Mr Gurruwiwi, globally-renowned master of the yidaki, dies in Arnhem Land

Mr Gurruwiwi, a renowned and celebrated master of the yidaki, more commonly known as the didgeridoo, has died in Arnhem Land after a long battle with illness.

He has long been considered the world’s foremost master of the yidaki, an instrument developed by the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land, and a symbol of Aboriginal Australia.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains an image of a person who has died. Mr Gurruwiwi’s family have given permission for his last name and image to be used.

Mr Gurruwiwi’s exact age at the time of his death was unknown, however it is believed he was in his late eighties.

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Mr Gurruwiwi’s mastery of the yidaki was passed down across generations and saw him travel the world.

Zelda Gurruwiwi, Mr Gurruwiwi’s daughter, said her family and the Galpu people were “feeling sad and feeling proud”.

“He shared that from his own heart to the world.”

Zelda Gurruwiwi sitting in her bedroom in Birritjimi.
Zelda Gurruwiwi at her home in Arnhem Land.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Ms Gurruwiwi said her father left a powerful legacy.

“We’re proud of him. Outside, physical, we’re sad. Inside, spiritually, bright,” she said.

“Sharing culture, he was holding that culture, living with that culture and he was walking with it.

“It’s all there, that life. You know what he said last minute to me? He said: ‘My work is done.'”

“He shared the love, kindness, happiness, laughter, joy, because he was living in a world that he came from.”

Mr Gurruwiwi walks in the bush.
Mr Gurruwiwi cut his yidakis from trees in his north-east Arnhem home.(Supplied: Ben Strunin)

A leader of the Dhuwa moiety Galpu clan of north-east Arnhem Land, Mr Gurruwiwi lived in Birritjimi on the Gove Peninsula, about 1,000 kilometers east of Darwin.

There, in north-east Arnhem Land, Mr Gurruwiwi’s father Monyu gave him the specific role as the primary custodian of the yidaki for his clan.

A man holds a didgeridoo in front of a house.
Mr Gurruwiwi crafted yidakis. His instruments became highly sought after by dealers, collectors and musicians.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Outside of his home, he took the yidaki, an instrument he called his “whole life”, to the world.

The sound of his yidakis has been described as being imbued with the power of lightning and thunder, and he became popularly known as a master of the instrument — a status burnished when Mr Gurruwiwi was chosen to make the yidakis for Yothu Yindi.


His instruments toured with the band and have been heard in studio recordings played on mainstream radio all over the world.

Mr Gurruwiwi was also known as a healer and a teacher, and those who came across him would often remark on his grand wisdom and wit, warmth and charisma, and larger than life presence.

Describing him as “irreplaceable”, Will Stubbs, the coordinator of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Center in north-east Arnhem Land, said Mr Gurruwiwi was a vital holder of knowledge.

“The yidaki or didgeridoo originates from here and the Galpu clan have primary responsibility for the songlines that detail that origin. As leader of that clan he vigorously promoted and defended that legacy.

“There are literally thousands of people from many overseas nations who have been welcomed into his modest family home to learn the intricacies of the instrument over the last 35 years.

“He is truly irreplaceable.”

‘We want people to start recognizing us’

Until his death, Mr Gurruwiwi lived in dilapidated housing at Birritjimi, where homes were built in the 1970s to house the managers of a Rio Tinto mining operation.

In 2020, he said his family’s pleas for safer housing had gone unheard for years: “We want people to start recognizing us, hear our voices,” he said.

The year before, the Royal Australian Mint adopted a design by Mr Gurruwiwi for a $1 coin.

A hand holds a new dollar coin last year featuring the design of Djalu Gurruwiwi.
An Australian $1 coin inlaid with the design of Mr Gurruwiwi.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

‘More famous in Japan and Germany’

Mr Gurruwiwi was the key consultant for the ‘Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia’ exhibition by the South Australian Museum, one of the most comprehensive projects to ever chronicle the instrument.

Yidakis featured in the South Australian Museum's 'Yidaki and the Sound of Australia' exhibition
Yidakis featured in the South Australian Museum’s ‘Yidaki and the Sound of Australia’ exhibition.(Supplied: South Australian Museum)

The exhibition examined the instrument as both iconic yet, inexplicably, underappreciated by wider Australia.

The South Australian Museum’s head of humanities John Carty has said First Nations Australians steered the museum to Mr Gurruwiwi to advise on the exhibition.

“The only way that [the museum] could do this with any integrity was to work with the real experts, [Mr Gurruwiwi, his family]’ and the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land],” Mr Carty said in 2017.

He said Mr Gurruwiwi changed the way the world saw his instrument and taught the nation more about the power and knowledge of his Yolngu people.

“[Mr Gurruwiwi] has been one of the men who has been really integral in the spread of the instrument, not only in Australia, but overseas.

“He’s more famous in Japan and Germany and overseas than he is in Australia, because he’s spent his life taking the instrument… around the world to share that knowledge and to use the instrument as a bridge between cultures.”

Mr Gurruwiwi and Gotye in the 2017 biopic 'Westwind'.
Mr Gurruwiwi and Gotye in the 2017 biopic ‘Westwind’. (Supplied: Soren Solkaer)

Film-maker Ben Strunin, who made a biopic of Mr Gurruwiwi and toured with him through Europe, told The Guardian in 2017 that Mr Gurruwiwi “desserves all the recognition of our most celebrated music stars”.

Zelda Gurruwiwi said the yidaki was “mystery, history” to her father.

“You can see trees coming, you can feel the breeze coming from north, east, west, south.

“That instrument took him far.”

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