The Didjeridu

The didjeridu is a wind instrument that originated in Northern Australia and is used by the Australian Aborigines. Simply stated, it is fashioned from a hollow branch of wood. Contrary to the popular belief that didjeridus were originally made out of Australia's indigenous eucalyptus tree, it is likely that the first didjeridus were constructed out of bamboo. "Bamboo" is a term still used by some Aborigines to refer to the instrument. In rock art, didjeridus are frequently depicted with rings or bands, possibly representing nodes in the bamboo. Didjeridus are also shown being held with one hand, giving the impression of a lightweight material, such as bamboo. (8: p. 325) A piece of bamboo is made into a didjeridu by knocking the membranes out at each node with hot coals and usually fitting beeswax on the narrow end to serve as a mouthpiece.

Eucalyptus is also used to make didjeridus. A branch of one of numerous species of eucalyptus is chosen including Eucalyptus tetrodonta, commonly called stringy bark, E. miniata, woolybutt, and E. camaldulensis among others. This branch is still on the tree, having been hollowed out by termites or "white ants" while still alive, contrary to the belief that the branch is thrown on a termite nest to be hollowed (10: p.15). It is possible that the latter practice is done, however, when ideal branches cannot be found on a tree.

In terms of construction the didjeridu is a fairly simple instrument. All that is necessary is a hollow tube with an appropriate mouthpiece for the player. In current times, didjeridus have been known to be made out of PVC or ABS piping, plastic golf-club liner tubes, glass, fluorescent light tubes, brass, the stalk of the Agave plant that has been split, hollowed out and glued back together, clay or any other material that can be shaped into a suitable tube. There is ongoing debate among didjeridu players as to whether natural materials are more desirable than man made materials such as PVC pipe, which is quite common due to the ease with which it can be made into a didjeridu (9: p. 155). People who prefer natural materials claim that the irregularity in the shape of the bore produces a richer sound. Those who are satisfied with man made materials claim that although the quality of the sound may vary, the variation is desirable. People who use natural materials sometimes challenge the authenticity of a didjeridu made from unnatural materials (3: p. 37). However, those who make and use the "inauthentic" didjeridus usually feel that the convenience and low cost outweigh the benefits of an "authentic" didjeridu.

The term "didjeridu" is not an Aboriginal one. Rather it is an onomatopoetic construction of a common sound produced from the instrument. It has various spellings including "didgeridoo," "didgeridu," and "didjeridoo," and although I have found "didjeridu" to be used most often, the other spellings are used frequently and without shame.

Because different Aboriginal tribes have different dialects, the term for "didjeridu" is not consistent throughout Australia. It has a different name for each tribe that uses it. Thus, it is very appropriate that non-Aboriginals address it by their own designated name because their use of the instrument varies from how Australian Aborigines used it.

How is the didjeridu played? The mouthpiece is placed over the players mouth to create a loose yet effective seal. The lips are then vibrated (see figure 1) or buzzed, much like the "raspberry" effect in which children engage. This produces the basic drone and most anyone can do it with a little practice, sometimes on the first try. Aboriginal children begin to play at a young age, but most never get above the intermediate level of playing. Those who master the instrument are rare and revered.

A didjeridu player cannot stop every minute or so to catch his breath and interrupt the song. The drone of the didjeridu must be kept continuous. This would necessitate the constant expelling of air from the lungs and past the lips. So when does a player catch a breath? The method of circular breathingis used, historically employed by aulo players in Ancient Greece and now by bagpipe players. Theoretically, a circular breather uses the air stored inside her puffed up cheeks to keep the out-breath going by pushing it out, while sneaking in a breath through the nose. Learning this method can be difficult for some players because as soon as one starts breathing in through the nose, the tongue automatically blocks off the throat and some people cannot conceive of how the sound will continue if their lungs are cut off. Once this psychological block is overcome, learning the method is only a matter of learning how to expel the air in one's cheeks in a speed consistent with the speed at which one's throat was expelling the air. Achieving circular breath is the first milestone in a player's didjeridu career because now the player can delight an audience without pause.

