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Treaty (1991)


This is an Aboriginal pop song from the 1990s with a powerful political message.

Curator’s notes

The song ‘Treaty’ was written by the well-established Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi as a protest song declaiming the failure of Australia’s political leaders to fulfil the promise of a treaty between black and white Australians.

In 1988, Australians marked the anniversary of 200 years of European settlement. For Aboriginal people, it was an insult to the countless centuries that they had been living on and with the land. Perhaps in a show of political appeasement, the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke attended the Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory in 1988, and was presented with a statement on Aboriginal self-determination that became known as the Barunga Statement.

The Barunga Statement called for Aboriginal self-management, a national system of land rights, compensation for loss of lands, respect for Aboriginal identity, an end to discrimination and the granting of full civil, economic, social and cultural rights for Indigenous Australians. The Barunga Statement was signed by several representatives present, including Bob Hawke and Galarrwuy Yunupingu (then chairman of the Northern Land Council). Although Mr Hawke signed the Barunga Statement telling the gathering he would organise a treaty between black and white Australians by 1990, it was not a legally binding agreement.

In 1991 with still no sign of a treaty, the band Yothu Yindi (Yolngu for mother and child) collaborated with musician Paul Kelly to create 'Treaty’ as a protest against the failure of the Australian government to honour Hawke’s promise. It also hoped to raise public awareness of the promise.

When it was initially released, ‘Treaty’ created quite a stir. The version by Melbourne dance remixers Filthy Lucre (Robert Goodge and DJ Gavin Campbell ex of ’80s band I’m Talking) made it a hit and a sensation on dancefloors and at festivals throughout Australia. It took the band high into the sales charts, but the heavy dance music of the remix arguably obscured its original, overt political message. Nevertheless, the success of ‘Treaty’ percolated into Yothu Yindi’s second album, 'Tribal Voice’, released in 1992, the year in which lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year.

The first pop song ever to be sung in a Yolngu language, ‘Treaty’ received roaring approval when performed by Yothu Yindi at the Closing Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics on 1 October 2000, watched by a worldwide television audience of millions. There was still no sign of a treaty, however.

Founding members of Yothu Yindi included Stuart Kellaway on bass guitar; Cal Williams on lead guitar; Witiyana Marika on manikay (traditional vocals), bilma (ironwood clapsticks) and dance; Milkayngu Mununggurr on yidaki didgeridoo; Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu on keyboards, guitar and percussion; and leader Mandawuy Yunupingu on vocals and guitar.

The 'Filthy Lucre Remix’ of 'Treaty’ was the 29th best-selling song in Australia in 1991, according to the Australian Recording Industry Association. It was also the fifth biggest-selling Australian record of the year.