What exactly is a didjeridu? How is it used? The answers to these and other questions can be found here. A special feature of this section is the timeline which highlights some of the important historical events that have shaped the didjeridu’s ascent onto the world’s stage. Insights into how a didjeridu is made are also offered, in addition to commentaries on traditional and contemporary playing styles.
Didgeridoo or didjeridu or yidaki?
Didjeridu is sometimes spelt didgeridoo, didjeridoo and didgeridu, but the Australian government and all its agencies have formally accept didjeridu as the correct spelling. However, since didgeridoo is the more popular way of spelling, didjeridu and didgeridoo are used interchangeably throughout this website. Another common term these days is yidaki, a type of didjeridu used by the Aboriginal people of north-east Arnhem Land who call themselves Yolngu. You may sometimes also see yidaki spelt as yidaki, yirdaki or yiraki, but yidaki is the orthographically-correct spelling.
The didjeridu is an Australian Aboriginal musical instrument endemic to the northern parts of Australia. It is an unusual instrument because a special technique called ‘circular breathing’ is used to play the instrument. It may sound impossible, but in ‘circular breathing’ air is breathed in through the nose at the same time as air is being blown out of the mouth to play the didjeridu. This technique allows a skilled didjeridu player to maintain a continuous sound on the instrument for as long as the player wants.
The term didjeridu is onomatopoetic and not of indigenous origin. That is, didjeridu is a word of Western invention, first coined in the early part of the 20th century to describe the sounds made by the instrument. It is also fairly certain that the earliest usage of the expression applied to instruments encountered in Western Arnhem Land or in the region to its immediate south, where repeating rhythms or sound patternings such as “didjeridu-dideru”, “didjemro” and “didjeramo-rebo” are found. However, today, the word didjeridu is used much more generally to include instruments originating from all parts of Aboriginal Australia as well as a broad spectrum of instruments produced by indigenous and non-indigenous makers utilising an array of modern materials and methods.
Recently, the didjeridu has become very popular worldwide and is now played by people from all walks of life in Australia and many overseas countries. A large number of people are drawn to the didjeridu because of the challenge of playing it and the unique sound it produces. This challenge has led many on a life-long journey of discovery including visits to Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory where the finest didjeridu players and makers- the Aboriginal people themselves – live.
The didjeridu has also been embraced by modern society for a number of other reasons including the relaxing and mildly euphoric state that playing and listening to the didjeridu can bring about. It appears likely that the special breathing technique needed to play the didjeridu as well as the distinct acoustics of the instrument both have positive effects on inducing the alpha brain wave patterns that are associated with deep meditation.
Aboriginal people of northern Australia have been making didjeridus for a long time and today are recognised as master craftsmen of the instrument. In Arnhem Land, the process of making a didjeridu typically starts with the selection of a suitable living tree – usually one of a number of eucalyptus species – that has been partially eaten out by termites. This is the most important step in the process of making a didjeridu because the condition of the tree and the size and shape of the hole that has been created by the termites will determine whether the finished product will be a good instrument or not.
A skilled Aboriginal craftsman is able to select the right sort of tree through a combination of knowledge of ‘country’ and an intimate understanding of termite-tree interactions. When a suitable-looking tree is found, a piece of bark is removed from the tree at about chest height to reveal the wood underneath. This exposed wood is tapped lightly, either with a finger or the back of an axe, and the sound produced tells an experienced didjeridu maker the extent of the hollow in the tree trunk. If the craftsman thinks the tree is suitable material, he will start cutting at the base of the tree with an axe at a height anywhere between his ankle and his knee. If during this process the tree does not appear to have a sufficient hollow, the tree is left standing and is abandoned, and a new search for another tree commences.
When a suitable-looking tree with a potentially good hollow is cut down, the Aboriginal craftsman will visually inspect the termite-eaten hollow of the felled trunk to assess the size and shape of the chamber. If this chamber is judged to be too big or too small the tree will be discarded, and again, a new search begins. However, if the chamber looks to have the correct dimensions, a portion of the felled trunk is cut off to produce a log that is anywhere from 4 to 6 feet long depending on the instrument pitch desired. The termite-eaten chamber of this log is inspected again at both ends, and particular attention is given to the size and shape of the hollow at the smaller end, which will become the mouthpiece in the finished instrument. Ideally, this opening should be about 3 cm in diameter as this gives the most comfortable and effective mouthpiece size, though anywhere from 2 to 4 cm is also acceptable depending on the individual preferences of the didjeridu craftsman. At this stage, if the craftsman is satisfied with the outward appearance of the log, he will test its potential sound quality by playing into the log just as he would a didjeridu. If the acoustics does not meet his expectations, the log is discarded and he embarks on searching for a new tree.
When an ideal log with good sound properties is located and cut down, a curing process may be necessary to ensure the resultant didjeridu that is produced is stable and does not develop cracks. Curing may involved soaking the termite-hollowed log in a freshwater billabong for a number of days and up to several weeks. Saltwater curing is sometimes used by coastal Aboriginal groups, and rapid-dry curing under a mound of hot sand and burning embers – a less conventional form of curing – may also be used. Air curing, where a termite-hollowed log is allowed to dry naturally over a number of days or weeks, is probably the most common method of curing in contemporary times.