The drone of a particular didjeridu can only produce one note. That note is determined by the length and width of the bore (see table 1). The quality of the sound can be modified by varying the position of the cheeks and tongue and changing the speed at which the player forces air past his lips.

Further complexity past the basic drone can be added by vocalizing over the basic drone. Growls, shrieks, barks and other various animal calls can be produced, depending on the skill of the player. Truly, an infinite variation of sounds can be produced with the didjeridu, which allows a player to stretch his creativity to its limits.

Most commonly the didjeridu is believed to have originated in Arnhem land, located in northeast Australia. Here it is called the "Yidaki" by the Aboriginal tribe known as the Yolngu. Everyday folklore has it as the oldest instrument on earth, possibly 60,000 years old (7: p. 290).

The didjeridu appears in the rock art around 1000 B.P. This seems to be the most compelling evidence of a late intrusion of the instrument into Australia, as endorsed by Alice Moyle (1). If rock art was being made for at least 10,000 years it would not make sense for the didjeridu to appear so late, if it is as ancient and as powerful as some sources indicate. Although the absence of the didjeridu in early rock art does not rule it out as being an older instrument, lack of archaeological evidence prevents us from dating any further back. The closest we can get to pinning down the origin of this instrument, archaeologically is that one thousand years ago is was imported to Australia from Asia (4)

In the Aboriginal community, didjeridus are used for secular occasions as well as ritual religious ceremonies. However, they are painted only for special events. The paintings and decorations seen today on commercially sold didjeridus are a product of the tourist industry, above all else. The images painted on didjeridus for religious ceremonies often have mythological origin and thus can be subject to religious taboos. Because of this, the painting can only be done by or watched by the initiated; the paintings, which are commonly created with ochre paint, are washed off after the ceremonies. Sometimes the didjeridu is even destroyed.

The Yolngu tribe uses the didjeridu as an accompaniment for their clan songs that are performed at public portions of ceremonies such as male circumcisions and funerals. These songs are referred to as "clan songs" because each clan "owns" their own ancestral estate which is comprised of land, songs, designs, sacred words, ceremonies and ceremonial paraphernelia. Each clan has its own repertoire of songs which embody the ancestral history of that clan.

During the performance of a clan song, variably sized groups of men sing and accompany themselves with clapsticks. One male didjeriduist, called a yidakimi, accompanies them as well, usually a young adult or teenager that may be choosen because he is appreciated and respected for his musical skills within the clan . Ceremonial performances last anywhere from two or three hours to an entire day or evening depending on the occasion. These musical performances are built up from successions of hundreds of short verses which are from fifteen seconds long to one minute each. Between each verse there are short periods of rest or conversation. During this performance women and men dance.

The subject matter of the songs are various ancestral spirit-beings that are associated with a given clan. These beings can include flora and fauna; natural phenomena such as clouds and wind; cultural artifacts such as spears, canoe paddles, or speech; great ancestral hunters and ordinary people. The lyrics of a verse may refer to a behaviour or quality of these ancestral spirit-beings. The succession of song subjects through a given ceremony can recontruct the ancestral history of a clan, narrating or alluding to important events that occurred at particular places in the ancestral past.

A song verse is structured in three sections. The first introductory section consists of the lead singer establishing his clapstick pattern and singing the first lines of the song or perhaps singing information to the other performers about the song. In this first section the didjeridu player improvises a passage that begins with a few short staccato notes, which is a way of quickly adjusting the embouchure, the application of the lips on a wind instrument. These staccatos lead to a sustained note which lasts through the first section. The second section is the main body of the verse, where the singers sing, beat their clapsticks and the didjeridu plays. These components each have their own inner complexity specific to each song not relevant to the discussion here. During the second section the dancers may engage in movements which represent the subject or action of the song. At the end of this section the dancing, didjeridu playing and bilma beating all come to a synchronized halt. The concluding section of the verse consists of less metrically-bound singing.

