By Brad Hagelstein
I’d like to start my story right back at the beginning. I first remember seeing the didge on Play School (a children’s TV program in Australia), I would have only been 4 or 5 years old at the time. I remember seeing this guy and just being mesmerised, but the sound just pulled me up in my tracks. I was thinking “wow what on earth is that sound?”. I knew then it was special and, more importantly for me, it was not something I had to learn out of a boring old book at school. So like any young kid I ran off to find my mum’s vacuum cleaner and yes that was my first didge!
Over the years I became okay, I made a few bamboo ones with an Aboriginal mate from school. It was never more than fun at that stage, plus I could never get my head around the circular breathing and no one I knew could teach me. After a while I pretty much forgot about it as riding a skate board become more important to me.
Let’s fast forward to my mid 20s, about 10 years ago now my wife and I began a trip around Australia together, a trip of a lifetime and one of the best years of my life. It was a life changing experience. We had made it to the opposite side of the country near Perth in Western Australia. The waves had started to drop off as surfing was another sport I was passionate about. I began to look for other things to keep me occupied.
Whilst driving through Fremantle I saw a sign “Didgeridoo Breath”. At the time I didn’t know if it was a good shop and to be honest I didn’t care. I just saw the sign advertising “free didgeridoo lessons”. All I could think was “finally someone who can teach me how to circular breath!”. That somebody turned out to be Matt and Tony the then owners of Didgeridoo Breath. I guess the free lesson advertising worked as I walked away with my first real didge and was circular breathing within the first hour – yippee!!! Now I had no excuse to ever be bored and all the time in the world to practice. So I practiced every day and before long we arrived in Broome, Western Australia. Whilst travelling I had noticed that the didge was more common even though it was mainly made up of the cheaper tourist varieties. We met a few other travellers that were also trying to learn this amazing instrument.
In Broome I met a guy called Glen and he was the best player I had ever heard, so I started to get a few lessons off him. We got talking and before I knew it we were out in the bush cutting my own didge with Glen as my guide showing me what to look for. I couldn’t believe how long it took we were out looking nearly all day in the bush. Trying to find the right size not too big, not too small, wrong shape was time consuming but at the end of the day I had my very own log to make my very first didgeridoo. I could proudly say that I had found it and was about to make it. That day was the start of my next addiction and this one has never faded or left me, if anything it has grown stronger over time.
As we travelled up north and through the Northern Territory I came across the didgeridoo everywhere and learnt that many of the ones being sold were just for tourists, so my next task was to find the best makers in Australia to see what I could learn from them. I couldn’t afford another didge and my wife was telling me “you have two now why could you possibly need more?”!
Not long after we came across a sign advertising the “Pine Creek Didgeridoo Festival”. It was a few weeks away and in the general direction we were headed. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. On arriving in Pine Creek I met one of the main organisers, a guy named (Nigel) Bolda Hunter. I had lessons off him and other guys there. We cooked fish in the ground, sang songs around the fire and learnt about traditional songs and dance. I was stoked to play didge there amongst some other very talented players. That night the festival wrapped up with a concert on a stage in the middle of the bush. The sound was very haunting at times. Everyone there was very encouraging of each other’s performances and a great night was had by everyone involved. I even got up and played a quick beat. From there we travelled inland and south towards Alice Springs and back across to the east coast and Queensland, then south to New South Wales where I live now.
During my time travelling from the NT to NSW, I never really came across quality workmanship in any of the shops I could find. However, about 2 hours out from home we came across and stopped at a small country town called Bellingen. And there was a shop there called Heartland Didgeridoos. Finally I had found somewhere with great quality workmanship and you could see the love in the details of the instrument. I met both Tynon (the owner) and Brian who worked with him, both two of the nicest guys around from whom I have learnt so much from and gathered so much inspiration. I am still great friends with both of them and always make time to call in and see them if I am travelling past.
On returning home, other than the guys at Heartland, I realised that it was a hard to find other crafters. I started looking online and really struggled to find advice within Australia. I ended up joining an American forum for crafters and didge lovers. I learnt that overseas most makers were creating split and hollowed didges. I started asking questions and learning as much as I could about their processes to try and replicate their finishes. My finishes are now what I am most proud of.
Over the years of typing back and forth online I forged some great friendships. Just last year my wife and I attended the annual Indidjinus Festival near Portland in the USA where I finally got to meet several faces from my social media networks. People I had chatted to for years and finally could meet. I must say, one of the things I have come to love about didge is the community and people involved in it. There are so many inspiring stories and many of them feel like part of my family now. They are always there to listen or lend a hand with giving advice. I even think I have developed some of my own personal skills during this time.
In the last few years I have built up my didgeridoo business, I have my own workshop and this has given me the ability to make didges whenever I like. Which is often. I’m at the stage now that I am happy with my crafting although I think I will always be a bit of a perfectionist, this can be both a good and bad thing. It is good in the fact that my didges look great but sometimes there is no profit left! I have lost count how many times I have spent way too long on a didge when I have made it for some one on a tight budget. My high end didges give me the most pleasure, they of course are the most time consuming as well and therefore I don’t make much in return on them but it’s a labour of love that keeps me crafting.
More recently I have had the pleasure of becoming friends with Adam Henwood, he is encouraging me to craft lighter weight didges, an art that he has perfected over the 20 something years he has been making them. His ability to make amazing didges every time keeps me striving. My reputation is getting to the point that a lot of my work is coming from word of mouth. I’ve even had requests for help from other didge makers who are inspired by the methods I use to finish some of my didges. I’ve also had the pleasure of restoring some old favourites for people and having them look as good as new which is very satisfying.
By Brad Hagelstein, owner-operator BHD Didgeridoos
Editor’s note: iDIDJ Australia has no financial, business or other affiliations with BHD Didgeridoos. Brad is a friend of iDIDJ Australia and we think he’s a top bloke who deserves wider recognition for his handcrafting skills as well as his personal attributes.