Written by Guan Lim
The visibility of the didgeridoo in the global market has reached an all-time high over the last five years. For any visitor to Australia, this ‘didgeridoo phenomenon’ is hard to avoid; one can see and buy didgeridoos at airport souvenir shops, city retailers, Aboriginal art galleries, and weekend market stalls. Short ones, long ones, plain wood or painted (vivid purple or electric blue, hand prints or dot art?), bamboo or hardwood… you even have the choice of plastic these days. This scenario is evident in all the major population centres and tourist destinations in Australia. And in many of the overseas capital cities the trend is also catching on.
This explosion in the commodification of a cultural product raises serious questions about the sustainability of the didgeridoo industry. How will global market forces impact on the cultural integrity of the instrument? Will there be erosion and trivialisation of Aboriginal values and practices relating to the didgeridoo? Are there labeling and representation issues evident in the retailing industry?
In the absence of a regulatory apparatus monitoring the commerce in Australia’s most unique offering to the world, the potential for commercial exploitation, environmental damage and cultural loss are only too apparent.
This article looks at some of the core issues and sheds light on current trends that threaten to erode the integrity of the didgeridoo.
The Problem of Association
The first and foremost problem is that of association. What I mean by this is that to the consumer the didgeridoo can mean different things and it is this assemblage of associations that (mis)informs his (or less frequently, her) purchase of a didgeridoo.
The largest consumer group of the didgeridoo, the overseas tourist visiting Australia, associates the didgeridoo with Australia and with Aborigines. The purchase of a didgeridoo by this sector serves as a souvenir, a memento of Australia and its original peoples (though tourist kitsch may be a more appropriate term). Yet the didgeridoo is neither pan-Australian nor pan-Aboriginal. It is not endemic to all parts of Australia (being found traditionally only in the northernmost areas of the Northern Territory and adjacent parts of Western Australia and Queensland) and only a small number of Aboriginal tribal groups claim it as part of their continuing living cultural heritage. Clearly, the level of public awareness of the didgeridoo’s cultural background is low and the average consumer is guilty of nothing more than ignorance.
On the other hand, the vast majority of Australian (and overseas) retailers are guilty of unconscionable conduct in the way of false labeling and advertising, an offence that is convictable under the Trade Practices Act (1974). Labels on didgeridoos produced for the tourist trade – and these represent the largest slice of the didgeridoo commerce pie – commonly display a combination of the words ‘Australian’, ‘Aboriginal’, and ‘authentic’. In reality, these didgeridoos have never been touched (let alone made and painted) by an Australian Aboriginal person. That a large portion of these didgeridoos is manufactured overseas attests to the high farce that the industry is rapidly spiraling towards.
Other associations that didgeridoo merchants are anxious to promote include the supposed antiquity of the instrument in Australian Aboriginal culture, and the imagined mystical and metaphysical properties of the didgeridoo. Both these associations bear no semblance to reality or to Aboriginal practices and belief systems. No scholar of repute who has studied the material culture and archaeology of Aborigines would ever assert the didgeridoo to be more than about 2000 years old, yet enterprising retailers are quick to proclaim the didgeridoo as the world’s oldest wind instrument at 40,000 years old. On the metaphysical front, clever marketing by the commercial sector in its bid at market expansion has associated the didgeridoo with sentiments relating to healing, spirituality, and shamanism. In a society that is becoming more ‘spiritually-inclined’, the portrayal of the didgeridoo as a magical tool or a religious icon – an object worthy of worship – not only smacks of crass commercialisation, but collides with and disrespects the Aboriginal custodians’ values and the meanings they ascribe to it.
Fortunately, most readers of this magazine are well informed enough to look beyond the marketing jingles and hype that the lower end of the market is notorious for. The ease in information sharing brought about by the advent of the Internet has equipped the growing community of didgeridoo players and enthusiasts worldwide with more than just a superficial understanding of what the instrument is and where its cultural origins lie.
A pattern is emerging, nonetheless, of clusters of interests or interest groups within this community. For instance, there is a germinating scene in the music industry of professional musicians who perform and/or record with the didgeridoo either solo or in an ensemble, sometimes with electronic distortions and embellishments. This is all fine and well, and I would not suggest even remotely that this is a bad thing or that it is wrong. However, for the great majority of listeners of this genre of music, this would be the closest they ever come in contact with the didgeridoo or with Aboriginal culture. As this blend of the new electronic with ‘World Music’ goes about breaking new musical frontiers – in the continuous search for freshness and artistic innovation – one wonders what new associations would prevail. Would current social and cultural taboos be fair game in the name of art?
One cannot help but also wonder if cluster groups and their new cultural representations and associations would one day take on a life of their own one in escalating ‘runway’ effects that are beginning to gain momentum now. What then would be the value of Aboriginal culture? Would the new (non-Aboriginal) gurus of the didgeridoo then act as de facto voices for Indigenous Australians? Despite the benign intentions and motivations of these interests groups, could the didgeridoo ultimately fall fate to the power of contemporary popular culture?
Without wishing to be the harbinger of gloom, the New World Order, unfortunately, is upon us. Where the didgeridoo has come from is clear, where it is going remains to be seen. The following suggests that the didgeridoo’s place in the new order is bleak, despite individual efforts to curb the trickle that threatens to turn into a flood.
In some parts of Australia, especially in the Darwin, Katherine, Far North Queensland and Kalgoorlie (Western Australia) regions, illegal harvesting or poaching of eucalyptus trees (particularly bloodwoods, woolybutt, and stringybark) is commonplace. The problem is so serious in the ‘Top End’ of Australia that the sustainability and ecological impacts of this activity are being investigated by government authorities and university research centres. In the southern parts of Australia, the epidemic of environmental destruction sweeping the ‘Top End’ is also apparent, especially in the mallee country of northern Victoria and some parts of New South Wales.
The culprits of such wholesale destruction are commonly rumoured to be non-Aboriginal outfits equipped with chainsaws, 4WD vehicles, large trailers, and, if rumours are to be believed, helicopters in some instances. And if estimates are true (solid statistics are understandably hard to come by), hundreds of thousands of didgeridoo stems are harvested in this manner each year.
In their quest for new ‘hunting grounds’, commercial harvesters are beginning to breach the borders of Arnhem Land, traditionally a well protected Aboriginal reserve too remote for unscrupulous poachers to exploit.
As a sign of the power of global consumer culture, and a paradoxical twist in the story of the didgeridoo, Aboriginal people – even in Arnhem Land – have entered the arena as major producers in the didgeridoo industry. Whilst their unit contributions to the total market are still relatively small compared to large-scale non-Aboriginal enterprises, one wonders what the future brings if Indigenous didgeridoo craftsmen adopt the industrial ‘tools of the trade’ common in non-Aboriginal production setups. Could the natural beauty and integrity of the Arnhem Land woodlands be one day replaced by ecological wastelands? Probably not, at least not in the near to medium-term future. However, without wishing to sound alarmist, Aboriginal craftsmen have recently reported of a scarcity of suitable trees for crafting into didgeridoos in some areas close to main settlements.
– To be continued