Ever Hear This Yidaki Technique? Murrkundi

Yidaki Technique - Murrkundi
Land of the Morning Star
cover image borrowed from manikay.com

Here’s an unusual yidaki technique you may not have heard. First, we’ll listen to a track from Sandra Le Brun Holmes’ album Land of the Morning Star. She recorded the player “Mudpo” at Milingimbi in 1962. I’d have to check again with Yolŋu friends back in Arnhem Land, but something in the back of my mind says he was a Gälpu clansman. I could be mixing this up with another field recording from Galiwin’ku, though, so a correction would be welcome if anyone out there can provide it. The track is labelled “Murrkundi (the Little Black Bird).”

Yes, you’re hearing right. “Mudpo” is making a little nasal squeak sound on top of normal yidaki technique.

A. P. Elkin caught a more extreme, squeakier version of the technique for his 1953 recording Tribal Music of Australia.

Tribal Music of Australia
cover image borrowed from manikay.com

Elkin’s liner notes say:

“the accompaniment for the dance and song of a small bird, called ‘moi kandi’. It has a high squeak which the Puller reproduces at the same time as he blows his didjeridu.”

“Puller” was a term used for didjeridu players by many anthropologists and presumably northern Aboriginal People in the 1950s and 60s, but the term has fallen out of use. I didn’t make a study of the term while I lived in Yirrkala, but the few young Yolŋu I asked about the word looked at me like I was crazy.

Unfortunately, neither Holmes nor Elkin recorded the full song so that we could hear this technique in context, nor did they detail what clan(s) sing it.  I never put much time into the issue, but asked some Yolŋu about “murrkundi.” Only a few older yidaki specialists, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi and the recently deceased Datjirri #1 Wunuŋmurra, said they were familiar with the technique. Both had health conditions that made the sound more difficult for them to produce, but gave me a brief demo. Unfortunately, neither were keen to have it filmed. So you just get a quick clip of me.

Now you. As Dr. Ed Harkins, who inspired me to start playing didjeridu, used to say, “this is the kind of thing you should be doing.”

If anybody out there has more information on this subject, please let me know and I’ll post an update.

Yidaki of the Month #5, November 2017, by Badikupa Gurruwiwi

Yidaki of the Month by Badikupa Gurruwiwi

This gorgeous Yidaki of the Month is one of the first instruments I bought upon moving to Yirrkala in 2004.

Yidaki by Badkupa

Stats:
Eb drone • Gb first trumpeted note
155cm long • 3cm mouthpiece • 14cm bell

Mouthpiece by Badikupa

Yidaki by Badikupa bell

Badikupa Gurruwiwi crafted this yidaki. For those of you who don’t know much about Yolŋu people but recognize the name Gurruwiwi, yes, he’s related to Djalu’. In fact, Djalu’ calls Badikupa his father. By our reckoning, it would be “uncle.” Badikupa is a younger brother from another mother of Djalu’s father Monyu. In the Yolŋu world, you refer to all your father’s brothers as fathers, so although Badikupa and Djalu are close in age, they are technically father and son. Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu, maker of The First Yidaki I Ever Saw, was for many years Badikupa’s wife and crafting partner.

Yidaki of the Month _ Badikupa Gurruwiwi
Baḏikupa with his new catchphrase from yidakistory.com/dhawu/final-thoughts.

Yolŋu with the name Gurruwiwi belong to the Gälpu clan. Every clan claims several “totems” or ceremonial connections related to land, animals, plant life and even cloud formations. The Gälpu connect deeply to the power of the storm. The monsoonal wet season brings thunder, lightning, and fertility. Badikupa adorns most of his yidaki with his trademark version of Gälpu clan miny’tji, or sacred design, related to the storm.

It’s not just a looker, but a player, too. The recently deceased yidaki maker and player D#1 Wunuŋmurra called it “the master key.” He felt it could be played in any style. Djalu’ agreed that it had the depth and power of a Gälpu clan Djuŋgirriny’ but the lightness of both weight and tone to make it playable for any every day ceremony. Here’s Djalu’ playing it. He starts with the song of the west wind, which is appropriate for a Djuŋgirriny’, then moves on to a dolphin song – more of an every day yidaki piece.