The didjeridu plays an important role in this performance. Along with the singer's voice and the clapsticks, the didjeridu player establishes the rhythmic foundation of the verse. Sometimes he is also responsible for cueing structural changes within the verse for the benefit of other performers, although ultimately the song leader is responsible for such technical details.

Many variables influences the style of a didjeridu player. Steven Knopoff discusses these. He defines style as "the physical aspects of a player's sound and technique including the use of particular techniques, rhythmic patterns, timbral quality and overall rhythmic 'feel.'" Determinants of style then, would be factors of performance that are external to the actual production of sound but which may influence the style of playing.

One example is performance protocols as a main determinant of style. With such highly structured clan songs such as those described above, there are many elements of songs that the didjeridu player must deliver and which cannot be compromised for his whim. Although there is certainly room for improvisation, the didjeridu player's song must still conform to what is expected from him by the song leader. Another example is symbolic determinants of style. Different sounds produced by the didjeridu can be interpreted as sounds heard in nature. For example, in songs concerning Wuyal, the ancestral honey gather, the drone symbolizes the sound made by him. In other instances, a long overtone that is sometimes sounded to signal the starting of a verse can mean several different things, depending on the subject of the song. It can be imitating the cry of a dolphin, or the call-to-performance of an ancestral didjeridu player associated with the Morning Star. Vocal shrieks can represent a birds call. Such symbolic associations can affect the listeners perception of the sound and also the player's selection of which sounds to play.(6)

Trevor Jones suggests (5: p. 159) that hidden in the complex patterns of didjeridu music is a secret "language" used to communicate. He calls didjeridu playing "didjeridu playing-singing" because of the combination of blowing and vocalizing. He refers to recent as yet unpublished research that claims that "the vibration of the lips and vocal cords are essentially secondary, and to some extent incidental, manifestations of this basically "verbal" exposition." The combinations of alternating consonants and vowels, half-spoken, half-sung, that serve to identify specific didjeridu patterns among song leaders and players and the techniques involving blowing and singing that serve to execute these patterns reinforce the notion that a "psuedoverbal" communcation is inherent in some styles of didjeridu performance. Although it certainly seems possible that a language is or could be embedded in certain styles of didjeridu playing, the vocal nature of didjeridu playing does not necessitate the presence of communication. This is an interesting concept however, and definitely deserves further research.

There is much disagreement about all aspects of the didjeridu, including where and when it originated, who can play it, and for what it is played. This can be attributed to the apparent disunity of the various Aboriginal tribes scattered across the Australian continent. By asking different individuals from different tribes, many conflicting answers can be collected. Aboriginal people from different tribes claim different things; white men then interpret what they learn from Aborigines, and these claims are often different still.

Another common misconception about the didjeridu is that it cannot be played by women. This is a general statement that is true some of the time, but certainly doesn't convey the complex relationship between gender and the didjeridu. Once again, I refer again to a quote from Mandawuuy Yunupingu, "The Yidaki is a male-oriented instrument. In Yolngu society women are forbidden to play it as its origins are secret to men." (9: p. vii) This would seem to confirm the above stated "misconception." However, as has been stated, there is much disagreement from tribe to tribe and from individual to individual.

Linda Barwick researched to get to the heart of the matter and discerned that the situation is not as extreme as it first may seem. In areas where the didjeridu has only begun to be played by Aborigines in this century, to find a woman playing the didjeridu is not uncommon. In fact, a woman from one such area, the Gulf area, is featured on Alice Moyle's recording Aboriginal Sound Instruments (1978). It appears that women are welcome to play for their own or other's enjoyment and for non-totemic, non-ceremonial performances and that they help make didjeridus for sale to tourists. However, some such women are met with adverse reactions when they encounter Aboriginal men from other places, where the use of the didjeridu is part of their Dreaming and is governed by strict Dreamtime laws.

