Rrawun Maymuru can see the changes in the country around him and he’s worried. “In our culture we have five seasons,” says the lead singer of super group East Journey. “Now with the seasons, you can’t go hunting at certain times, you can’t do what our old people used to do because of the environment and the climate change.”
The grandson of the late Yothu Yindi founder Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu lives in Bawaka, about 34 kms south of Yirrkala, in a region that’s famous for being a creative hotbed of indigenous music and art in East Arnhem land on Australia’s Top End.
It was the land where the seeds for Yothu Yindi’s 1991 anthem,Treaty, were sown, the song that protested the Australian government’s failure to deliver a treaty between blacks and whites and the first by a mostly indigenous group to become a national and international hit.
Like his grandfather, Maymuru is a charismatic singer and musician and like his grandfather he uses music to express what’s on his mind.
That’s why at the moment the Yolngu man is writing songs about the changing land.
He says where there were five seasons, now there are two. Wet and dry.
“I live just near the beach,” Maymuru says. “I can see the tide changing. That effects me and my people…but not just me and my family but people right across Australia…
“When I go and talk to my elders they always say ‘Why is this happening?’. I say ‘Things are changing because of the climate’.
“They say ‘Who is affecting this?’ I say ‘We are not affecting this, but the people who came to this land are effecting this’. It’s about mining. All the pollution that goes into the air around the world.
It’s a global issue. Everyone has to think about it.”
Songs such as his new one, Changes in Your Life, are expected to form a big part of East Journey’s next album which will be released later this year or next.
Maymuru says they will play some of the new material at the Byron Bay Bluesfest in March, where they are part of a line-up of artists that includes Richard Clapton, Tom Jones, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, UB40, Melissa Etheridge, the Original Blues Brothers Band and Don “American Pie” McLean.
Maymuru, 35, was just a kid when his grandfather, a former Australian of the Year, and his Yothu Yindi band mates were busy becoming an international phenomenon. He learnt the ropes on tour with Yunupingu who, among many other places, performed for the United Nations in New York for the 1992 launch of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People.
Apart from a temporary detour which saw Maymura move to Melbourne to play country Aussie Rules — he returned to the Northern Territory because Victoria was too cold — he has always wanted to make music. The 10-member East Journey is made up of many blood relatives with whom he grew up, all related in one way or another to Dr Yunupingu.
Triple J has described the group, which uses traditional instruments such as the yidaki and bilma, or didgeridoo and slapsticks, alongside modern instruments such as the acoustic or electric guitar, as sounding like a mix between Yothu Yindi and Pearl Jam.
They are mentored by original Yothu Yindi members Ben Hakalitz, Buruka Tau and Stu Kellaway.
The core members include Gathapura Mununggurr, Marcus Marawili, Patrick White, Arian Pearson, Ngalkanbuy Mununggurr and Malngay Yunupingu.
Last year was a big one for them.
Their second album, The Genesis Project, was heralded as one of the most significant indigenous music releases of the year. It was produced by LA rocker and music producer Steve Salas whose credentials include Mick Jagger, Aerosmith and Justin Timberlake.
And together with renowned didgeridoo player Djalu Gurruwiwi, the group won the “traditional” award at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin.
Maymuru learnt the ropes of performing on tour with Yothu Yindi and says his grandfather also gave him some valuable advice about writing songs. It obviously stuck because as well as writing his own material, Maymuru penned the song, Bayini, which gave fellow Arnhem land singer Gurrumul his first number one ARIA hit in 2013.
He says his grandfather told him: “One thing about writing a song is it’s not what you think, it all comes from your heart. What you see and what you feel. That’s the song’.”
Maymuru used to have a special place where he would write his songs, but now feels confident writing them wherever the urge comes to him. Like it came to him with Changes in Your Life.
Maymuru says he talks to his children about the changes and says it’s something that should concern everyone.
“Like an individual life when people grow up in a coastal area, even inland, they see changes,” he says. “Sometimes they think that change won’t come, but it’s happening. The change is coming. The land itself is telling us that the change is coming. The land itself is changing as well as everyone is changing…
“There are people who live very much like us for thousands of years,” he says. “They see the changes too. Why can’t we all see that instead of one or two or three?”
* East Journey will perform at the Byron Bay Bluesfest on Friday March 26 on the Crossroads Stage. Original Yothu Yindi member Stu Kellaway will be on stage with them. They will also perform every day as a dance troop at the Boomerang festival which runs at the same time, from March 24 to 28, dancing with Bangarra performer Djakapurra Munyarryun. Bluesfest runs from March 24to 28.