The late Milkay Munuŋgurr agreed that it is a good yidaki suitable for general use. He plays it here.

And I played it recently as part of my “Didjeridu of the Day” series on Instagram.

OK, that’s it. No big conclusions from this one. Just a look and listen at a fine yidaki and a little insight into Yolŋu kinship and identity. I’ll go further into the symbology of Gälpu clan art later when I feature an instrument in my collection painted by Djalu’ & Baḏikupa’s cousin Djul’djul Gurruwiwi.

And oh yeah, last month’s yidaki by Burrŋupurrŋu still hasn’t sold! Get on it, people!

PREVIOUS YIDAKI OF THE MONTH:
#1, July 2017, by Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu
#2, August 2017, by Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr
#3, September 2017, by Djalu’ Gurruwiwi
#4, October 2017, by Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra

The Art of the Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

A  Facebook post by Hollow Log Didgeridoos, one of the supporters of the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu update, nudged me to start a series I’ve been considering – features of important out-of-print didjeridu recordings. Manikay.com archives most if not all of these, but hasn’t been updated in many years and features out of date RealAudio files. So I’ll present streaming mp3s for you to hear. First up: ‘The Art of the Didjeridu.’

Trevor A. Jones must be one of the first academics to take a serious interest in the didjeridu, including learning the instrument himself. He published several papers on the subject, but we’re talking here about recordings. In 1963, he produced ‘The Art of the Didjeridu’ for Wattle Records. It features Jones demonstrating basic technique, some solo recordings he made of Arnhem Land players, and field recordings Lester and Betty Hiatt made in 1960 in and around Maningrida, north central Arnhem Land. It’s a unique release from the very early days of didjeridu recordings. A demonstration of basic technique by a non-Aboriginal player and samples of the instrument in context.

The Art of the Didjeridu cover
Album cover. Pic from discogs.com.

Following are excerpts from the original liner notes. I haven’t edited the spellings or added any interpretive notes based on my later experience in Arnhem Land… although it’s pretty tempting.


THE RECORDINGS USED
All the sounds heard on Side A of this record were made by Trevor Jones, who has over the past nine years taught himself to reproduce many of the sounds and rhythmic patterns used by native players of the didjeridu. He does not, however, claim to approach in virtuosity the expert aboriginal player, whose long and rigorous training from a very early age in the art of Didjeridu blowing provides him the technique that can only be weakly imitated by a white man. Breathing problems in particular preclude for the amateur the long stretches of endurance that give the native’s performances their hypnotic power and fascination. The patterns heard on Side B. band 1 (yidakistory note: our Track 06), are played by natives who are not fully professional players but who have achieved a remarkable standard nonetheless. These recordings were made by Trevor Jones in Sydney and Perth on occasions when full-blooded aborigines visited those cities for conferences of various kinds. The corroboree excerpts heard on the remainder of Side B feature professional didjeridu players who are accredited masters of their art. They were recorded in Arnhem Land in 1960 by Mr. and Mrs L. Hiatt. At that time Mr. Hiatt was carrying out anthropological research from the Australian National University, Canberra.

Art of the Didjeridu notesBack of the record sleeve. Pic from discogs.com.

Track 01: Tone Patterns
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 02: Breathing Techniques
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 03: Tone Combinations
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 04: Special Effects
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 05: Characteristic Rhythmic Patterns
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones. Short examples of nine characteristic patterns: the first four (Wadamiri, Djerag, Djedbangari, Mulara) belong to the overall north-eastern style known as Bunggal, and use the larger didjeridu. The next two (Gunborg, Gunbalanya) come from the central Arnhem Land region, near the coast, and also use the larger instrument, and these are followed by two (Wongga, Nyindi-yindi) that are typical of Lira style of the west, involving the smaller tube. The final pattern (Ubar) which also makes use of the smaller didjeridu, has traits of both western and central styles.

