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.
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:
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?
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!
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.