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DJ Gavin Campbell On Bringing Yothu Yindi’s ‘Treaty’ Message To A Younger Generation

Arnhem Land’s Yothu Yindi are one of the most important bands ever in Australian music – being famed for their enduring protest song ‘Treaty’. In 1991, Yothu Yindi enjoyed a global hit with a remix of ‘Treaty’ orchestrated by Melbourne DJ/producer Gavin Campbell. Now, over 25 years later, an EDM offshoot, Yothu Yindi & The Treaty Project (YYATTP), is breaking ground as a live act – next stop Brisbane Festival. “It’s got this momentum to it – it’ll even roll uphill,” enthuses Campbell, the project’s facilitator.

Yothu Yindi was formed in 1986 by Indigenous and white musicians. With the late Doctor M Yunupingu – a Yolngu man, activist and educator – as their leader, the group bridged Indigenous culture and rock ‘n’ roll. Doctor Yunupingu specifically penned ‘Treaty’ in response to a broken pledge. Indeed, during 1988’s contentious Australian Bicentenary, Prime Minister Bob Hawke declared that he’d arrange a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by 1990. To this day, politicians are contesting that constitutional acknowledgement. In the meantime, Campbell demoed a remix of ‘Treaty’ with his studio vehicle Filthy Lucre – and convinced Mushroom Records to release it. ‘Treaty (Filthy Lucre Remix)’ crossed over into the ARIA Singles Chart, reaching #11. It was also a club hit Stateside. Eventually, ‘Treaty (Filthy Lucre Remix)’ won the ARIA for “Single Of The Year”, notably pipping Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’. In 2012, Yothu Yindi were inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame. But, beyond the rock world, they have a significant heritage in dance music: ‘Treaty (Filthy Lucre Remix)’ is considered a seminal tribal house record.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of ‘Treaty (Filthy Lucre Remix)’, Campbell remastered the track for his Razor Recordings. More crucially, he curated new club remixes – Melbourne duo The Journey airing a tech-house banger (and Yolanda Be Cool a commercial offering). The idea of a live show came up. Elliot Rothfield, Strawberry Fields’ promoter, approached Campbell to see if some incarnation of Yothu Yindi might perform at 2017’s bush doof. “He actually said to me, ‘You know what? Yothu Yindi remixes are very popular with the crowd that comes to Strawberry Fields. Is there any chance of doing a live ‘Treaty’ moment?'” Campbell conferred with Yothu Yindi co-founder (and bassist) Stuart Kellaway, who was eager. They felt that YYATTP could deliver the ‘Treaty’ message to a young generation.

In YYATTP, Campbell and Kellaway assembled an inclusive new supergroup. “It’s a real family affair, this show,” says Campbell. In 2018, Kellaway is joined by fellow original members Witiyana Marika – who sings, plays bilma (clapsticks) and dances – and Kevin Malngay Yunupingu on yidaki (didgeridoo). As vocalists, YYATTP have welcomed bluesman Yirrmal (Marika’s son), folkie Dhapanbal Yunupingu (Doctor Yunupingu’s daughter), Kamahi Djordon King (aka cabaret artist Constantina Bush), and Yirrnga Yunupingu. They are complemented by the musicians Yimila Gurruwiwi (again, yidaki), multi-instrumentalist Ania Reynolds (Circus Oz’ Musical Director), and guitarist Roy Kellaway, Stuart’s son. Even the feted Indigenous singer/songwriter Shellie Morris has gigged with YYATTP – though, Campbell advises, she’s currently in China. Campbell is the electronics guy. “There was never any intention of getting this big show together. We thought, ‘Okay, we’ll do something for Elliot’s festival,’ but the operation demanded to be this size. So we put it together and then, of course, other people started finding out that we were doing this – like Queenscliff [Music Festival]. Queenscliff contacted us and said, ‘Oh, we’d love to have you!’ All of a sudden, we had five shows in November. Then the First Nations festival [Homeground] in Sydney asked.”

