Droning on…


On Saturday the manservant and I went to a Didgeridoo demonstration & workshop.  The guy demonstrating was an American,  was self taught, and has never been to Australia.   But, he has been playing and educating about the didgeridoo for more than 10 years and was pretty good. IMG_0402

The word didgeridoo is an onomatopoetic word  – its name is based on an interpretation of the sound it makes.   Westerners translated the sound di-ta-ri-doo  into the word digeridoo.  Other spellings are didjeridoo and didjeridu but, whichever way you spell it, it is the Balanda (white man)’s name for a yidaki.

There is some uncertainty as to how long the Aborigines have been playing the didgeridoo with estimates being 1,000 – 2,000 years based on cave & rock paintings in the Northern Territory.   They are made from small trees which have been naturally hollowed out by termites.   Termites burrow into the ground at the base of a eucalyptus tree to lay their eggs and when the larvae hatch they munch away inside the tree leaving a hollow “shell”  as they travel upwards.   Most yidaki are made from Stringybark, but Wollybutt and Bloodwood are also used.  (aren’t those great names!).

An experienced yidaki maker will  remove a small piece of bark and hit the tree with his finger, or a tool, listening for a sound that indicates hollowness.   They can tell from the sound how hollow the tree is and where to cut into it.

There are different regional names for the yidaki –  for example in Groote Eylandt it is called a ngarriralkpwina and on Mornington Island a djibolu.    Our teacher called this one his “blue jeans”  –  he mixed many strips of old denim with epoxy and moulded it into shape:    IMG_0405

To play the didgeridoo you need to master circular breathing while continuously vibrating your lips inside the tube!    Circular breathing requires you to breathe in through your nose and simultaneously expel air out of your mouth using your tongue and cheeks.   Now, doesn’t that sound easy? IMG_0403

Once you’ve got a continuous drone happening you make it more interesting by adding vocalizations:  humming,  yipping like a dingo,  heralding like an elephant, chirping like a bird;   while vibrating your lips against the didgeridoo *and* circular breathing.    While I can make a good drone I can’t do a full circular breath let alone organize my vocal chords to make a sound as well!

A didgeridoo can measure anywhere from 3′ – 10′ .  The longer it is the lower the pitch;  flared didgeridoos have a higher pitch than unflared of the same length.    These are our didgeridoos.  The manservant’s  is made from Bloodwood and is just over 5′ long;  I’m not sure what tree my shorter one is made from.     We’ve had these for about 7 years and while the manservant is pretty good on his I remain an absolute total beginner!IMG_0418

Traditionally, during ceremonies,  only men play the didgeridoo.  Females are not actively encouraged by Aboriginal elders to play the didgeridoo but women do play informally.

The clapsticks he is using are called Pair sticks, or bilma  and are used to establish the beat.




16 responses

    • The Aboriginal history is really fascinating. I’m sorry that we didn’t learn more about them when I was at school – we basically overlooked their culture and concentrated on the British Empire.

    • The taboo topic is interesting….

      Linda Barwick, an ethnomusicologist wrote in “The Didgeridoo, From Arnhem Land to Internet” (1998)
      ‘While it is true that in the traditional didgeridoo accompanied genres of Northern Australia, (e.g. Wangga and Bunggurl) women do not play in public ceremony, in these areas there appears to be few restrictions on women playing in an informal capacity. The area in which there are the strictest restrictions on women playing and touching the Didgeridoo appears to be in the south east of Australia, where in fact Didgeridoo has only recently been introduced. I believe that the international dissemination of the “taboo” results from its compatibility with the commercial agendas of New Age niche marketing.

      In a discussion with men from Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar and Gunbalanya it was agreed that there was no explicit Dreaming Law that women should not play Didgeridoo, it was more that women did not know how to. From Yirrkala, there are reports that while both boys and girls as young children play with toy instruments, within a few years, girls stop playing the instrument in public. There are reports that women engage in preparation of Didgeridoos for sale to tourists also playing instruments to test their useability. Reports of women playing the Didgeridoo are especially common in the Kimberley and Gulf regions of the Westerly and Easterly extremes…..’

  1. I’ve always enjoyed the sound of a didgeridoo and I’ve attempted to play one once. I used to have a fair ability with circular breathing (I played a lot of instruments as a kid, the best being cornet) — only fair but it helps.

    Great post explaining a lot more !

  2. The cornet! That’s very cool – both the cornet and didgeridoo are aerophones. I had a short exposure (1 year) learning the clarinet. My interest lay more in the piano which I learnt for 7 years and didn’t make my face go red when playing!

  3. An old friend of mine loves his didges. He has 3 or 4 of them, all carved-out eucalyptus, and from Australia. He even took a trip to Cairns to visit an aborigine family, and was given honorary membership in their clan. He also has an amazing spirit painting – it’s huge.

  4. Firstly, I agree with your reply to Margy…it is a pity we never learned any Aboriginal history or culture in school….it was like everything that happened before Captain Cook arrived was of no consequence.
    The didge sounds good along with other modern instruments in a band too…..we had a touring group here a while back….drums, guitars and violins and a didge. Superb music.
    Thanks for the cultural details, most of which I was unaware of.

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