'National treasure' Yunupingu dies at 46

Lucy Hughes Jones and Tracey Ferrier
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Indigenous musician Dr G Yunupingu has died after suffering years of ill health.

Australia's most prominent Aboriginal musician, Dr G Yunupingu, has been remembered as a genius who used his gift as a tool for reconciliation and still had "so much left to give".

The 46-year-old singer died of a heart attack in a Darwin hospital on Tuesday after battling liver and kidney disease for years.

The softly spoken Yolngu man with a powerful voice had an ability to bridge cultures, touching the hearts of millions around the world while singing in his native tongue.

Blind since birth, he overcame many barriers to help mainstream society see the beauty of the world's oldest living culture while becoming the highest-selling indigenous artist in history.

Mark Grose, the managing director of Dr Yunupingu's record label, praised him as the "voice of a generation".

"We are reminded of the impact that such a quiet, unassuming musician has had on the world," he said.

"Dr G Yunupingu showed us that music is a powerful force for reconciliation ... he is a national treasure."

Mr Grose broke down in tears as he described his longtime friend as a humble, gentle soul with a cheeky sense of humour, doubting the world will ever see another musician like him again.

On behalf of Dr Yunupingu's uncle David Djunga Djunga Yunupingu, Mr Grose said relatives felt blessed that Balanda (white fellas) were able to understand, appreciate and share their culture through his music.

"This is a gift from Yolngu society. He was our gift," he said.

The composer from Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, first picked up a guitar at the age of six, learning to play it upside down because he was left handed.

The multi award-winner sold more than half a million albums and performed for the Pope, the Queen, and a former US president.

"When he was asked to perform for Barack Obama, his first question was: Who?" Mr Grose said.

As a teenager Dr Yunupingu joined indigenous band Yothu Yindi, fronted by his uncle M Yunupingu, who was Australian of the Year in 1992.

The songwriter's debut solo album in 2008 propelled him to global stardom, going triple-platinum in Australia and silver in the UK.

The self-taught artist traversed countless styles and instruments in his collaborations, melding his traditional sound with anything from classical music to rap, while performing alongside the likes of Elton John and Sting.

The Gumatj clan member was named the Northern Territory's Australian of the Year in 2009, and received an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Sydney in 2012.

That same year Dr Yunupingu had to cancel a number of European concerts due to illness, including a show at the London Olympic Games.

Midnight Oil frontman and former federal government minister Peter Garrett toured with Dr Yunupingu and said his "dear friend" died too young and with "so much left to give".

It's been labelled a tragedy that an icon at the height of his career could succumb to chronic illnesses plaguing so many disadvantaged indigenous people, and Mr Grose called it a stark reminder of the need to close the gap of life expectancy for Aboriginal Australians.

"We've got to redouble our efforts ... all of us need to take some responsibility," he said.

The Galiwin'ku community leader leaves a legacy through his self-named foundation, which aims to create opportunities for indigenous kids in remote areas.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lauded Dr Yunupingu as a "remarkable Australian sharing Yolngu language with the world through music".

His family have been offered a state funeral.