I can begin to talk about the didgeridoo, I have
to introduce some words that you may or may not
already be familiar with. The first is Yolngu (pronounced
Yol´nu). Yolngu is a group of languages spoken throughout
Northeastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territories,
Australia. The word literally means "people".
It is the word which the indigenous people from
that part of the land use to describe themselves
collectively. These people, the Yolngu people, are
the custodians of their land, art, songs and music.
They are the "traditional" keepers of
knowledge about these things and the traditional
owners of whom I speak in reference to the didgeridoo.
Their word for
the didgeridoo is Yirdaki (pronounced Yi´dakee).
When they speak of "Balanda", they are
referring to people like myself who are not Yolngu,
but rather of European heritage either culturally
or genetically. That word comes from their earliest
visitors, the Makassans. It is derived from the
world "Hollander" - a more recent visitor
to their lands, the Dutch explorers.
I talk about the history of the didgeridoo, I'm
talking about the awareness of non-Aboriginal people
of an instrument. The greater history is really
only known by a relatively small number of people
- the traditional owners. The traditional owners
history is far older and can not be told by outsiders.
It perhaps can be told to outsiders, but not by
them. This is because the culture the didgeridoo
comes from has its own way of keeping history and
of passing on information. Our way is different,
and in that different way I can only speak of what
has been reported about the instrument since knowledge
of it spread beyond the safe keeping of the traditional
can speak of what is written in text books and taught
in schools. This is the way my culture reckons history
and passes on information. I don't believe for a
minute that our way is better. It is, in fact ,
proven to be fallible and inaccurate. The Aboriginal
way is proven over thousands of years, while our
way has repeatedly found itself filled with contradictions,
misunderstandings and political agenda.
about the didgeridoo came to the world in stages
or "waves." These waves were: discovery,
anthropological studies, appropriation by contemporary
musicians, instrument sales and finally, internet
discussion lists and web pages. With each wave came
different aspects or "spins" on the information
which has taken on a life of its own.
Yothu Yindi Foundation, in a 1999 newsletter, eloquently
expressed an Aboriginal perspective on the issue
of appropriation of the instrument. "...Yet
Yolngu people are concerned
that the emergence of a global culture and the commercialization
of the Yidaki [sic] has the potential to separate
the Yidaki from its origins in the sacred stories
which are at the heart of the songs. Ritual leaders
of northeast Arnhem Land are calling for a new relationship
with Balanda which recognizes the centrality of
the Yidaki to the Aboriginal groups who by right
and tradition have the Yidaki as one of the instruments
of cultural expression." (Yothu Yindi Foundation
first wave: Discovery
Non-aboriginal people first
documented encountering the didgeridoo when an explorer
named T.B. Wilson described an aboriginal man playing
an instrument called the eboro in Raffles Bay on
the Coburg Peninsula in 1835. He described the instrument
as being made of bamboo and about three feet in
length. The earliest references to the instrument
all occur in the later part of the last century.
In the century that followed, the instrument was
observed by anthropologists on mainland Arnhem Land.
The hard wood instruments particular to Arnhem Land
(yirdakis) were usually crafted from eucalyptus
species like "stringy bark" and "woolybutt"
in the North, and Red River Gum further south near
Katherine. There is also documentation of didgeridoos
made of palm even further south. By the time anthropologist
Alice Moyle was publishing her field work in the
mid 1970s, aboriginal groups where using found pipes
such as land rover tailpipes and water pipes as
Second Wave: The Anthropologists
Information about the didgeridoo and the music to
which it belonged began spreading to the outside
world through the published accounts of anthropologists.
This was the start of a separation of the use of
the instrument from the cultural setting to which
it owes its invention. It started in the early part
of the last century and continues through present
day. But the anthropologists where documenting the
music through recordings, transcriptions of music
and descriptive prose. In 1974 Prof.
