Friends of world acclaimed Indigenous artist Dr G Yunupingu say he spent his last days before going into hospital living at an itinerant camp surrounded by people drinking on a Darwin beach.
The Arnhem Land musician and singer died in the Royal Darwin Hospital on Tuesday afternoon after a long battle with kidney and liver disease following childhood hepatitis B.
His lifelong friend and colleague from Darwin’s music scene, Vaughan Williams, has told the ABC he was horrified at the state of poor health he found Dr Yunupingu in at the beach camp last Wednesday.
He said he had been called by a health worker that day, who was worried Dr Yunupingu had missed a series of renal dialysis appointments, and was asked to find him.
“When I found him in this camp I was absolutely appalled at the state he was in because I’d known him since he was a teenager,” Mr Williams said.
“To see him in that state. He had wasted away. He was surrounded by drinkers.
“I work with a lot of people getting renal treatment and he was the worst I had ever seen.”
Mr Williams said he pleaded with the musician to come to hospital, “and he said, ‘the next day, my renal day’, and I agreed”.
“So the next day I brought three other friends and colleagues with me to reinforce that he needed to go to hospital because he was seriously ill in my opinion,” Mr Williams said.
He said he did not see Dr Yunupingu drinking himself.
Mr Williams said last Thursday the colleagues carried Dr Yunupingu out of the drinkers’ camp to their car and then to hospital, thinking he would pull through.
“The news that came last night completely shocked me. I was devastated. Everyone I know is devastated,” he said.
Mr Williams has lost count of how many clients and friends he has watched die from ill health after living in itinerant camps while working as a homeless outreach worker for the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation in Darwin over the past 10 years.
He believes it is an indictment on society that one of Australia’s most high-profile and awarded musicians has died after living in similar circumstances.
“He shouldn’t have missed one renal appointment. He shouldn’t have died,” Mr Williams said.
“He should have been in that hospital weeks before we managed to get him in there, and how that didn’t come about is what I’m questioning right now.
“Dr Yunupingu brought the Northern Territory to the world.
“We owed him a better effort. We owed him our compassion. And as a society we should be thinking: how did it come to this?
“That this amazing man with the disability of blindness, who achieved so much was here on this lonely stretch of Darwin coastline, dying, with people drinking around him.”
‘We all must take responsibility for Closing the Gap’
Mark Grose, the managing director of Skinnyfish Music, Dr Yunupingu’s record label, said the singer’s health issues stemmed from his childhood illness and “his early childhood marked him out for passing away early”.
“We have to redouble our efforts to Closing the Gap and we all need to be part of recognising that the Indigenous people that we are friends with, that we socialise with, that we work with, their life expectancy is not as great as mine as a non-Indigenous person,” he said.
“And I think all of us need to take some responsibility to help work towards better outcomes for Aboriginal people.”
Mr Williams said until he received the health worker’s call he was unaware of Dr Yunupingu’s living and health situation.
“I feel guilty for not realising he was in this predicament. And how he was in this predicament, I guess I’ll never know,” he said.
The two had worked together in Darwin at the city’s former community Music Development Centre since Dr Yunupingu was 15.
He recognised the brilliance when his brothers Cal and Todd Williams jammed with the young Dr Yunupingu in Darwin in their band Swamp Jockeys.
Cal Williams was lead guitarist in Yothu Yindi when Dr G Yunupingu played keyboard, guitar and percussion in the band.
“Yothu Yindi started by filling the gap between white music and Aboriginal music. But he was the icing on the cake,” Mr Williams said.
“His legacy is bringing everyone together and enjoying it for what it was: an amazing sound from an amazing musician who could play every instrument and sing like an angel.
“He has inspired many young and old Aboriginal people that if they work hard enough, whatever they choose to do, they can.”
In the hollow on the beach where Dr Yunupingu had been lying, Mr Williams and a colleague today poked a circle of casuarina branches into the sand, as a remembrance of their friend.