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Emblems of Aboriginal culture: The didgeridoo

Highly symbolic objects of Aboriginal culture, in this four-part dossier we shed some light on their origins, stories and other details that you cannot ignore.

There are over 200 distinct Aboriginal communities with their own dialects and customs. So not all Aborigines hunt with boomerangs or play the didgeridoo or sell dot paintings!

The didgeridoo: its origin

Although throughout the world the didgeridoo is an emblematic instrument of Aboriginal culture, it actually originated in a very small part of Australia: the northern part of the Northern Territory. Several hours’ drive from Darwin, in the tropical nature and harsh climate of Arnhem Land.

Researchers have suggested it may be the oldest musical instrument in the world. Some claim the didgeridoo has been in use for over 40,000 years, but the earliest verifiable evidence, in the form of rock paintings, of Aborigines playing the instrument has been dated to 3000-5000 years ago.

Until the early twentieth century, the didgeridoo had a limited distribution in Australia, known only in the eastern Kimberleys and the northern part of the Northern Territories. However, the strengthening of commercial infrastructure, in the form of roads, missions and other improvements to the transport system, allowed the art of didgeridoo making and playing to spread to most parts of Australia.

The first audio recordings of the didgeridoo were made in 1912 by Sir Baldwin Spencer. Didgeridoos are also mentioned in various ethnographic documents aimed at studying Aboriginal peoples, including the work of Donald Thompson on the Yolngu and of RM and CH Berndt in Arnhem Land.

In 1953, Tribal Music of Australia made the first commercial recording of the didgeridoo, recorded in the field by AP Elkin in Arnhem Land. It was later followed by “The Art of the Didgeridoo” by Trevor A. Jones in 1963. This was the first time that traditional Aboriginal didgeridoo playing techniques were performed by a non-Aboriginal person.

The Didgeridoo is said to be an adaptation of instruments marketed in India and/or Asia, which would explain why it was mainly used by the coastal tribes of the far north of Australia. Not all Aborigines play the didgeridoo.

One of the best-known Aboriginal ambassadors of the didgeridoo is Djalu Gurruwiwi.

Making the didgeridoo

The didgeridoo: its manufacture

Traditionally, didgeridoos were made from eucalyptus trunks and branches with an average length of 1.30 to 1.60m, dug by termites while they were still alive and then cleaned with a stick. Bamboos or pandanus can also be used.

In general, the main trunk of the tree is harvested, but a large branch can also be used. Even when the main trunk is used, the tree regenerates because eucalyptus trees regrow even when cut close to the ground.

Aboriginal craftsmen spend a considerable amount of time looking for a tree dug by termites, and of the required size. If the hollow is too large or too small, the instrument will be of poor quality. Termites attack living eucalyptus trees and only remove the dead heartwood from the tree, as living sapwood contains a chemical that repels insects.

When a suitable tree is found, it is felled and cleaned. The bark is removed, the ends are trimmed, and the exterior is shaped into the finished instrument.

A termite-pierced didgeridoo has an irregular shape that generally increases in diameter towards the lower end. This shape means that its resonances occur at frequencies that are not harmonically spaced. This contrasts with the harmonic spacing of the resonances of a cylindrical plastic pipe.

This instrument can be painted or left undecorated. Traditional instruments made by Aboriginal artisans in Arnhem Land are sometimes equipped with a wax mouthpiece, “sugarbag”. This wax, which comes from wild bees, is black and gives off a particular aroma.

Where does the word didgeridoo come from?

The name “didgeridoo” is not an Aboriginal word. It comes from white settlers who, when they first heard the instrument play, found the sound strange and confusing. They chose a name that corresponded as much as possible to this remarkable sound… and that gave “didgeridoo”: an onomatopoeia!

For Aborigines, the didgeridoo has dozens of different names (yidaki, mooloo, djubini, ganbag, gamalag, mago, maluk, yirago, yiraki), but the most popular are Mago and Yidaki.

Yidaki

The Yidaki

Present mainly in the northeast of Arnhem Land, it is characterized by its conical shape and its length (1.6m on average). All of these elements create a strong pressure favoring a style based on the Toot. (trumpet sound).

Mago

The Mago

More cylindrical in shape and often smaller in size (between 1 and 1.4m), the Mago is native to western Arnhem Land. Its shape gives it a rounder sound, in which the harmonics will be more developed.