Track 06: Solo Didjeridu Playing
Recorded by Trevor Jones in Sydney and Perth of non-fully professional players who visited these cities for conferences of various kinds. First six solos are of the north-eastern Bunggal class using the blown overtone, both staccato and “hooted”, croaked notes, and pulsating fundamental. The next two songs are Wongga songs of the western Lira style, and make use of the continuous fundamental with varied timbre and the chordal superimposition. Finally an Ubar accompaniment, first played and then chanted, using the special stylised speech devised for imitating the actual sound of the instrument.

Track 07: North Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Track 08: North Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Recorded by Lester & Betty Hiatt, Arnhem Land 1960. Manigai, essentially north-central in style, using the continuous accented fundamental; in addition, however, they break the continuity with the “hooted” overtone, a trait typical of songs from further east. They therefore bear traces, in their didjeridu patterns, both of the Gunborg and Gunbalanya and more particularly of the mortuary songs of the Mulara and Ngorunngapa types.

Track 09: Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Recorded by Lester & Betty Hiatt, Arnhem Land 1960. Borog song, more decidedly central in style, being from the western side of the Blyth River, and are also similar to the Gunbalanya in their didjeridu rhythms. This one bears the unmistakable western mark of the rhythmic use of the “hummed” chord.

Track 10: Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Recorded by Lester & Betty Hiatt, Arnhem Land 1960. This one is from the west of the Liverpool River and exhibits even more clearly than the previous, the essentially “central” use of an evenly accented continuous fundamental with whole-tone rise in pitch, as in the Gunborg type.

Track 11: Secret Ceremonial Didjeridu
YidakiStory.com takes over: Sorry, I’m not going to include this track. Aboriginal People shared many things with early anthropologists that they choose not to share publicly now. They did not understand the implications of sharing with these (mostly) men who would then publish the material for countless others to see. I never played this track publicly when I lived in Yirrkala, so I won’t put it out publicly on the internet. It contains song and didjeridu from what is considered to by “inside ceremony” belonging to specific clans. It would not be shared with neighbouring Aboriginal People who were not initiated into the given ceremonial business, let alone a non-Aboriginal public.


OK, there you go. A quick look and listen of a historic didjeridu recording you may not have heard. I’ll bring you some more old tracks in the future.

Deutsch Dhäwu Translation Up

I just thought I’d celebrate the launch of the German translation of the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu, thanks to Ansgar Stein & team. Here it is:

http://yidakistory.com/dhawu/de/

That brings us to six languages, translated by teams around the world. I’m so grateful for this support and belief in this project. You can access any of the languages at any time from the bottom of the menu or any page of the Dhäwu. Their front pages are all linked from here:

Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja – The Ultimate Didgeridoo-Yidaki-Didjeridu-Yirdaki Info Website

Thanks again to everyone involved. Please spread the word!

Yidaki of the Month #4: October 2017, by Burrngupurrngu Wunungmurra

Yidaki for Sale

I’ve been stalling on this feature this month, hesitating about doing what I really wanted to. This is a non-commercial site, but I’m going to feature a yidaki for sale on my commercial site at www.gingerroot.com/catalog/yidaki.htm. It’s a great instrument that I shouldn’t still have available after a few months. It was made by Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra, whose life was interrupted by leukemia this past year. Check out my tribute to him in an earlier blog post. My old colleague Jeremy Cloake launched a fundraising campaign to help support Burrŋupurrŋu. When this instrument sells, I’ll send another US$100 to that campaign on top of the cut Burrnŋupurrŋu and his wife Djul’djul Gurruwiwi already got.

The rumor is that young yidaki maker Dhapa Ganambarr assisted Burrŋupurrŋu on this one. I believe it from the mouthpiece, which leans more towards Dhapa’s style. Djul’djul provided a fantastic painting as always, this time featuring ganguri, the Dhuwa yam. The leafy vine runs most of the length of the instrument, with the edible tuber at the bottom. As usual, she uses traditional, natural paints of ochre and clay.

