Knowledge Lab

Didjeridu FAQ's

 

Didjeridu FAQ’s

 “ Cherish the sound, for it is the sound of Mother Earth.”
Mandawuy Yunupingu – Yothu Yindi Band

You will find answers to a lot of the common questions asked about the Didjeridu (didgeridoo or yidaki) and about BushLab didjeridu programs.  Just click on any question to reveal the answers and any relevant internet-links. 
An excellent source of information produced by Randin Graves in collaboration with senior Yolngu elders and community members from north-east Arnhem Land, is Yidakistory.   The wesite even offers information in a number of foreign languages. 
If you still have a question you are welcome to contact me via the form on the Contact page.

 

didjeridu (6)

What is a didjeridu?

The didjeridu (or “Yidaki” as is more commonly used these days to reflect the traditionaldidjeridu didgeridoo yidaki owner’s true name for the instrument) is one of the oldest instruments on the planet, with a cultural heritage stemming back thousands of years into Australian Aboriginal history. The instrument is deceptively simple: it is a wooden “tube”, about 1.2 to 1.5 m long, that has been hollowed out by termites in the thin trunk of a eucalypt tree. The hollow branch, once cut down, is stripped of its bark and cleaned up along the inside. When ready, a ring of beeswax is usually fitted around the playing end as a mouthpiece, to ensure good contact and improve the player’s comfort. 

It is an unusual yet captivating instrument: although it usually plays only one note, it is capable of a spectacular range of different sounds, and the rhythmic variation of these sounds is its chief musical interest. The rhythms can reflect traditional styles that are thousands of years old, or modern styles based on current musical trends. 

The painting on a particular instrument can have considerable cultural significance to its traditional owners. But didjeridus can also be unpainted to show the fine wood of the instrument. Still others are sculpted, burnt or decorated with in a variety of “western” or other styles. 

It is very important to recognise and respect the origin and authenticity of “natural” didjeridus from Australia, and in particular those produced by people of aboriginal origin. The market for didjeridus has expanded at lightening pace around the world. Today, many people of non-aboriginal origin have also earned respect for their ability to produce instruments of the highest quality yet are not of authentic origin or technique. This has in fact had a positive effect, marking the huge rise in interest and understanding for Australian aboriginal culture around the globe, as well as easing the burden on felling of natural timbers as instruments from the Australian outback…

What’s the correct name for this instrument?

There has always been some contention over the correct spelling and use of the name for this instrument, particuarly in relation to three of the words you find at the top of this page: Didjeridu, Didgeridoo or Mandapul. This makes things like simply talking about the instrument or internet searching a real challenge! More importantly, to show respect for traditional owners and craftsmanship you should understand the differences in these and other terms.

 

Didgeridoo A name and spelling originally used to describe the instrument around the world, and still widely used.
Didge A shortened term widely used for the instrument.
Didjeridu The name and spelling adopted to reflect aboriginality in the letters used, and the preferred spelling to use.
Mandapul (Yidaki) The actual name for the instrument in Yolngu language from North-East Arnhem Land. It is widely used nowadays but should be used to refer to authentic instruments from this region. Yolngu themselves are currently using the synonym mandapul to refer to the instrument, out of respect for the passing of a Manggalili-clan man in early 2011 whose name sounds similar to yiḏaki.
Mago Name for the instrument in West Arnhem Land. Not widely used.

 

How is a didjeridu made?

An authentic instrument is born by a magical symbiosis that occurs in nature.  Many parts of the northern regions of Australia are prone to termite ants that live and thrive in the climate and region, building tall earth-mounds amongst the trees across the plains and forests.  Termites feed on trees.  They do not necessarily kill the trees, but hollow-out entire thick branches or trunks without breaking through to the surface to protect themselves.

Djalu Gurriwiwi cutting down a new YidakiTraditional owners of this region are particularly skilled at locating and logging these hollowed trees. Firstly, they can recognize an area that is more likely to have good potential by the surrounding land and undergrowth.   Then by tapping on each trunk with a stone or axe they can gain a sense of how much of the inside of any tree is hollowed out by termites.  The type of sound as well as the sound of tumbling termite crust inside the tree gives a good indication.  But to any “novice” it is not that easy to hear! 

Once felled, the log can be played straight away, although it normally needs to be cleanedYidaki painted and ready to play up to create a better sound.  The outside bark is removed, the hollow cleaned out and neatened and the correct length is sawn off to make the right pitch.  From there the instruments are painted and finished off in preparation for playing in ceremonies and general gatherings.

Many didjeridus available on the market around the world are not authentic instruments. Using wood usually only found in other countries, the log is sawn in half down its length and then the inside is removed so that when the two halves are glued back together it forms a perfect hollow log.  This modern technique is called the “sandwich” and if skillfully done can make a good instrument.  Although it is not a traditional method, there are many skilled craftspersons that construct didjeridus this way.   It is important however to always respect an authentic instrument, the people, and the traditional method in which it was made.

