Djalu Gurruwiwi

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Djalu Gurruwiwi
Bornc. 1935
Died12 May 2022(2022-05-12) (aged 86–87)
Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Known forPlayer and maker of yiḏaki, artist, leader of the Galpu clan
RelativesGalarrwuy Yunupingu (brother-in-law)

Djalu Gurruwiwi, also written Djalu (c. 1935 – 12 May 2022), was a Yolngu man from Arnhem Land in northern Australia, known worldwide for his skill as a player, maker and spiritual keeper of the yiḏaki (didgeridoo). He was also a respected artist, with works in several galleries.


Gurruwiwi was born at the mission station on Wirriku Island (also known as Jirgarri), one of the smaller islands in the Wessel Islands group.[1] He has also self-reported being born on Milingimbi Island (also known as Yurruwi, in the Crocodile Islands),[2][3] with both of these island groups being off Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Australia. His date of birth is uncertain (the missionaries recorded his and two brothers as having the same birthdate – officially 1 January 1930), estimated c.1940[1] or probably earlier.[4]

He was given the European name "Willie" at some point, "Wulumbuyku" was another Aboriginal name, and his skin name was Wamut. His father was Monyu Gurruwiwi and his mother Djikulu Yunupingu.[5]

He was a member of the Gälpu clan, of the Dangu language group of the Yolngu peoples. He grew up living a traditional life in the remote area, hunting turtles with his father on a lipalipa (dug-out canoe), and with little contact with "balanda" (white people).[1] He remembered Japanese bombers dropping bombs on his homeland during World War II, and later working alongside Japanese pearlers.[6] The family, along with others in the clan, spent long periods on the remote island of Rrakala. They travelled across the chain of Wessel Islands from Nhulunbuy in dug-out canoes, using carved wooden paddles.[7]

As a young man Gurruwiwi lived on Galiwinku (Elcho Island), working as a lumberjack, cutting large trees by hand. He was also given the responsibility for carrying out punishment for tribal law,[1] becoming both respected and feared.[7]

After a period when he succumbed to the destructive effects of alcohol after it was introduced to the remote areas, he says he was visited by a spirit in gaol one night and "found Jesus". He gave up drinking and devoted his life to the yiḏaki and spiritual and other studies.[7] In 1994 he completed studies in Christian theology at Nungalinya College in Darwin, and became a respected Yolŋu lawman as well as a Christian leader.[1]

As of 2020, Gurruwiwi and his family, along with some other members of the Galpu clan, lived at Birritjimi (also known as Wallaby Beach) on the Gove Peninsula They live in homes constructed in the 1970s to provide accommodation for Rio Tinto mining executives, handed over to traditional owners represented by Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation in 2008. The houses are in very poor condition and are facing demolition, as they are no longer deemed safe. The Northern Territory Government is providing emergency repairs, but says that the Northern Land Council is responsible for the maintenance of the homes. Rirratjingu has applied for funds to help move the residents to Nhulunbuy, Gunyangara and Yirrkala, but Djalu and his son Larry were reluctant to leave Birritjimi.[8]

Gurruwiwi died in Arnhem Land after a long illness on 12 May 2022, believed to be aged in his late 80s.[4]


Gurruwiwi's wife is a sister of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and they have several sons[9] and at least one daughter, Zelda.[4]

His son Larry Larrtjaŋga Gurruwiwi is the future spiritual keeper of the yiḏaki[10] and custodian of the Yolngu songlines and healing techniques passed down by his father.[11][12] He featured as a didgeridu player in the feature film Jindalee Lady (1992), directed by Aboriginal director Brian Syron (credited as Larry Yapuma Gurruwiwi).[13][14]

Larry and Andrew Gäyalaŋa Gurruwiwi led the Bärra West Wind band, with Jason Guwanbal Gurruwiwi, Vernon Marritŋu Gurruwiwi, Dion Marimunuk Gurruwiwi, and Adrian Guyundu Gurruwiwi also listed as members of the band in 2010.[Note 1][15][16] The band and Larry are featured in the 2017 film Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy.[9]

Larry, Jason and Vernon, in their new band, Malawurr, performed in Melbourne in June 2019 to help raise funds for the new film, Morning Star (see below) ahead of their first European tour, playing at WOMAD in the UK and other festivals in England and France.[17] The band was scheduled to give a yiḏaki workshop and performance at the Rainbow Serpent Festival at Lexton, Victoria on 26 January 2020.[18]

Music, culture and law

Gurruwiwi spent much time over several decades crafting his instruments and refining his technique. He sold his pieces to the local community arts centre, and various non-Indigenous workers and visitors.[5]