Live, YYATTP have evolved sonically. The challenge for Campbell & Co was to develop a way to combine Yothu Yindi’s manikay – traditional Yolngu songs – with the electronic elements. They resolved the potential incongruity by adding drummer Ben Hakalitz, another old Yothu Yindi cohort. “The main tweaking of the show has been in bringing Ben in, so that we can be really flexible and pay proper homage to the culture, the traditional culture, as well as the electronica that’s going on and the musicianship.”

Campbell is still circulating remixes from the ‘Treaty (25th Anniversary Remixes)’ pack – the latest, ‘Treaty ’18’, a “funky” hip-hop interpretation spotlighting MCs Baker Boy and Dallas Woods. Jakubi’s Jerome Farah produced it. “Danzal Baker is a real sweetheart – [a] lovely, lovely, lovely young man,” Campbell raves of the ‘Marryuna’ superstar. “I love his energy. When he yells out all those lines and raps and stuff, it’s compelling and attractive at the same time. I really liked to have someone like him rapping all over a brand-new version of ‘Treaty’. It’s quite a different version to the original remix we did. Dallas Woods also raps on it – he’s just taking off himself. So, yeah, we love the rap.” Campbell is gratified by the feedback to ‘Treaty ’18’ – issued in July to coincide with NAIDOC Week. “It’s getting a great reaction. Apple Music and Spotify featured it on the top of the new releases list the week we put it out… I mean, Justin Timberlake was below us [with ‘SoulMate’] and all that and so I’m thinking, ‘Yeah!'” However, he’s disappointed that triple j hasn’t playlisted ‘Treaty ’18’. “It’s an old song and it’s too long,” Campbell sighs. “Even though it’s fresh, and Dallas and Baker Boy are hot on triple j, they didn’t put it into rotation.”

There is a treat on the horizon: the UK DJ legend Carl Cox has likewise remixed ‘Treaty’. “It’s a killer mix – it’s a really, really strong mix,” Campbell reveals. “It’s all done. [But] I haven’t had the final version given to me yet, because Carl has been roadtesting it in Europe the last six weeks.” Incredibly, Cox dropped his ‘Treaty’ at the Dutch Awakenings Festival. Campbell praises the DJ for respecting ‘Treaty’s’ integrity. “He’s given us a techno version of the song we love. You know how DJs usually are like dogs pissing on a tree when they remix and you can’t recognise anything from an original? Not Carl. Carl’s actually given us what we want – and I’m rapt.” In fact, Cox’s ‘Treaty’ remix, due this summer, will be the last of the reworkings – following two Campbell himself completed with Nick Coleman. “We promised Yothu Yindi, we promised Mushroom and we promised ourselves, too, actually, that, once we put these mixes out, that’s it for ‘Treaty’. It’ll be the final word – and we move on to new music.” YYATTP will then focus on presenting their contemporary take on ‘Mabo’ – a tribute to the land rights hero Eddie Mabo initially heard on Yothu Yindi’s 1993 album Freedom. And YYATTP themselves are cutting an LP.

YYATTP is a fluid collective. Shane Howard, frontman of the band Goanna, has been a regular “special guest” at shows. Campbell met Howard at a Yirrmal gig in Geelong. The folk-rocker quizzed the DJ on whether he’d remix Goanna’s ’80s song ‘Solid Rock’, a rumination on colonisation. Campbell remembered that when devising YYATTP’s live set, envisaging “a big kind of gospel version of ‘Solid Rock’.” (That remix MAY surface on YYATTP’s album.) Alas, Howard won’t make Brisbane Festival. “After April – we did a Commonwealth Games show [at Festival 2018] up on the Gold Coast – Shane decided that he wanted to spend the rest of the year finishing writing the book that he’s been trying to finish for years. He has a few commitments – like he’s doing the Two Worlds Festival in Geelong in October. So he’s out and about, but we have to wait ’til next year for Shane to come back to us.”

YYATTP have major plans for 2019, with their first international dates happening in New Zealand. “We’re all just so keen to continue this on, because it’s just a really powerful experience for the audience,” Campbell says. “The audiences are really strongly behind it when we’re doing it live. So we’ve all made an agreement that we want to continue on… We’re really all gung-ho about the future.”

Catch Yothu Yindi & The Treaty Project performing live at Brisbane Festival 2018 later this month.

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