Stringybark & Synchronicity, Renewal & Benediction

As I launch this new blog, I have to answer one question for both myself and you, dear reader. Why? Is there not enough content on the internet? What do I still have to add to discussion of these stringybark logs called yiḏaki? Most importantly, do Yolŋu People need or want this?

Let’s go back a bit.

Randy Graves
Didgeridoo star.

When I started playing the instrument in 1993, I wanted to be a didgeridoo star. I formed a band, recorded CDs, taught workshops. My first visit to Arnhem Land in 1999 changed my perspective. Advocacy for the people at the origin grew more important. In 2003, after a few more visits and much study, I won a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue a Master’s Degree in Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies at Charles Darwin University. I moved to Yirrkala, an Aboriginal township in remote northeast Arnhem Land. I created the comprehensive didgeridoo information website Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunyda with many Yolŋu partners and some generous volunteer translators in Europe.

The Mulka Project
Photos of ancestors at the Mulka Project, 2007

Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the art centre in the community of Yirrkala, hired me as assistant coordinator, yidaki specialist and then founding coordinator of The Mulka Project, a new multimedia centre wing that repatriated documentation of local culture and produced new materials. All my time and energy supported Yolŋu and advocated for their interests rather than my own.

I found myself at a loose end when a family medical crisis brought me back to the USA in 2009. Didgeridoo was a huge part of my life to that point, but I was no longer on the ground in Arnhem Land to work with the people I represented there. I couldn’t go back to old ways and promote my own self as didgeridoo star with any integrity. I shied away from the didgeridoo world for a few years. Then in 2015 I developed the show A Personal History of the Australian Didgeridoo to perform and educate by telling my story with the instrument and playing appropriate pieces along the way. I had some great experiences touring it, but was also confronted by the fact that most American didgeridoo players’ main interest was to make their own instruments and play them their own way. Overall, there is only a passing interest in the yidaki and its origins. I can’t say they are wrong, only that it does not jive well with many of my Yolŋu friends’ wishes.

The Old Dhawu
A decrepit but beloved old website.

Meanwhile, the website Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunyda had aged poorly. It was designed in another time, to be uploaded via dialup internet in a remote corner of the world. It required a special font. Although we promised it as a permanent resource, web designers unceremoniously deleted it in an overhaul of Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka’s site. After struggling to get it back up and then seeing it deleted a second time by another designer, I registered the domain as a new permanent home for the Dhäwu. I wanted to update it, but as an artist, didn’t have time for a big unpaid project. The demands of making a website for the range of devices people use today intimidated me. Then I discovered that the videos wouldn’t play on my new computer. When I saw Omar from Mexico and Loïc from Spain posting on Facebook about the Spanish-language version, standing by it in all its half-working glory, I decided it was time to update it.

Thanks to way more generosity than I thought I would receive from the crowdfunding world (you know who you are!), I raised funds to do the project in July-August 2016. I never had any doubt that keeping the website alive was in the best interests of the Yolŋu I had worked with to create it, but around this time came an unexpected benediction from one of them.

Wukun & Randin with a stringybark log
Accompanying Wukuṉ to open a Harvey Art Projects exhibition of art from Yirrkala, December 30, 2011, Sun Valley, Idaho

Wukun Wanambi was one of my close friends and colleagues in Yirrkala as one of Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka’s more successful artists and a founding Cultural Director of the Mulka Project. I interviewed him for the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu despite questions from others. “Why? He’s not a yidaki player!” I wanted a large cross section of Yolŋu voices on the website, but more importantly, Wukuṉ is a singer and young leader of the Marrakulu clan. They are the main local holders of gaḏayka, the stringybark tree that most yiḏaki are made from. He spoke to me in the past about his concerns. Others around the world were giving the didgeridoo, born from his own clan’s very soul, a new life without regard for its origins.

This painting on stringybark by the late Marrakulu artist and leader Ḏuṉḏiwuy Waṉambi may surprise you.

Painting on Stringybark by Ḏuṉḏiwuy Waṉambi
Ḏuṉḏiwuy Waṉambi, Ceremonial Ground Design Associated with the Sugarbag Ceremony, c. 1978. borrowed from

You might assume that it shows a yidaki and be confused by the title, Ceremonial Ground Design Associated with the Sugarbag Ceremony. In certain Marrakulu ceremony, Yolŋu dance in and around the sand sculpture Gundimulk. You know what? It’s kind of also a yidaki. And a ḻarrakitj, the hollow log coffin made from larger stringybark trees. It’s the home of the honey bees. It’s the stringybark tree itself. The Marrakulu clan family name Waṉambi is in fact a special name for gaḏayka. And it’s the river Gurka’wuy that runs through their land and empties into the sea at what the map calls Trial Bay. It is the whole of the stringybark and everything connected to it. Yolŋu art has many layers of meaning – a phrase I learned from the work of Aboriginal art scholar Howard Morphy. If you can, get your hands on the film Djungguwan at Gurka’wuy to hear Ḏuṉḏiwuy himself talk more about this story.

In August 2016, right when the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu crowdfunding campaign wrapped up, I got a rare email from Wukuṉ out of the blue. He never uses email. While in Melbourne for an art exhibition, he called on a common friend to write to me on his behalf. After some catching up, the conversation moved on to his continued concern for the yidaki around the world.

Now today, people are still asking me a question about yidaki and this reminds me of you playing didj in America. I know nowadays, yidaki is gone out into the world. It means Dhuwa side ga Yirritja side. It comes from one tree the stringybark yäku (called stringybark). But to name the yidaki name… I think you know what I am saying.

1. Respect the Yolngu.

2. Do not trespass the yidaki because that belong to Yolngu.

3. Put it in the surface side but don’t dig the gold because we don’t dig your gold.

As you know, today the yidaki is now a musical instrument in the world that is really not run by Yolngu, but by a lot of people. These are a few things that I am protesting in the protocol side.

Wukun Wanambi
Wukuṉ Waṉambi at Gäṉgaṉ, 2004

My friend, I am not criticising, I am debating in a manner that I respect you and professional player of yidaki in the world, knowing that in this world we should work together somehow, because nothing is run by Yolngu only Ngäpaki.

I’m saying this because the future of our generation might not be doing this. Yidaki be still around but it will be all whitefella’s entertainment.

yours sincerely, Wukuṉ.

(email correspondence August 2016, used with permission)

Coming right on the heels of the Dhäwu crowdfunding campaign and my own questions about my role in supporting the culture that created the yidaki from afar, this seemed an incredibly auspicious benediction. My Yolŋu friend and colleague, a stringybark man, suddenly reached out with a new, personal revision of the 1999 Garma Yidaki Statement that inspired my 2004 Fulbright & master’s project in the first place. He still wants the story spread, and he still wants us to work towards more cooperation between the origin of the didgeridoo and those who are spreading it around the world.

Humility killed the didgeridoo star. With Gayili Yunupiŋu, 2004.

And with that, I launch this blog. I’ll write one to four posts a month, depending on the size. Some big, some tiny. Reflections on my experiences in Arnhem Land. Reviews of books and films related to Yolŋu culture. Additions to the material in the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu. Over time, guest posts from Yolŋu. The ever popular more. This American who went down the rabbit hole of yidaki and Yolŋu culture will share his experience with you to deepen your awareness of the culture that brought us this wonderful instrument that we all love.

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