Stats:
Eb drone • Ab first trumpeted note
140cm long • 9cm bell • 3.5cm mouthpiece

Here’s my original demo video for the instrument:

And here’s my more recent 1-minute “Didjeridu of the Day” post on Instagram.

Yidaki for Sale mouthpiece
Mouthpiece
Yidaki for Sale bell
Distal end

The price is $850 plus shipping. Heck, I’ll make it $800 if you mention “yidaki of the month.” Contact me HERE if you’re interested. I’d love to get this to a good home and get some more funds to Burrŋupurrŋu and Djul’djul.

I promise a more informative and historic yidaki of the month in November!

PREVIOUS YIDAKI OF THE MONTH:
#1, July 2017, by Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu
#2, August 2017, by Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr
#3, September 2017, by Djalu’ Gurruwiwi

yidaki for sale

Women and Didgeridoo. Again.

Should Women Play Didgeridoo?

Yes, I’m going there. The issue that won’t go away. And has no answer.

Should women play didgeridoo?

Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja addresses the issue at www.yidakistory.com/dhawu/yidaki-issues/women-play-didgeridoo. In conducting interviews and writing the basic text for the Dhäwu, I aimed to represent the range of views in northeast Arnhem Land as much as possible. To summarize, key male figures in the Yolŋu yiḏaki world like Djalu’ and Burrŋupurrŋu invite non-Aboriginal women to learn to play from them. Baḏikupa and Djambawa speak of Yolŋu women playing in ceremony in older days when no men knew the songs. Wukuṉ, on the other hand, believes that women should not and are in fact incapable of playing. Three women, Banduk, Merrkiyawuy and a late sister of Djalu’, share a range of opinions but all agree that Yolŋu women will stick to their traditional women’s business. Only Banduk says strictly that outsider women should never play didjeridu, while the other two leave some room for personal choice.

On this blog, I share my own experiences and views – and in this case, those of my wife, Brandi – instead of strictly representing Yolŋu opinions. I asked Brandi if she would write a guest post, but she passed and told me to write this up. Those who disagree with early parts of this post, please press on to the end. SPOILER ALERT: She used to play, but doesn’t anymore. Here we go.

First off, the didjeridu comes from the Top End.

Period. That refers to a large area and we cannot pinpoint one origin of the instrument within it.  Different Aboriginal groups across the Top End tell different stories of the didjeridu’s creation. I have no interest in judging them or choosing between them and won’t discuss academic theories on that issue here. I also won’t take time debating the larger point. Although exact borders can’t be drawn, academics and many Aboriginal People from around Australia agree that the didjeridu comes from the north of the Northern Territory and spread from there. I accept this as fact.

Alice Moyle's Didjeridu Map
Dr. Alice Moyle’s map of the origins of the didjeridu, based on her work in the early 1960’s. These boundaries are certainly not set in stone, and instruments were certainly known beyond this map well before this time. This indicates areas where the instrument seems to have been in continuous use since before European contact/invasion.

Stories of physical harm or sudden pregnancy coming to women who play are oft repeated outside of that area. I’ll never forget a woman who came to me in tears many years ago, telling me how she went to pick up a didjeridu in a tourist shop in New South Wales, but an Aboriginal man in the shop snatched it from her and yelled at her. It broke her heart both that she wanted to play but wasn’t allowed, and that she unintentionally offended this man.

Countless arguments about this litter social media. Non-Aboriginal women post pictures or videos of themselves playing and find themselves the target of great ire from Down Under. From both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal People, but not from traditional owners from the Top End as far as I’ve seen.

I visited a few times then lived in northeast Arnhem Land for 5 years, working with countless Yolŋu People while completing a Fulbright & M.A. project on the instrument. No one gave me a reason why Yolŋu women don’t play. It simply is not done. I only heard the cautionary story of didjeridu playing making a woman pregnant once. Banduk, who lived in Sydney for many years, referred to it as a superstition.

One Woman’s Experience in Top End Didjeridu Country

Brandi and I met in the USA in 1997 through our shared interest in the didjeridu and went to Australia for the first time in 1999. We started in Sydney, and didn’t have any issue with her as a woman player there, apart from one semi-related suggestion by an Aboriginal Person that she would be speared once we got to the Top End where the law was much stricter.