Gurruwiwi was a senior member of his clan, having learned to play and make the yiḏaki from his father, Monyu, an important leader and warrior. Monyu gave Djalu the role of primary custodian of the yiḏaki for his clan, which is significant also for the wider Yolŋu communities, because other Arnhem Land clans see the Gälpu clan as one of the primary custodians of the instrument. However, there are many other Yolŋu people with the same role within their own clan, and their own particular type of yiḏaki.[1]

Upon the death of his father, Djalu assumed the role of the elder responsible for passing on the skills as well as the cultural importance of the instrument. He became known among his people as the senior player and maker of the yiḏaki after attending many ceremonies with his brothers, who were singers, and also became fully informed in Yolŋu law. Much of the knowledge and cultural practice that he acquired is held sacred, so Gurruwiwi is held in high esteem.[1]

In 1986, his reputation as craftsman was given a world stage when several of his friends and relatives formed the musical group Yothu Yindi, and commissioned Gurruwiwi to make their yiḏakis. Yothu Yindi has both Yolŋu and balanda members and spanned cultural boundaries, going on to win several ARIA awards and international fame.[5]

Gurruwiwi's source of spiritual power has been linked to Wititj, the huge ancestral rainbow serpent. In the clan legends, the Wititj was said to create thunder and lightning as it moved across the land, but is also associated with the calm freshwater systems where the spirits reside, among water lilies and palm trees. The yiḏaki sometimes also contain these qualities: some have powerful acoustics, called baywarayiḏaki, (the power of lightning and thunder); others are Djuŋgarriny, long and deep-sounding, with a gentle, soothing sound, but also powerful: the vibrations are said to stir Wititj.[1]


Guruwiwi's art includes printmaking and earth pigments on stringybark (also known as bark paintings). He was also a painter of sacred miny'tji and a maker of sacred raŋga, objects rarely seen by outsiders.[1]

Gurruwiwi is a respected artist, with his bark paintings on eucalyptus bark being acquired by numerous important institutions, including the National Gallery of Victoria,[19] the Art Gallery of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia and many private collections. His work has been included in numerous exhibitions since 1990.[1][5]

Some of his themes, styles and types of work include:[5]

Tours and performances

Gurruwiwi delivered the first Yiḏaki Masterclass at the inaugural Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures (held at Gulkula, a significant Gumatj ceremonial site about 40 kilometres (25 mi) from the township of Nhulunbuy) in 1999, and has delivered all subsequent Yiḏaki Masterclasses at the Festival since.[5][20]

He has attended numerous other festivals and events both in Australia and abroad, including:[1][5]

  • 2002 Rripangu Yiḏaki Festival, Eisenbach, Germany
  • 2003 Joshua Tree Festival, USA
  • 2003 Indigenous Peoples Commission cultural visit, Taipei, Taiwan
  • 2004 Dubai Sister Cities Forum, United Arab Emirates
  • 2005 Yiḏaki Festa 2005, Okuhida & Tokyo, Japan
  • 2005 Played for Nelson Mandela in Sydney
  • 2007 Mulu Music Festival, Mooloolaba, Australia

At the 2015 edition of Womadelaide, he participated in an "Artists in Conversation" session as well as a performance that included Gotye and the Bärra (West Wind) musicians in Adelaide, South Australia.[21]


Guruwiwi won the 2015 National Indigenous Music Award in the Traditional Song of the Year category, with East Journey, for Mokuy & Bonba.[1][22]

Partial discography

Gurruwiwi's music released on CD includes:[5]

  • Waluka: Gurritjiri Gurriwiwi, featuring Djalu Gurruwiwi. Traditional music from north-east Arnhem Land, Volume 2. Yothu Yindi Foundation – Contemporary Masters Series, 2001
  • Djalu teaches and plays yidaki (didjeridu). Traditional music from north-east Arnhem Land, Volume 3. Yothu Yindi Foundation – Contemporary Masters Series, 2001
  • Djalu Plays and Teaches Yidaki, Volume 2 (Songs and Stories from the Galpu Clan). Traditional music from north-east Arnhem Land, Volume 6. Yothu Yindi Foundation – Contemporary Masters Series, 2003
  • Diltjimurru: Djalu Gurruwiwi. ON-Records & Djalu Gurruwiwi, 2003

