25 years of 'Treaty'

 Nick Henderson

Warning: This Article may contain names, images and voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Twenty-five years ago, on 14 July 1991, a remix of Yothu Yindi’s ‘Treaty’ became the first song by an Aboriginal band to chart in Australia, peaking at number 11 in September 1991. This achievement followed the chart success of Indigenous solo singers such as Jimmy Little and Lionel Rose.

Yothu Yindi collaborated with Paul Kelly and Peter Garrett in writing ‘Treaty’, which was included on the band’s second album, Tribal Voice (released October 1991).

The song was a powerful protest against the lack of a treaty with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, promised by Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s signing of the Barunga Statement in 1988.

The first pop song ever to be sung in a Yolngu Matha language, ‘Treaty’ draws on the djatpangarri style of music that was pioneered in Yirrkala, in the Northern Territory, from the late 1930s.

While the album version received limited exposure on radio and television, the subsequent Filthy Lucre dance remix by DJ Gavin Campbell, Robert Goodge and Paul Main was a hit. Tribal Voice peaked at number 3 in the album charts in June 1992, selling more than 140,000 copies and reaching double platinum status.

The popularity and significance of ‘Treaty’ was underscored by its performance by Yothu Yindi at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics on 1 October 2000. The following year ‘Treaty’ was selected by Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time; and in 2009 the song was added to our Sounds of Australia registry because of its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.

The Yolngu tradition of passing music and song cycles on to the next generation is mirrored in the way Yothu Yindi has mentored and collaborated with the highly successful East Journey, who regularly perform ‘Treaty’ as part of their live sets.



Check out the second part of our Treaty anniversary celebration: an interview with Gavin Campbell and Robert Goodge.