Monday, January 1, 7500

Australia - Didgeridoo (c. AD 500)

The Commonwealth of Australia is a country in the southern hemisphere comprising the mainland of the world's smallest continent, the major island of Tasmania, and a number of other islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The neighboring countries are Indonesia, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea to the north, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia to the north-east, and New Zealand to the south-east. Australia is the only country that is also a continent.

The Australian mainland has been inhabited for more than 42,000 years by indigenous Australians.

The didgeridoo (or didjeridu) is a wind instrument of the Indigenous Australians of northern Australia. It is sometimes described as a natural wooden trumpet or "drone pipe." Musicologists classify it as an aerophone.

David Hudson - Yigi Yigi (Didgeridoo Music)

A didgeridoo is usually cylindrical or conical in shape and can measure anywhere from 1 to 3 m (3.2 ft to 9.8 ft) in length with most instruments measuring around 3.9 ft. Generally, the longer the instrument, the lower the pitch or key of the instrument. Keys from D to F♯ are the preferred pitch of traditional Aboriginal players.

[Ayers Rock (Uluru), Northern Territory, Australia]

There are no reliable sources stating the didgeridoo's exact age, though it is commonly claimed to be the world's oldest wind instrument. Archaeological studies of rock art in Northern Australia suggests that the Aboriginal people of the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory have been using the didgeridoo for about 1500 years, based on the dating of paintings on cave walls and shelters from this period. A clear rock painting in Ginga Wardelirrhmeng from the freshwater period (1500 years ago until the present) shows a didjeridu player and two songmen.

"Didgeridoo" is considered to be an onomatopoetic word of Western invention.

It has also been suggested that it may be derived from the Irish words dĂșdaire or dĂșidire, meaning variously 'trumpeter; constant smoker, puffer; long-necked person, eavesdropper; hummer, crooner' and dubh, meaning "black" (or duth, meaning "native"). However, this theory is not widely accepted.

The earliest occurrences of the word in print include the 1919 Australian National Dictionary, The Bulletin in 1924, and the writings of Herbert Basedow in 1926. There are numerous names for this instrument among the Aboriginal people of northern Australia, with yirdaki one of the better known words in modern Western society. Yirdaki, also sometimes spelled yidaki, refers to the specific type of instrument made and used by the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land. In Western Arnhem Land, mago is used, although it refers specifically to the local version. Many believe that it is a matter of etiquette to reserve tribal names for tribal instruments, though retailers and businesses have been quick to exploit these special names for generic tourist-oriented instruments.

Authentic Aboriginal didgeridoos are produced in traditionally-oriented communities in Northern Australia and are usually made from hardwoods, especially the various eucalyptus species that are endemic to the region. Sometimes a native bamboo or pandanus is used.

Generally the main trunk of the tree is harvested, though a substantial branch may be used instead. Aboriginal didgeridoo craftsmen spend considerable time in the challenging search for a tree that has been hollowed out--by termites--to just the right degree. If the hollow is too big or too small, it will make a poor quality instrument.

When a suitable tree is found and cut down, the segment of trunk or branch that will be made into a didgeridoo is cut out. The bark is taken off, the ends trimmed, and some shaping of the exterior then results in a finished instrument. This instrument may be painted or left undecorated. A rim of beeswax may be applied to the mouthpiece end. Traditional instruments made by Aboriginal craftsmen in Arnhem Land are sometimes fitted with a 'sugarbag' wax mouthpiece. This comes from wild bees and is black in appearance, with a distinctive aroma.

Didgeridoos are also made from PVC piping. These generally have a 3.81 centimetres (1.50 in) to 5.08 centimetres (2.00 in) inside diameter, and have a length corresponding to the desired key. The mouthpiece is often made of the traditional beeswax, or duct tape. Some have also found that finely sanding and buffing the end of the pipe creates a sufficient mouthpiece.

The didgeridoo is played with continuously vibrating lips to produce the drone while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing. This requires breathing in through the nose whilst simultaneously expelling air out of the mouth using the tongue and cheeks. By use of this technique, a skilled player can replenish the air in their lungs, and with practice can sustain a note for as long as desired. Recordings exist of modern didgeridoo players playing continuously for more than 40 minutes (Mark Atkins on Didgeridoo Concerto (1994) plays for over 50 minutes continuously), and some currently unsubstantiated claims peg times over one hour.