After sufficient curing, the process of transforming the raw log into a didjeridu commences. This involves stripping the bark from the log and giving shape to the emerging instrument. Sometimes, the shape and wall thickness of the de-barked raw log is already ideal, in which case little else is required to finish the instrument apart from trimming both ends of the instrument. More often than not, the raw log requires excess layers of wood to be removed in order to reduce the thickness of the walls of the sound chamber. In addition, some rasping and cleaning out of the bore at the larger end of the log may also be required to remove internal obstructions and to ‘amplify’ the sound of the instrument.
Lastly, a rim of native beeswax may be applied to the mouthpiece for comfort or to reduce the size of the mouthpiece opening, and the instrument may be painted with various totemic and other designs specific to the group that the craftsman identifies with.
Playing the didjeridu can be fun and challenging. You can learn about gender issues and the difference between traditional Aboriginal and non-traditional non-Indigenous playing styles in this section.
The didjeridu is a male-oriented musical instrument in Australian Indigenous society. In the ‘Top End’ of Australia where the didjeridu is endemic, men play the instrument in ceremonial and recreational contexts, just as men play the clapsticks and sing during ceremonial events (though women also have ‘wailing songs’ when news of a death is announced). It is not, however, taboo for Aboriginal women to play the didjeridu in this part of Australia, and there are occasions where women role play and take hold of the instrument in comical mimicry of men (for example, in the entertaining phases of circumcision rituals). In rare cases, some Aboriginal women in ‘Top End’ communities have become proficient at playing the didjeridu, though they never perform in ceremonial contexts.
In other parts of Australia, there are stricter restrictions on Aboriginal women playing the didjeridu with outright prohibition in some areas.
Despite the didjeridu being a male-oriented instrument in Australian Aboriginal culture, non-Indigenous women around the world have begun to explore the musical possibilities of the didjeridu. There is a diversity of opinions relating to this among Aboriginal men, ranging from encouragement and amusement to indifference and downright scorn. Generally, Aboriginal men in ‘Top End’ communities do not have a problem with non-Indigenous women playing the didjeridu. They reason that the cultural rules and conditions that govern behaviour in Indigenous society do not apply to non-Indigenous women, which are bound by their own set of Western laws and moral codes.
Traditional Didjeridu Techniques
The most sophisticated and technically refined playing styles have developed among the coastal Aboriginal groups of northern Australia. Indeed, the finest didjeridu players on this planet are to be found on Groote Eylandt, north-east Arnhem Land, and Western Arnhem Land. In these areas, didjeridu compositions are rhythmically complex and multi-dimensional and the techniques that are the cornerstone of these compositions are nothing short of extraordinary. Traditional Aboriginal techniques are based on pulsed accents effected through tongue, throat and diaphragm manipulations.
Playing the didjeridu in the classical styles of Arnhem Land is a source of continued inspiration and challenge for a growing number of didjeridu players throughout the world. Whilst musically diverse and geographically distinct, classical traditional playing styles can be clumped into 2 general categories: overtone-present and overtone-absent.
The overtone-present style is endemic to Groote Eylandt, north-east Arnhem Land, north-central Arnhem Land and south-east Arnhem Land. Only the first overtone note is used in traditional Aboriginal society.
The overtone-absent style in used in other parts of the Northern Territory including Western Arnhem Land and the NW region of the Northern Territory.
Contemporary Didjeridu Styles
Contemporary styles are basically anything that is not traditional. Some Aboriginal players liken contemporary playing to aeroplane noises! Typically, contemporary playing consists of swirling, bouncing sounds with plenty of vocal effects. More accomplished contemporary players are driven by beat and rhythm.
Like the boomerang, the didjeridu has become an iconic symbol for a national Aboriginal identity in contemporary Australia. There are many distinct tribes, languages and cultures in Indigenous Australia, however, with only the Aboriginal groups in northern Australia possessing the didjeridu as a part of their ancestral cultural heritage. The map below shows the didjeridu’s recorded distribution (adapted from Moyle, A. M., 1981, The Australian didjeridu: a late musical instrusion. World Archaeology 12, 321-331).
Since European settlement of Australia, the didjeridu’s distribution has expanded into new areas. For instance, by 1960 anthropologists had noted the didjeridu’s spread to Roebourne in Western Australia, and similarly, it had migrated to the Bloomfield area in Far North Queensland sometime in the early 1800s (see map below).
The heartland of the didjeridu has long been accepted to be Arnhem Land (see map below). Although there are Aboriginal didjeridu players and makers in all parts of Australia, it is in Arnhem Land where the instrument continues as a long unbroken tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. Here, the didjeridu continues to serves as a rhythmic accompaniment to voice and paired percussive sticks (sometimes known as clapsticks) in the religious and ceremonial life of the Aboriginal people.
In the very north-east of Arnhem Land, at a place called the Gove Peninsula, live the Aboriginal members of Australia’s celebrated Yothu Yindi band. Yothu Yindi has played a major role in promoting the didjeridu throughout the world through its use of the yidaki in concerts as well as in studio recordings and CDs released by the band. Examples of didjeridus collected from the Gove Peninsula area and other parts of Arnhem Land and the Northern Territory can be found in the Exhibitions section.