We made our way north to Katherine, where we had no trouble shopping together for instruments at stores managed by white Australians. From there, we made our way to an Aboriginal community in Top End didj country for the first time. Manyallaluk offers day tours for tourists. Local people take you for a bush walk to talk about medicinal plants and native foods. We ate kangaroo tail and drank green ant “tea.” We threw spears. We heard “Dreaming stories” of the place and had a quick go at painting on bark.

And then, out came a didjeridu for everyone to try. Everyone. It was passed around for the whole group, men and women alike. Most people of course failed to play it. I wondered what the reaction would be when it got to me, the hot shot that people in the USA thought was so good. Mostly, it was buzzkill for all our fellow tourists who had just failed at it. Our local Aboriginal hosts reacted with, “hey, that’s cool, you know how to play.” I told them that I would soon be hosting a workshop with David Blanasi back home.

Then I passed it to Brandi. She played and our male tour guides went nuts. They laughed and applauded. They called over the other men and women of the community sitting nearby.

“Hey, you’ve gotta come see this white woman who can play didjeridu! She knows Blanasi!”

Instead of bringing out the spears for punishment, the moment brought a bit of joy and wonder to the community for a minute – though admittedly, it excited the men more than the women. It seemed that somehow, in 1999, this was really the first time these men had seen a woman play didjeridu with any competence. I’m sure this didn’t instigate a cultural revolution such that we’ll go back and find that all the local women play now. I know their culture holds strong. But this cross cultural moment brought no shame, anger or warnings of impending physical harm or pregnancy. Just a pleasant surprise for all concerned.

Woman Didgeridoo Player at Manyallaluk
With our hosts at Manyallaluk in 1999: Manuel, Richard and Ringo (the dog).

On to Yolŋu Country

A few weeks later, we found ourselves staying with Djalu’ Gurruwiwi’s family at Gunyaŋara’ in northeast Arnhem Land. Djalu’s fame hadn’t reached today’s heights yet, but he had traveled and hosted visitors before. A woman player didn’t shock his family as it did the residents of Manyallaluk. They accepted Brandi. As a western couple, we planned to do everything together while on our trip. But she was smart enough to see that not all was right.

Both at Manyallaluk and Gunyaŋara’, Aboriginal People lead lives somewhat divided on gender lines in a way we as an “enlightened” couple from the USA didn’t. When we popped in to Manyallaluk for one day, a white woman didj player was cool. Staying at Gunyaŋara’ for a few weeks, however, was a different story. It got a bit awkward. Once Brandi suggested that we go our separate ways, with me doing men’s business like didgeridoo playing while she joined in women’s business, our relationships with the Yolŋu improved. We did as the Romans did and fit ourselves into their world view rather than insisting on bringing our own to their place.

That’s not to say yidaki is 100% men’s business. In Djalu’s family, everyone helps in the crafting process. During our first yidaki cutting trip with Djalu’, his wife Dopiya brought me a log she just chopped down, asking me to test its playability. A small, irregularly shaped mouthpiece hole sat in the middle of a thick log. With my little lips, skinny face, big nose and prior experience mostly with beeswax mouthpieces, I couldn’t fit my face on there and get a seal to try it properly. Dopiya gave up on me, took it into her own hands and blew a drone on the log for herself. Just for testing purposes since this white kid was worthless.

Women Didgeridoo Painters
I didn’t catch a picture of her testing that log, but here Dopiya, at right, paints one of the yiḏaki from that cutting trip.

Woman Didge Player at WorkBrandi assisting Djalu’ in 1999.

Before this trip, Brandi wanted to be a hot chick with a stick.