There are many producers of “fake” didjeridus around the world (eg. Indonesia) that actually sell their didjeridus as “authentic”, even with fake or copied indigenous artwork on them. There are also many producers of didjeridus in Australia that log without permission or proper control. This has a damaging effect on the environment of the outback. Still other producers claim that their instruments are crafted by indigenous persons, when this is in fact not the case. 

It is therefore important to shop very carefully before deciding to buy a didjeridu and always determine whether the instrument is

  • a “Yidaki” sourced and crafted by an indigenous craftsman from Arnhem Land
  • a didjeridu sourced and crafted by an indigenous craftsman from other areas of Australia, or
  • a didjeridu crafted by non-indigenous producers from Australia or around the world. 

More information and a good category listing of authentic instruments can be found at ididj.com

If you are interested in buying an instrument consider the suggestions at the question Where Do I Buy a Didjeridu?…

Where does the didjeridu come from?

The didjeridu originates from the central far-northern area of Australia (“The Top End”),Location of Arnhem Land in Australia in particular the region of Arnhem Land which lies east of Darwin. For thousands of years or more, the traditional owners of this area have utilised the natural hollowed logs found in various Eucalyptus trees to make their instruments, which they call “Yidaki” (pronounced “Yidarlkee”).

The traditional custodians of this mystical instrument form an indigenous language group called Yolngu (pronounced “Yolngoo”) based in north-east Djalu Gurriwiwi at Yidaki Masterclass 2007Arnhem Land.  A clan within the Yolngu, called Galpu are particularly central to this custodianship.  Clan elder and yidaki master Djalu Gurriwiwi plays a critical role in the leadership and management of yidaki custodianship and is widely respected for his knowledge and skills in yidaki crafting and playing.

To learn more about Djalu and Yidaki visit Rripangu Yidaki.

Although the didjeridu has become a central part of many of the indigenous communities around Australia, traditional music and ceremonies from all areas south of “The Top End” do not usually incorporate the instrument. They instead only use voice, “Clapsticks” (two hard sticks which are tapped against each other to make a rhythm) or boomerangs as clapsticks.

Today the didjeridu is known and admired around the world, and most countries have their own network of players numbering the tens of thousands.  This fascination has a positive effect on the level of interest for indigenous culture and issues in general.  It is very important to always respect and recognize the traditional custodians of this instrument and its significance to their culture and traditions.

What is a prac-didj?

BushLab didjeridu programs, like “Corporate Didjing!” offer ‘prac-didjs’ for each person to use to learn to play.  This term is short for ‘practice didjeridu’ and is not an authentic instrument but a hardened plastic version of the real thing.  These super instruments are preferred over authentic wooden instruments for a number of very important reasons;

  1. they are incredibly easy to start playing on!  Unlike wooden didjeridus which all have their own playing style, prac-didjs can be approached the same way by everyone.  This makes getting a ‘drone’ sound as well as other tonal and vocal changes a lot easier to achieve quickly.  Master a prac-didj and you are certain to transfer your skills to a wooden instrument in no time.
  2. they are lightweight and virtually indestructable!  Some wooden instruments are heavy and difficult to manage by some people.  Also, drop a wooden didj and you run a big risk of cracking or splitting it, making it unplayable.
  3. they can be hygenically cleaned after each person!  We don’t want our customers picking up any bacteria, which can be impossible to manage in wooden instruments.  Using a safe, hospital grade bacterial solution, each prac-didj mouthpiece is soaked and the pipe is washed out and left to dry before being reassembled. 
     

Learning to play on prac-didjs

Should women play the didjeridu?

This is a question that is often asked, partly due to a lot of media hype that took place after a female movie-star attempted to play one.  Unfortunately, it is mostly hype, but there is a logical explanation beyond it.

The answer is firmly grounded in an issue of respect for indigenous law and beliefs.  As “Balanda” (non-indigenous) we are not necessarily bound by any indigenous law or beliefs.  But that does not mean we should not always respect that these laws or beliefs exist. 

The yidaki (didjeridu) is a powerful and symbolic tool in indigenous ceremony and culture, playing a central role in men’s business, such as boys’ initiation rituals.  In aboriginal law it is only played by men and remains the custodial responsibility of men.  Women have their own set of custodial responsibilites and customs, but they can have some role in relation to the instrument (eg. painting).

An aboriginal woman would never formally play a yidaki, especially ceremonial songs used for rituals.  But women play to ensure a clear sound is being produced whilst they are crafting an instrument.  They are not playing sacred songs at ceremony and it is therefore deemed acceptable.

“Balanda” women (or non-indigenous women) are accepted in yidaki master-classes run by indigenous master-players, and are encouraged to play, as long as they recognise and respect how the law stands from an indigenous point of view.   Like all ‘Balanda” we are welcome to participate, learn and enjoy this wonderful culture, but we should keep respect to the culture and its laws. We can all play the didjeridu and enjoy its mystery, but respect the instrument and its place in their culture…

 Accurate information and advice for women from  Yolngu representatives from north-east Arnhem Land can be found at Yidakistory.