AP Elkin would
write, "From 1927 on I had seen corroborees
with their singing and dancing... but it was not
until I made a survey in 1946, almost around Arnhem
Land, that I realized the vitality and richness
of the singing and dancing of that region. I therefore
determined to make permanent records as soon as
possible, so that musicians and dancers would be
able to hear and see this part of Aboriginal culture,
even if only at second hand."
didgeridoo, as recently as 100 years ago, had a
restricted distribution in Australia. Earlier researchers
such as Elkin (1938) noted that it was "only
known in Eastern Kimberley and the northern third
of the Northern Territory". Although now played
around the globe, traditional playing style and
technique is confined to this region.
a mago (didgeridoo)
tremendous body of documentation resulted from these
studies which included descriptive texts, field
recordings and musical transcriptions. This work
continues today revealing subtle changes in the
instrument's distribution, influences from current
events and recording technology which has improved
dramatically since the early days. Field recordings
were made commercially available and drew interest
from a broader audience, but a lot of the attention
focused on the instrument known as the didgeridoo
rather than the musical and cultural context in
was in. The recordings often featured demonstrations
of the sounds and rhythms of the didgeridoo rather
than its role as an accompaniment. Intended to showcase
the instrument's range of harmonics and rhythmic
accuracy, often these demonstrations (or solos)
where mistaken to be traditional works by listeners.
The notion of the didgeridoo as an instrument of
self expression began forming in western minds.
a typical performance will consist of one or more
singers (one of whom is the lead songman), each
with a pair of sticks or something else percussive
(at times makeshift) and one didgeridooist. Some
genres of music do not use didgeridoo, but where
used, only one is ever played at a time. If for
some reason a didgeridooist is unavailable, the
piece can still be performed.
Third Wave: Musicians
In the mid to late 1960s several
musicians started to reference the didgeridoo in
their lyrics and include them in songs. Clancy Dunn's
"Didgeridoo" song remains one of my favorites
to this day. Rolf Harris' "Tie Me Kangaroo
Down Sport" contained one verse which contained
the "new" word, "Didgeridoo",
and that song did as much for the word didgeridoo
as what Men at Work would later do for Vegemite™
in terms of introducing it to global usage. What
could, to the rest of the world, be more Australian
than Vegemite™ and the didgeridoo?
Western music has an aspect to it which is commercial.
It's quite common today to hear musical works referred
to as "product" and rated according to
"commercial viability". Use of instruments
from older indigenous cultures became very popular
in the closing decades of the last century spawning
an entirely new category of commercial music called
"World Fusion" or "World Beat"
and "New Age". It is in recordings from
these genres that most people first heard the instrument.
An entire genre exists now in many shops as "Didgeridoo
Music". Amongst some recording artists the
rush to record a CD of "Didgeridoo Music"
was almost a mission imperative resulting in hundreds
if not thousands of CDs becoming available to the
consumer almost overnight.
boys at Yirrkala,
N.E. Arnhem Land
On the streets of cities throughout the world are
performers playing didgeridoo with various levels
of ability. One of the most fascinating acts I've
seen is a man named Ted Watkins, who juggles whilst
balancing the didgeridoo on his lips, eyes looking
skyward and playing it!
The didgeridoo has also successfully crossed genres
into trance (Trance Mission), Celtic (Reconciliation),
orchestral (Rencontres) just to name a few. But
a few artists have also felt a need to identify
their music with Australia and the indigenous population
so strongly that they have put misleading statements
in their liner notes or titles. Words like "Tribal"
and "Traditional" are found on the covers
of many CDs which have no traditional content. The
sampling of traditional music and using those samples
without permission or compensation has been done
shamelessly, and for the most part gone without
penalties. In the liner notes of many recordings
you will find a "history" or story about
the didgeridoo, so our history of the instrument
is constantly being "invented" in yet
another area: CD sales.
Fourth Wave: Instrument Sellers
With the global interest in
the didgeridoo accelerating, the demand for instruments
quickly, albeit briefly, surpassed the supply. The
market for instruments which could re-produce the
sound heard on CDs, television, radio commercials
and movie soundtracks had been established. But
the consumer wanted more than just the instrument.
They wanted help learning to play it and some kind
of understanding of the culture it came from. The
new industry was often more anxious to provide such
information than it was to verify and authenticate
what it said.
vast majority of consumers want cultural information
in so far as it validates their assumptions about
that culture. What started out as an instrument
primarily used by only a small group of indigenous
people became associated with all Australian Aboriginals.
