Written by Guan Lim

For those who were paying attention, a peculiar but special term was used in my two previous column articles. Cultural integrity. Hands up all those out there who know what this means. Ah ha. Hands up all those out there who want to know what this means. Ah ha! Now, hands up if you didn’t even notice those two words in my column writings. Come on, don’t be shy, and be honest! And don’t go scrambling for those back issues of the magazine because you won’t find them – I’ve asked Mr Murphy to make sure they’re well hidden until a time when they’re not urgently needed.

Ok, seriously, what is cultural integrity and how does it relate to the didgeridoo? If you have been waiting in anticipation all these months hoping that I would finally come around to addressing this issue, well, this is your lucky day!

In a nutshell, cultural integrity is about strength of culture. Up to now, the phrase has been used mostly by arts writers, curators, gallery owners, and community arts organisations when talking about Australian Indigenous art. A piece of Indigenous art is likely to have high cultural integrity value if it:

  • is inspired by and executed on ‘country’
  • conveys feelings of pride associated with personal and group identity
  • draws upon traditional themes, subject matters, designs and iconographies that the artist has undisputable rights to through birthright
  • is an expression of ancestral lore that connects mythology, land, powerful creative spirits, and today’s generation of human beings
  • is a permissible form of artistic expression that does not contravene cultural rules, expectations and responsibilities

In the showrooms of Australia’s leading art galleries and auction houses, cultural integrity is very much tied up with notions of quality, authenticity and value. In this way, cultural integrity has become a benchmark for assessing the artistic merit, importance, collectibility and, ultimately, price, of a work of art. In the auction houses such as Sothebys and Christies, Aboriginal paintings of the highest cultural integrity sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cultural integrity is premised on ‘strong culture, strong art’. It is never used in the negative. That is, a painting would never be described as having low cultural integrity value: rather, it would be simply dismissed as a fake or a reproduction or not by the hand of an Indigenous person. The other thing is that cultural integrity is not a sticker or label used by white audiences to judge Indigenous Australians and the degree to which they have or have not maintained their cultural traditions. ‘Weak culture, weak art’, after all, would only reflect back on the 200 odd years of European settlement of Australia and the untold damages inflicted by the new colonisers on the Indigenous peoples and cultures. And we all know what a bad guilt trip that would be! But I’m digressing… sorry, sorry, sorry…

Aboriginal people themselves talk about cultural integrity in terms of rights of ownership and rights of access and use. “That’s my Dreaming” or “I paint my mother’s totems” immediately communicate the authority of the artist and the legitimacy of his or her work.

What has all this got to do with the didgeridoo I hear you ask? In the global market, the authority of non-Indigenous didgeridoo producers and the legitimacy of non-Indigenous product are ambiguous to say the least. And in the absence of mechanisms to protect consumers and Indigenous producers alike, this ambiguity continues to fuel a multi-million dollar industry that has ‘fake’ or ‘counterfeit’ product as its number one seller.

Let’s look at some examples of ambiguous advertising on the internet. As a start, let us examine how the words ‘yirdaki’ or ‘yidaki’ are used to promote didgeridoos that are not genuine instruments made 100% from start to finish by the Yolngu people in north-east Arnhem Land. Here’s one… this website I’m looking at right now claims that the yirdaki it sells “…started as a eucalyptus tree on a farm in Bali. It was harvested at just the right height and hand painted by Balinese artisans. The intricate dot painting is traditional of the Aboriginal depicting creatures and patterns of the dream time”!

Just as perplexing are descriptions of “genuine, authentic, 100% yidaki” for didgeridoos made by white guys!

These sorts of advertising proclamations are not unusual on the internet. In fact, almost every website that I have come across that sells didgeridoos has an interesting mix of words that probably wouldn’t stand up to closer legal examination. “Authentic”, “Aboriginal”, “Australian”, “genuine”, and “original” are common, and recently, “Aboriginal style” is starting to appear as prosecutions are brought against manufacturers and retailers for misleading and deceptive representation.