Ceremony

The digeridoo: ritualized music

The didgeridoo is sometimes played as a solo instrument for recreational purposes, although most often in Aboriginal communities, the didgeridoo player accompanies the singer and the dancer during different ceremonies (initiation, death…). “Clapsticks” or bilma, establish the rhythm of the songs during the ceremonies. The rhythm of the didgeridoo and the beat of the “clapsticks” are precise, and these patterns have been passed down for many generations. During these rituals, the singer occupies the most important place, followed by the dancer and finally the didgeridoo player. The player is therefore far from having the first place!

During these rites, each individual tells the story for which he is responsible.

The myth was transmitted to them by an elder until the day when they must in turn transmit it to the next generation. This oral transmission has allowed communities to preserve incredibly accurate stories from generation to generation.

In a few Aboriginal groups, during certain ceremonies, only men played the didgeridoo, but in many groups, outside of ceremonies, men, women and children played.

Circular breathing

Play the digeridoo

Playing the didgeridoo involves continuously vibrating the lips to produce a drone sound while using a breathing technique called circular breathing.

This technique consists of inhaling through the nose while expelling the air through the mouth using the tongue and cheeks. Using this technique, an experienced player can fill their lungs with air without having to stop playing, allowing them to sustain a note for as long as they wish.

Australia’s northern coastal Aboriginal groups have developed the most sophisticated and technically refined playing styles. Groote Eylandt in North East Arnhem Land and West Arnhem Land is known for producing the best didgeridoo players in the world. In these regions, the compositions are rhythmically complex and multi-dimensional, extraordinary techniques. Traditional Aboriginal techniques are based on pulsating accents controlled by the tongue, throat and manipulation of the diaphragm.

Other variations of the didgeridoo sound can be obtained by “shouting”. Most “calls” are related to the sounds made by Australian animals, such as the dingo or the kookaburra. To produce these “screams”, the player must simply shout into the didgeridoo while continuing to blow air through it. The results range from very high-pitched sounds to much lower, throaty vibrations.

Didgeridoo today

The didgeridoo today

Today, didgeridoos are made from a wide variety of materials such as glass, leather, hemp fiber, ceramics, plastic, fiberglass, carbon fiber, carved solid wood , drilled trunks, dried/hollow agave stems, aluminum and other metals and just about any material that can be made into a hollow tube!

The didgeridoo is present in almost all styles of music: rock, jazz, blues, pop, hip hop, electronic, techno, funk, punk, rap, etc… There really is no limit to the use of this tool. Similar to the guitar, which originated in Europe, the didgeridoo is now owned, made and played by many people all over the world.

Trying out the digeridoo is something non-Aborigines should consider with sensitivity, as travelers are curious about how the instrument works. However, it is wise, if you are in the presence of ancient local Aborigines of the place you are visiting, to let them guide your actions.

While it is true that women do not gamble in public ceremonies, there seem to be few restrictions regarding women who gamble informally. The region in which there are the strictest restrictions on women playing and touching the didgeridoo appears to be in southeastern Australia, where in fact it was only recently introduced. The international diffusion of the “taboo” would seem to have been introduced with the commercial programs of modern marketing.

In 1996, the Aboriginal Australia Art & Culture Center in Alice Springs created the world’s first interactive online didgeridoo “university” and was featured by Bill Gates at the launch of Windows 98.

Buy a didgeridoo

Buy a didgeridoo

Each didgeridoo is completely unique based on the growth of the tree and how the termites have carved out the interior.

The easiest way to start narrowing your options and choose:

  • The finish: natural or painted. The finish of the didgeridoo does not affect the sound.
  • The type of wood or other materials: there are over 1000 types of eucalyptus throughout Australia. The different specific types of wood are similar to the appreciation of different finishes. It’s more of a personal preference and doesn’t really affect the sound.
  • The key and the length: The largest and lowest pitched didgeridoos are often difficult for beginners due to the amount of air it takes to play them.
  • the weight: this can be important if you have to transport it.
  • Mouthpiece: You don’t need a beeswax mouthpiece if the tip is smooth, but most players prefer to have one. It adapts the mouthpiece to your mouth.
  • Listen to the didgeridoo before buying it as they all sound different.
  • The price: The most important factors of the price are the effort put in by the manufacturer, the quality of the sound and the artistry of the instrument. Cheaper ones can be cut from trees and produced on a larger scale, allowing less time to be spent selecting and perfecting each didgeridoo. The more labor and craftsmanship in a didgeridoo, the more expensive it is.
  • First things first: make sure the didgeridoo is made in Australia. Unfortunately, there are inexpensive “made in China” copies.

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