dreaming: Determinants of Didjeridu Style in Traditional and Popular Yolngu Song," in The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet. Edited by K Neuenfeldt. Sydney: Perfect Beat Publications


What a great little story about Australia's big picture! Thank you Rita and all involved in creating the song and the post. This is living heritage.
Last reviewed: 16 Jul 2019