Few women publicly performed on didjeridu around the world. Joining those elite ranks was a sure way to get attention. The experience of the instrument’s context in Arnhem Land changed that for Brandi. It wasn’t about her anymore and she’d rather do what the women do. We visited the family a few times, then lived nearby for 5 years, immersed in life there. Brandi blew a note or two over the years, same like Dopiya testing out freshly cut instruments for herself, but she never went back to being a chick with a stick. It wasn’t appropriate for the life we lived, and it wasn’t nearly as fun as hanging with the women. As Merrkiyawuy said, Yolŋu men and women respect each other’s roles.

This is not absolutely the right answer for everyone. Djalu’s late sister (WARNING to family not to click unprepared on the following video) voices her opinion clearly. It’s up to a woman to decide for herself, but Yolŋu women will stick to their traditions.

I suppose the best thing now is to reiterate the summary I wrote for the Yidakiwuy Dhäwu.

So the best advice for non-Yolŋu women is to make your own choice for what you do on your own time, knowing that there are some Yolŋu who would encourage you to play. But be very sensitive about who you are with. If you are in Arnhem Land or in the presence of people from Arnhem Land, carefully check that no one will be upset before playing. Be aware that it may be shocking, and may inspire the laughter that women playing does in initiation ceremonies. Yolŋu women have their own business, and like to stick together and stick to their customs. You will not win any friends and begin a relationship of open sharing with Yolŋu by forcing your point of view, and will likely alienate Yolŋu women who could otherwise become friends.

As I said above, this paragraph was written to represent Yolŋu opinion, but from my own limited experience, I would apply that same view to the rest of the Top End didjeridu origins in the Northern Territory. You won’t be judged as harshly as you would by people from other parts of Australia for playing didjeridu, but you won’t make friends with local Aboriginal women that way, either.

Weaving Women
Brandi adored learning to weave with some of our best Yolŋu friends in 1999.

If you just want to play the instrument and don’t plan to ever be involved with Aboriginal People,

then know that some people at its origins feel you have that choice. People like Djalu’ Gurruwiwi.

People like Western Arnhem Land mago master David Blanasi who allowed women into workshops like the one I arranged in San Diego in 1999.

David Blanasi and a Woman Didgeridoo player.
The late, great David Blanasi with a woman student in the foreground, San Diego, California, 1999.

But also know that like any other subject, you will run into arguments about it on the internet. You will never win that argument. Those people, if they’ve read this far, are not convinced by me right now. But I personally believe all the evidence that instrument originates from the Top End and only recently spread all over Australia. I choose to listen to traditional owners from that region. Not that 100% of them agree on this issue.

I also choose not to pick fights with people from outside that region. Please don’t insult them or intentionally cause confrontation to assert your own view of your rights. They have their own struggles in the aftermath of the invasion of their country and intentional destruction of their culture. They are proudly holding on to what they can. They deserve understanding and respect.

So. Make your choice.

Do what you gotta do. If you decide to play, know that some Aboriginal People will support your decision. Many won’t. Be respectful wherever you are, including the internet, but don’t feel you need to hide yourself, either. I wish there was an easier answer for every situation to keep everyone happy but there isn’t.

Yidaki of the Month #3, September 2017: by Djalu Gurruwiwi

Yidaki of the Month by Djalu

Yidaki of the Month by Djalu Gurruwiwi

Djalu’ Gurruwiwi made this yidaki in August 1999. I helped in between taking pictures for my website documenting my first visit to Australia. I’ll repeat of few of those old photos in higher resolution here. I don’t have video of any Yolŋu playing this yidaki like I did of the last Yidaki of the Month. Instead I have about 40 minutes of audio of Djalu’ playing it. Apart from a couple of excerpts in Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja and a few Mulka Project videos, these recordings have only been heard by a few of my friends.

Stats:

  • key of D with E first trumpeted note
  • length 155cm
  • mouthpiece approximately 3.2cm
  • distal end approximately 9cm

Yidaki mouthpiece
Mouthpiece, sugarbag added.

Yidaki bottom
The distal end.