Fellow of the British Society Anthony Baines wrote that the didjeridoo functions " an aural kaleidoscope of timbres" and that "the extremely difficult virtuoso techniques developed by expert performers find no parallel elsewhere."

A termite-bored didgeridoo has an irregular shape that, overall, usually increases in diameter towards the lower end. This shape means that its resonances occur at frequencies that are not harmonically spaced in frequency. This contrasts with the harmonic spacing of the resonances in a cylindrical plastic pipe, whose resonant frequencies fall in the ratio 1:3:5 etc. The second resonance of a didgeridoo (the note sounded by overblowing) is usually around an 11th higher than the fundamental frequency (a frequency ratio somewhat less than 3:1).

The vibration produced by the player's lips has harmonics, i.e., it has frequency components falling exactly in the ratio 1:2:3 etc. However, the non-harmonic spacing of the instrument's resonances means that the harmonics of the fundamental note are not systematically assisted by instrument resonances, as is usually the case for Western wind instruments (e.g., in a clarinet, the 1st 3rd and 5th harmonics of the reed are assisted by resonances of the bore, at least for notes in the low range).

Sufficiently strong resonances of the vocal tract can strongly influence the timbre of the instrument. At some frequencies, whose values depend on the position of the player's tongue, resonances of the vocal tract inhibit the oscillatory flow of air into the instrument. Bands of frequencies that are not thus inhibited produce formants in the output sound. These formants, and especially their variation during the inhalation and exhalation phases of circular breathing, give the instrument its readily recognisable sound.

Other variations in the didgeridoo's sound can be made with "screeches." Most of the "screeches" are related to sounds emitted by Australian animals, such as the dingo or the kookaburra. To produce these "screeches," the player simply has to cry out (in the didgeridoo of course) whilst continuing to blow air through it. The results range from very high-pitched sounds to much lower guttural vibrations.

The didgeridoo is sometimes played as a solo instrument for recreational purposes, though more usually it accompanies dancing and singing in ceremonial rituals. For Aboriginal groups of northern Australia, the didgeridoo is an integral part of ceremonial life, as it accompanies singers and dancers in religious rituals. Pair sticks, sometimes called clapsticks or bilma, establish the beat for the songs during ceremonies. The rhythm of the didgeridoo and the beat of the clapsticks are precise, and these patterns have been handed down for many generations. Only men play the didgeridoo and sing during ceremonial occasions, whilst both men and women may dance. The taboo against women playing the instrument is not absolute; female Aboriginal didgeridoo players did exist, although their playing generally took place in an informal context and was not specifically encouraged. Linda Barwick, an ethnomusicologist, says that traditionally women have not played the didgeridoo in ceremony, but in informal situations there is no prohibition in the Dreaming Law.

Some sources state that the didgeridoo had other uses in ancient times. The instrument made a decent weapon because of its length and light weight and it was used for war calls to intimidate the opposing side (much like the bagpipes of Scotland). It is also suggested that the instrument was used as a large smoking pipe, where local, hallucinogenic cacti were crushed and placed in the larger opening and smoked through the smaller end by the local elders after ceremonies.

The didgeridoo was also used as a means of communication across far distances. Some of the sound waves from the instrument can be perceived through the ground or heard in an echo. Each player usually has his own base rhythm which enables others to identify the source of the message. These secondary uses of the instrument have ceased in modern times as there is no more warring between tribes, and the illegalization of drugs in Australia.

There are sacred and even secret versions of the didgeridoo in Aboriginal communities in parts of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and the surrounding areas. These sorts of instruments have specific names and functions and some of these are played like typical didgeridoos whereas others are not.


David Hudson is an Australian Aboriginal musician. He is a member of the Tjapukai tribe of Kuranda, Queensland. His primary musical instrument is didgeridoo, and he also plays guitar. He plays traditional music, as well as more ambient and new age collaborations with musicians from other parts of the world.

[7538 Buddhism in Japan / 7500 - Australia]