Thanks to The Haunted Wordsmith, I recently learned it is National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee or NAIDOC week from July 8th to 15th. In honor of these fascinating and fantastic peoples, let’s explore a bit of the culturally iconic Australian Aboriginal instrument, the didgeridoo. Yes, let’s do…
The didgeridoo appears to be a very simple type of instrument in its design. It is a wind instrument made from one solid piece of hollowed wood with a beeswax mouthpiece and contains no valves to alter pitch of the air flow other than two open ends and a human mouth. The variance in the music that is produced is altered by the aperture of the player’s lips and the amount, or pressure, of air pushed out from their diaphragm. It’s a rhythmic instrument but is also tonal, with it’s characteristic sound made from the reverating air forming overtones.
So, how did this simply complex instrument evolve? Or, did it even truly evolve? The origin myth of the didgeridoo suggests that it came into its present form instantly. According to aboriginal folklore regarding the didgeridoo, the instrument came about as such: A man, Bur Buk Boon, was cutting wood for a fire to provide warmth and protection for his family. He noticed a hollow log he wanted to use in the fire. He picked it up and saw that it was hollow. Inside there were termites that were consuming the wood. He intended to use the log but did not want to harm the termites. So Bur Buk Boon put the log to his mouth and blew into it. As he did this the termites flew out the other end and became the stars in the night sky. The sound of this blessed the earth and became eternal protection for all the “Dreamtime” spirits. This myth is not far-fetched from how didgeridoos are made by native peoples of Australia. Indigenous manufacture begins with finding a eucalyptus branch in which the heartwood has been consumed by termites.
Aboriginal groups of Oceana utilize the natural ability of termites to produce the hollowed wooden tube instrument. They glean approximately straight pieces of wood from branches or trunks of trees. They allow termites to nest and feast upon the soft inner material of the branch or trunk. Once the termites have hollowed out the wood it is nearly complete. The outside of the wooden tube is carved and decorated with unique designs based on the subcultures of the various aboriginal groups across the continent. Didgeridoos are made from a wide variety of native species of Australian hardwoods, such as eucalyptus.
There are many names associated with the didgeridoo. Several are related to names for bamboo, suggesting that aboriginal peoples utilized bamboo as well as eucalyptus to create this instrument. Some of these names are bamboo, bombo, ngaribi and several others. All these are related to or used to symbolize bamboo, rather than eucalyptus, so the most traditional wood to use is up to interpretation and preference. Regardless, there are nearly fifty nouns used to refer to the didgeridoo by native groups. The name “didgeridoo” is not clear in its true origin. It is most likely to be of some Western invention. One theroy is that it came from the description of the instrument by Westerners. For instance, in a publication detailing the sound of the instrument as saying, “didjerry, didjerry, didjerry, woo!”. Who knows, but that sounds reasonable! Another potential origin for “didgeridoo” is from how the instrument is played. It is thought one can enhance the pulsating, rhythmic sound by saying unvoiced, “didgeridoo” whilst blowing into the instrument. Personally, I find this hard as my method (poorly performed) involves flappy my lips like I’m giving a “raspberry” or “fart” sound. However “didgeridoo” originated, it is most likely not of any aboriginal semantics.
The didgeridoo is used across many different aboriginal groups in Australia. Each aboriginal clan is interrelated and the instruments use spread quickly across the continent for ceremonial purposes as well as for leisure. In ceremony, men are the only ones allowed to perform with the didgeridoo. Women are permitted to play the didgeridoo in informal, leisured settings.
The didgeridoo is a very interesting instrument and capable of making complex overtones. It is not complex in its design but it is versatile in its musical capabilities. The design of the didgeridoo seems to have not had much evolution. It has likely had changes in its decoration and use over time, but the physical properties of the wooden tube have not changed much. In modern, industrialized societies, the instrument has been adopted and evolved beyond its aboriginal motif. Various alternative materials and processes have been used to manufacture untraditional didgeridoos; for example using PVC piping or even 3-D printers. The instrument as it is perceived by Australian aborigines is sacred and so has a specific manufacture and performance protocol. So, its traditional form has not undergone much evolution by aboriginal peoples, but outside of aboriginal culture it has been adopted and adapted into broad musical genres and uses. Whenever I hear one though, I still imagine how it appeared to that ancestral man and has remained as it is ever since: a termite-bored blessing by sound reverberating in Dreamtime.