These assumptions have placed the didgeridoo in
the middle of an imagined spiritual realm.
1980s to the mid 1990s, the separation of yirdaki
from the culture owning its traditions became
enormous. The misunderstandings about the culture
itself became homogenized in the popular press
and media. Ideas about who the traditional owners
are and what they are like was forged through
assumptions about them rather than direct contact
with them. But all that is in the process of changing.
The Last Wave: The Internet
In 1994, my research on
the didgeridoo led me to start poking around the
internet. In those days, the primary resource
to start with was the various internet news groups.
A small posting to one of the Australian groups
grabbed my eye. It was a modest announcement about
a mailing list called the didgeridoo Digest. I
subscribed and, to my amazement, hadn't missed
a lot. I was, in fact one of the first handful
of people to participate. In the following years
many websites were launched which contained elements
of all the previous waves of information (and
misinformation) about the didgeridoo. There were
didgeridoo exporters, didgeridoo makers, anthropologists,
students and musicians - all putting up pages
or extensive sites. The Dreamtime Web Server was
originally a creation of Sean Borman. It was the
first really complete resource on the web and
now remains one of the most visible sites under
the watch of Toyoji Tomita (founder of the Mills
College didgeridoo Digest Listserver).
sites authored and maintained from within the
Aboriginal Culture became available to anyone
with web access. Connections are being made via
email with people who have first hand knowledge
about the music, the instruments and the culture
in traditional lands of the didgeridoo. As traditional
people became involved with the World Wide Web,
their immediate reaction was one of shock and
dismay over the gap between the instrument and
the culture as they knew it to be.
should only serve to encourage more participation.
I find it interesting that today there is more
interest in traditional yirdaki than at any other
time I can recall. The contemporary techniques
of prolonged harmonic glides and wild vocalizations
are easy enough to pick up from contemporary recordings,
but the rhythmic power of traditional playing
which prompted Trevor A. Jones to call the didgeridoo
a "rhythm instrument par excellence"
are much harder to realize, perhaps impossible,
without first hand instruction. All of this has
the didgeridoo community, if you'll indulge me
one pun, abuzz.
beach at Nhulinbuy,
1999, the Yothu Yindi Foundation launched an event
which allows participants to camp on Yolngu land
and study yirdaki, matha (language) and crafts
in a five day immersion with the Yolngu people.
The Garma Festival is truly unique, but I think
it will be seminal in creating more opportunities
to learn directly from traditional people in much
the same way as they have through generations
of their own people. This is the future and the
history of the didgeridoo. Rather than being simply
co-opted from the culture and advanced separately,
it will surely lead non-aboriginal people closer
to understanding its source and its true history.
Musicians, instrument providers, educators and
web authors who are in communication with the
Aboriginal people have everything to gain and
nothing to loose from the increasing voice of
indigenous people. Those who continue to insist
that they are experts, pretend to speak for a
culture they are not part of, and make associations
with the culture that are fictitious, will become
obsolete. There is no reason for those practices.
There never has been. Contemporary didgeridoo
playing is firmly established and very popular.
But the traditions of the Aboriginal people are
not going to disappear. They will express their
human right to self determination and the expression
of their culture, language and knowledge in the
generations to follow.
Contemporary musicians, instrument sellers and
authors will only benefit from this fact if they
are willing to truly be responsive rather than
reactionary. Most important they must be prepared
to drop the role of de-facto cultural educators
at least long enough to become culturally educated.
Drury is a multi instrumentalist, composer,
teacher, instrument maker and author. Classically
trained as a trumpeter, Ed traded his trumpet
for an electric guitar and was a well known
side man and session musician on the west
coast for the better part of the 1970's.
In 1976, growing tired of road life, Ed
returned to school and took an associate
degree in Respiratory Care.
more than ten years, music took a back seat
while he branched into various roles in
health care. He quit his hospital job in
1989 to pursue his first love, the study
of various traditional music forms from
around the world. Today he combines his
experience with classical music and his
love for traditional music forms by composing
music inspired by his world travels and
training as a healer.