Moreover, some Aboriginal women will not let non-Aboriginal women play or even touch the didjeridu in order to protect the tradition. But it is pointed out that these kinds of attitudes are generally held in the South where it can be conjectured that they are a response to the greater loss of tribal land, language and culture going on there. Tribes from the North, where these things are not such a threat, are more tolerant of non-Aboriginal women playing the didjeridu. (1)

It is clear that the question of whether women, Aboriginal or not, should play the didjeridu is not simply whether the laws from the Dreamtime allow it. It is a complex problem involving preservation of tradition in the face of fast acting acculturation, where preventing non-Aboriginal women and even Aboriginal women from playing is seen as a way to preserve Aboriginal culture and a way to prevent it from becoming increasingly diluted.

The didjeridu does not seem, at first glance, to be an emphatic part of Aborignal lifestyle. Although it does play a definite role in the music for rituals and ceremonies ethnographers usually do not give more than a token paragraph or two to this unique instrument. The scant information about it usually consists of a mention of the Aboriginal belief that it is the oldest instrument on earth and its use as an accompaniment to singing or clapsticks (bilma) in ceremony. Schelberg comments "In the rich cultural life of the Yolngu, didjeridus play only a modest role." (10: p. 21) Only one ethnographic source (7: p. 290) attributes to the didjeridu the ability to "unite consciousness with the invisible laws and energy patterns of nature." Although many Aborigines see the didjeridu as nothing but an instrument for producing sound, as we delve deeper into the didjeridu community we will find many people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal who believe the influence of the didjeridu goes beyond just our ears.

Was the didjeridu traditionally used as a healing instrument? There is much conflicting evidence for this. Mandawuy Yunupingu, an Australian Aborigine says, "Yolngu people have long recognized the healing powers of the Yidaki" (9: p. viii). On the other hand, in an interview, David Hudson, an Aborigine from Northern Queensland who plays the didjeridu for a living, claims that the didjeridu is used in no such way in his homeland. (3: p. 36).

No mention is made in the ethnographies referenced that the didjeridu is used as a healing instrument by Aborigines. However, this practice would not be something that would fossilize, and given the sacred nature of such a practice, it is doubtful that this kind of information would be passed on to anthropologists. Lack of evidence for this practice does not mean that it did or did not exist traditionally, it just makes proving it quite a difficult task. Regardless of whether this was practiced traditionally, it is definitely practiced presently by Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals.

Yunupingu says that the Yidaki hold collective powers in the healing process. The vibrational energy of the sound supposedly "penetrates the mind" and inspires "inner spiritual oneness." (9 pp. viii) The Yidaki can also be used for physical healing as well as spiritual healing by placing the end of the didjeridu over the afflicted part of the body and the breath of the player is focused there. The physical vibrations of the didjeridu are strong and can definitely be felt. The effect of playing the didjeridu over a person's body is usually a positive one. Comments on the experience of having the didjeridu played over the body range from: it felt "weird," "cool," "good," or "wonderful," to "orgasmic!" (personal communication)

Schelberg notes (10: p. 59) that when asking Aborigines about the didjeridu and its role as a healing instrument, he is usually met with vague and evasive answers which admit to this use, but clearly leave no room for further discussion. This suggests that this knowledge is secret to Aboriginal tribes and is disclosed only to the initiated.

The appropriation, use, and propagation of the didjeridu by non-Aborigines has been the source of some disquiet among Aborigines. For starters, there seems to be a sense of animosity that Aborigines have towards non-Aboriginals who pick up the instrument and attempt to "weasel" their way into a culture with it. Because the didjeridu is deeply entrenched in the culture from which it arose, it seems to be difficult for an Aborigine to disassociate it from the ritual and Dreaming of which it is usually seen as being a part.

In the Aboriginal world view, every meaningful activity, event, or life process that occurs at a particular place leaves behind a vibrational reside in the earth, as plants leave an image of themselves as seeds. The shape of the land--its mountains, rocks, riverbeds, and waterholes--and its unseen vibrations echo the events that brought that place into creation. Everything in the natural world is a symbolic footprint of the metaphysical beings whose actions created our world. As with a seed, the potency of an earthly location is wedded to the memory of its origin.

