The sonorous drone of the Didgeridoo is famous the world over, an unmistakeable sound that captivates the listener while conjuring images of red deserts filled with large leaping marsupials. Thankfully, unlike 10,000 years ago these marsupials are now much smaller and no longer carnivorous. The sound of the Didgeridoo though remains unchanged and more often than not you will hear it as a pure drone sound. So where dose the rhythm spring forth from? Is not the drone sound enough with all its magical connotations?
The true journey of this instrument is in the ability of the player to translate a feeling of a place or a thing through their breath and have that come to life as rhythm. Life is constantly moving as is the breath of any living thing so there is a relationship between the two. Understanding this is the key that will unlock the door into the journey of mastering the Didgeridoo, for to master it you will be mastering your breathing. Let go of any idea you have of creating a melody as this is a journey of unadulterated primal beat driven breath. It is the product of this type of breathing that we traditionally dance to in the top end of Australia, we have no skin drum and never have had one. The Didgeridoo provides the heartbeat for our dances.
So where is the best place to start this journey? It is with the very thing you are doing right now. Taking air in to your lungs and releasing it is a wondrous rhythm and the first pulse to master on the Didgeridoo. From there its open season and into the journey of breathing your way into the feeling of anything you want to translate. From the drone anything is possible as all life springs from this sound.
It is about translation:
All traditional rhythms mirror the movement of the natural world. The way the seasons change, the approach of a storm, the running and howling of a dingo pack or even the walk of the millions of feet that make up an ant colony. Anything living can be translated via the way we move our breath into pure rhythm. There is no end to the pool of material available to play, there is only the question of what to translate.
How to start:
It will be surprising to many that to start playing rhythms on the Didgeridoo dose NOT require the ability to circular breath. One full intake of breath into the lungs by a person of average build will give around 8 to 10 seconds of playing time. This is the equivalent of four bars of music at mid tempo, enough to start exploring boundless playing styles and techniques. Circular breathing joins these sentences of rhythm together and can be learnt latter down the track. So, for those of you with the right kind of sticks ‘the hollow kind’ there is no better time to start exploring than right now.
Welcome everyone to my ‘down under’ blog of all things Didgeridoo related. Let me first introduce myself as a ‘Top End’ Australian indigenous man of the Larrakia nation. We are the traditional owners of what is now called ‘Darwin’, the capital of the Northern Territory of Australia. The didgeridoo (Mamalima in Larrakia) is a traditional mens instrument played during ceremony. We are one of many aboriginal nations across the top end of Australia that include the didgeridoo as part of our cultural heritage. The didgeridoo is classified as a drone instrument and is without a doubt one of the oldest ceremonial instruments on earth.
The Mamalima was passed onto me by my great uncle ‘Wally Fejo’ and is part of my cultural identity. I am one of the most recorded indigenous artists on this instrument in the world with a catalogue of music spanning over ten years. I am a featured artist on the ‘Indigenous Australia label’ the most successful recording label in Australia for aboriginal themed music. I have also been more recently enjoying independent releases through my own website and live touring. I have spent the last few years promoting abroad my aboriginal Dreamtime themed multi-media show ‘Territory’ internationally and now once again make Australia my full time abode. It is from my new home on the beautiful and wild south east coast of Tasmania, Australia’s southern island state that I write this introduction.
The didgeridoo really has two distinct voices, one of aboriginal tradition and one of contemporary sharing and dialoguing with the world. As a custodian of this instrument it is my obligation to honor first the traditional role and place of the didgeridoo in aboriginal culture. The traditional voice of the didgeridoo can still be heard throughout the top end of Australia and is alive and well in ceremonial practices. This voice remains unchanged though thousands of years of lineage. It has many cultural applications and much of this is scared knowledge shared only by initiates. It is considered ‘mens business’ meaning the traditional law of aboriginal men’s society. The didgeridoo represents the voice of the supernatural world and is the accompaniment to traditional songs representing the life cycles of renewal. These song cycles are inherently about the story of creation, what is known as the Aboriginal Dreamtime. You can think of them as perhaps the oldest poems on earth. They are the foundation of our culture and hold within them the understanding of place, society, personal responsibility and life. In my cultural area the ‘Bamboo man’ was a person who got special training on the Mamalima to embody the practice of ceremonial playing. There are many rhythms and many different styles of traditional playing across the top end of Australia, all of which require the ‘native tongue’ to play well.
It is important to understand that from a cultural point of view we can not separate the didgeridoo from our culture and treat it simply as an instrument. It has as its foundation a relationship between us and the creator ancestors set up in the Dreamtime that continues to this day as an integral form of our ceremonial expression. The didgeridoo and the ‘story of place’ are not separate and therefor when you play one, you are playing the spirit of a place.
Who exactly makes these things?
One of Australia’s many termites ‘Mastotermes darwiniensis’ is responsible for eating out northern Australian eucalyptus trees and giving us the classic hollow log with its characteristic inner grooves and shapes. This termite, commonly known as the ‘white ant’ is one of the largest termites in the world and apart from dinning on your house can and will eat anything including rubber, leather, wool and electric cables. All up there are an estimated 350 termite species in Australia with over 100 of them residing in the hotter tropical north. From my point of view an authentic Didgeridoo is one from northern Australia, as that is where the tradition is held. There are also more recently southern cultural areas in Australia now producing didgeridoos as well due its popularity rise over the last few decades. These are also created naturally by termites and hand finished by indigenous Australian’s and make available other species of Eucalyptus trees not found in the tropics.
Dreaming the future
I will be covering many Didgeridoo topics in the future and I’m open to your expressions of interest regarding the direction of information. For now, I return to a southern island sunset and the colors of deepest red.