Films and videos

Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy

In 2017, Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy was released. It was directed by British filmmaker Ben Strunin, and also features Djalu's son Larry Gurruwiwi and multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Gotye.[9] Initially titled Baywara (Yolngu for "lightning power", which features as a theme),[21] the story tells of Gurruwiwi's need to pass on the sacred knowledge of the yidaki and its songlines, and Larry's initial reluctance to take on the role. The film's title echoes that of Larry's band, Bärra West Wind (Bärra being the Galpu name of the West Wind songline).[15]

The film played to full houses at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival.[23]


Gurruwiwi has also featured in other films:[5]

  • 2000 Yidaki. Directed by Michael Butler, narrated by Jack Thompson, produced by Michelle White for Discovery Channel[24]
  • 2014 In Between Songs. Written, directed, produced and co-edited by Joshua Bell and narrated by James Cromwell.[25] In 2006, Bell spent six months in Nhulunbuy with Gurruwiwi, his wife, his sister, and various family members who came and went; they also travelled to the remote island of Rrakala, where Gurruwiwi and his family lived for long stretches when he was a child.[7]

He also features in numerous YouTube videos, which attract tens of thousands of views.[26]

Morning Star

The maker of Westwind: Djalu's Legacy, Ben Strunin, was invited by Djalu and Larry Gurruwiwi to make a sequel to Westwind, which is as of January 2020 in the process of crowdfunding the film. It follows the brothers' band, Malawurr, on tour through England, Czech Republic, Wales and France in 2019. The film will also include Larry's participation in groundbreaking medical research, "to quantify the effects of the traditional vibrational sound healing that he was taught by Djalu".[11][12]


  1. ^ It is not known if Dion and Adrian are sons.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Djalu' Gurruwiwi" (PDF). Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre. 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2020 – via Hollow Logs Didgeridoos.
  2. ^ Rothwell, Nicholas (5 October 2002). "Mr Didgeridoo – Arnhem Land's latest international cult figure – The stringybark kids". The Australian.
  3. ^ Daley, Paul (8 September 2014). "The old man and the sea (and Gotye): the story of 'Australia's only guru'". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  4. ^ a b c Vivian, Steve (12 May 2022). "Mr Gurruwiwi, globally-renowned master of the yidaki, dies in Arnhem Land". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 12 May 2022.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Djalu Gurruwiwi". iDIDJ Australia. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  6. ^ Daley, Paul (17 December 2015). "Unravelling the mystery of Djalu Gurruwiwi, a living Yolngu legend". the Guardian. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d Bell, Joshua (13 April 2016). "Aboriginal Didgeridoo Legend Djalu Gurruwiwi, Elder of the Yolngu Tradition, Possesses a Profound Amount of Knowledge and Wisdom". Didge Project. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  8. ^ Garrick, Matt (3 October 2020). "Djalu Gurruwiwi's family may be forced to leave their Arnhem Land community of Birritjimi". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  9. ^ a b c "Westwind: Djalu's Legacy (2017) – The Screen Guide". Screen Australia. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  10. ^ "Larry Gurruwiwi and Malawurr". WOMAD. 9 February 2019. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  11. ^ a b "About Morning Star". Morning Star Documentary. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  12. ^ a b "What is Morning Star?". Morning Star Documentary. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  13. ^ "Jindalee Lady". Ozmovies. Retrieved 26 August 2021.
  14. ^ Jindalee Lady at IMDb
  15. ^ a b "Barra West Wind". triple j Unearthed. 1 January 2010. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  16. ^ Daley, Paul (16 March 2017). "'Didgeridoo is his voice': how Djalu Gurruwiwi embodies the sound of a continent". the Guardian. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  17. ^ "Malawurr (Arnhem Land) + Nai Palm at The Curtin, Melbourne on 30 Jun 2019". The Curtin. 30 June 2019. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  18. ^ "Special Guests – Larry Gurruwiwi and Malawurr". Rainbow Serpent Festival. 21 December 2019. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  19. ^ "Djalu Gurruwiwi – Artists". NGV. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  20. ^ "Everything you need to know about The Garma Festival in Arnhem Land". Australian Traveller. 19 July 2018. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  21. ^ a b "Bärra w/ Djalu Gurruwiwi & Gotye". WOMADelaide 2015. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  22. ^ "2015 Winners". National Indigenous Music Awards. MusicNT. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  23. ^ Munro, Kate L. (30 November 2018). "How filmmaker Ben Strunin captured Djalu Gurruwiwi's legacy". NITV. Special Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  24. ^ Butler, Michael; Thompson, Jack (2006), Yidaki, SacredOz Productions, retrieved 20 January 2020, Now on DVD
  25. ^ In Between Songs at IMDb
  26. ^ "Djalu Gurruwiwi search". YouTube. Retrieved 20 January 2020.

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