The Aborigines call this potency "Dreaming" of a place and this Dreaming constitutes the sacredness of the earth. Only in extraordinary states of consciousness can one be aware of, or attuned to, the inner dreaming of the earth. (7: p. 1)

From this we can see that Aborigines take the earth and their actions on it very seriously. Thus, when an Aborigine sees a non-Aborigine playing the didjeridu, they expect to see it given the same respect they do, if not more. However, in translation between cultures, this sense of reverence is easily lost or neglected. In general, Aborigines see no problem with non-Aborigines playing the didjeridu, but they do see fault in people "being intrusive, saying they want to be part of cultural things that are distinctly Aboriginal." (3: p. 36)

It would be easy to understand why the Aborigines are so protective of the didjeridu and the place it holds in their culture if it were actually a tool used to reach the states of consciousness described in the above quote. This would make it sacred, possibly deified, as are the psychoactive plants used by some indigenous peoples to reach similar states. It is rare to hear an Aborigine speak of this side of the didjeridu because "its origins are sacred and secret to Yolngu men." (9: p. vii) However, in an interview, David Hudson says "Well, its been made and played by Aboriginals for thousands of years now. It's coming from the heart. It's coming from the land. It's a soul instrument. You feel it." Further, Mandawuy Yunupingu says, "The sound transfers peaceful vibrations that penetrate the mind and create inner spiritual oneness in an individual or group." (9: p. viii)

These are pretty strong statements, particularly the latter one. If the didjeridu does in fact have the potential to alter consciousness, it would be understandable that Aborigines would see it as more than "just an instrument," and their touchiness on the subject of its appropriation would be more fitting.

A study monitoring the brain waves of people listening to the didjeridu showed that with the sound of the didjeridu present, theta and alpha activity were significantly enhanced, "Thus, listening to the didjeridu possibly causes a deep relaxation and even trance-like state of the brain and consciousness." (11 pp. 17)

The didjeridu is clearly a controversial instrument in many respects. It is nearly impossible to pin down "the final word" on any aspect of it. Who should play the instrument and for what purpose it is played are both central questions to the didjeridu's place in Aboriginal and global culture, as the didjeridu is quickly finding its way to every corner of the planet.


(1)--Barwick, Linda
1997 Gender 'Taboos' and Didjeridus. In The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet (Neuenfeld, K ed.): 89-98. John Libbey & Company Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia

(2)--Fletcher, N. H.
1983 Acoustics of the Australian didjeridu Australian Aboriginal Studies (1): 28-37

(3)--David Hudson with Fred Tietjen
1997 The Didjeridu--A Portal To Culture. In The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet (Neuenfeld, K ed.): 31-38. John Libbey & Company Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia

(4)--Flood, Josephine
1997 Rock Art of the Dreamtime Harper Collins Publishers Pty Limited Group, Australia

(5)--Jones, Trevor A.
1983 The Traditional Music of the Australian Aborigines. In Musics of Many Cultures (May, Elizabeth ed.): 154-71. University of California Press

(6)--Knopoff, Steven
1997 Accompanying the Dreaming: Determinants of Didjeridu Style in Traditional and Popular Yolngu Song. In The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet (Neuenfeld, K ed.): 39-67. John Libbey & Company Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia

(7)--Lawlor, Robert
1991 Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont

(8)-- Moyle, Alice M.
1981 The Austalian didjeridu: a late musical intrusion World archaeology, Great Britain 10 (3): 321-31

(9)--Neuenfeldt, Karl, ed.
1997 The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet John Libbey & Company Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia

(10)--Schelberg, Dirk
1993 Didgeridoo: Ritual Origins and Playing Techniques Binkey Kok Publications, Diever, Holland

(11)--Wafer, Jim
Vibrational Healing with the Australian Aboriginal Didgeridoo New Leaf Publishing

(12)--Wiggins, Graham
1988 The physics of the didgeridoo Physics Bulletin 39 (7): 266-67