Exploitation of Indigenous cultures is of course as old as the hills and certainly not something that is limited to the didgeridoo. In the USA, for instance, “It was the experience of Native American tribes that many commercial enterprises attempted to counterfeit Native American arts and craft and/or falsely indicate some association between non-Indian product and a Native American tribe” (Final Report on National Experiences with the Legal Protection of Expressions of Folklore, World Intellectual Property Organization, Geneva, 2002).

The problem with the didgeridoo is that it is difficult to define exactly what an ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ instrument is. A case in point: are all Australian Aboriginal-made instruments ‘authentic’? Hmmm… I suppose it depends how ‘authentic’ is defined. Certainly, many Aboriginal-made instruments, especially those originating from urban areas, are little different to didgeridoos made by non-Indigenous producers. And what if traditional owners of the didgeridoo in Arnhem Land were to manufacture pine-drilled instruments? Would these be classed as ‘authentic’?

This is where cultural integrity comes in. When cultural integrity designations are used together with geographical indications (GIs), we have a potent labelling system that offers, at the very least, an alternative to the ambiguity and confusion that currently prevails. Ah, okĊ  what is geographical indications (GIs) I hear you ask? . Hands up all those out there who want to know what this means. Ah ha! Hands up if I’ve lost you. Come on, concentrate and keep up!

According to the TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), an international trade agreement that all nations are bound to established by the World Trade Organisation:

“Geographical indications are, for the purpose of this Agreement, indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a MemberĊ  or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin”.

This is very interesting indeed as many of us have long accepted the existence of geographically distinct didgeridoo types in Aboriginal Australia. The celebrated ethnomusicologist Alice Moyle, for instance, noted that there were two main types of didgeridoo-playing: A-type (overtone-absent) and B-type (overtone-present). And these two types of playing styles corresponded with geographic and cultural boundaries. In the Exhibitions section of the iDIDJ Australia website , 9 major areas or cultural blocs are marked on a map showing local varieties of didgeridoo belonging to each area.

Keeping all this in mind, would it be possible to devise a ratings system, a labelling method, that takes into account geographical origins and cultural integrity in assessing the ‘authenticity’ of a didgeridoo? If we truly honour the didgeridoo and its Indigenous custodians, and respect its place in culture, then surely there is something we can do as consumers, producers, educators, retailers, and players?! I played around with some ideas and words and came up with this: the Cultural Indications (CI) index. The CI Index combines the cultural integrity of an instrument with its geographical origins, and it goes something like this:


CI Index Description Geographical Origins
4 Authentic traditional Aboriginal didgeridooHigh cultural integrity instrument. 100% made and decorated, from start to finish, by a traditional custodian of the instrument. A traditional custodian is an Indigenous Australian who is entitled, by Aboriginal tradition, to make and use the didgeridoo and whose ancestors, by Aboriginal tradition, have made and used the didgeridoo for countless generations pre-dating European settlement of Australia. Made from termite-hollowed eucalyptus and other naturally occurring materials that were traditionally used for didgeridoo construction. Remote areas of the Northern Territory especially Arnhem Land.
3 Aboriginal didgeridoo100% made and decorated, from start to finish, by an Indigenous Australian who is not a traditional custodian of the instrument. Made from termite-hollowed Australian native timber, usually eucalyptus. Australia-wide
2 Aboriginal art didgeridooA didgeridoo that is only decorated by an Australian Aboriginal person, but made by a non-Indigenous producer. Australia-wide
1 Australian didgeridooAny didgeridoo made and decorated (or left undecorated) by an Australian non-Indigenous producer from Australian termite-hollowed native timbers. Australia-wide
0 DidgeridooAll other didgeridoos other than those in categories CI 4 to CI 1. These are made from a diversity of materials and methods in Australia and overseas. World-wide

A CI Index of 4 is the highest rating of ‘authenticity’ for a didgeridoo. Instruments in this category are the real deal, the sure thing, the true blue, the ridgy didg… Didgeridoos produced by Djalu Gurruwiwi, Milkayngu Mununggurr, Timothy Litalita Ganambarr, and other Arnhem Land artists belong to this class.

The CI Index is not to be confused with the quality of an instrument. There are didgeridoos with a CI Index of 0 that are fabulous instruments and many European craftsmen have made a name for themselves for their fine work using the split method. Eddy Halat’s instruments, for example, are something to be seen, let alone heard!

– To be continued –