And now, the “making of” photos. In the finest digital photo quality 1999 had to offer!

stringybark eucalyptus forest
Heading out into the stringybark forest near Gove airport one fine day in August, 1999. Djalu’ is tapping this tree with the head of his axe to listen for the resonance of a hollow tree.
Djalu can not tell a lie. He chopped down the stringybark tree.
The tree falls. This isn’t our Yiḏaki of the Month, but it’s from the right day and I love this photo too much.
Djalu works the yidaki mouthpiece
A little clearing in the mouthpiece end.
Djalu working on the yidaki
And in the bottom end.
Djalu plays the yidaki
One last play before loading up in his old 4WD. Yolŋu love this first part of discovering new yiḏaki. This was one of two that day that Djalu’ loved so much, he almost finished them on the spot.
Djalu plays the yidaki on tape
Djalu’ plays on his back porch for my old DAT recorder (RIP).

I’ll post more below, but let’s listen to just one bit now, shall we? His rapid alternation of drone and trumpet notes totally mystified me back then, so this has always been my go-to demo of how amazing the old man’s playing is. An excerpt of this track appears on the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu How to Play: The Trumpet Note page, but I’ll include the full three minutes here. He plays a few renditions and provides the “mouth sounds,” or teaching pneumonics. This yidaki part normally accompanies song and dance about monsoonal rains.

yidaki drying
The yiḏaki in question, at left, drying after a coating of glue.
yidaki painting
Painting is a family affair. Djalu’ and a sister paint other instruments while his wife Dopiya (right) paints our Yiḏaki of the Month.
yidaki painted
The three yiḏaki I brought home from my first visit. Paint drying the night before we chucked them into a plane hold wrapped in a sheet!

Confession. While the Yiḏaki of the Month was Djalu’s clear favorite of the three, I couldn’t get along with it for many years. I preferred the black one at the right. It had a tighter top section, more back pressure, and a larger interval between the drone and trumpeted note. I didn’t know how to play trumpet notes with any subtlety back then. I almost always pushed too hard, with too tight a lip, and overshot the trumpet note on Djalu’s favored yidaki of the batch. Yet he demonstrated hitting it with such ease in the piece you heard above. I struggled to play along with his recordings and learn, but just couldn’t connect with the yellow yidaki. I always used the black one to demonstrate what I had learned of Yolŋu style, right up to when I moved to Arnhem Land.

your didjeridu companion
The black one graced the covers of all my instructional CDs and appeared on the retroflexed tonguing exercises.

These yidaki all stayed in the USA while I lived in Arnhem Land. After living for five years near Djalu’ and developing my playing style and lip with his and other Yolŋu players’ influence, guess what? I now very much prefer the yellow one. Young Yolŋu probably would prefer the black one with its higher back pressure. I guess I’m an old man like Djalu’ now, preferring mid-level back pressure and a slightly more open bore.

Here are a few more recordings of Djalu’ playing it.

Guḏurrku – Brolga

Mutjalanydjal – Dolphin

Milika – Moonfish

Baṉumbirr – Morning Star

Marrpaṉ – Flatback Turtle

Garrtjambal – Red Kangaroo

Bärra’ – West Wind

The Mulka Manikay Archives

The Mulka Manikay Archives

This post details the origins of The Mulka Manikay Archives CD series that documents songs of several Yolŋu clans of northeast Arnhem Land. A future post will go into greater detail about one of the recordings.

You can find the albums from some didgeridoo sellers and all the usual online digital music retailers. Here’s a link to them on Amazon.com.

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

In 2007, Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the art centre in the remote Australian Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, launched a new multimedia wing: The Mulka Project. Mulka refers to the centre as a holding place of Yolŋu culture. The original grant applications sought mostly to create an archive of materials made by anthropologists, missionaries and other visitors to Arnhem Land over the years, managed and made accessible to the community by Yolŋu librarians.

I luckily arrived in Yirrkala at the right time and with many of the right skills to become coordinator of this new project. Right away, I knew we needed to adjust Mulka’s charter. It wouldn’t just be an archive, but a production centre training Yolŋu to take the reigns of modern media to tell their own stories from now on. With my background as a musician and indie record label owner, it was a simple step to jump into making new audio recordings. We already started repatriating audio made decades earlier by outsiders. It was time for the community to make their own recordings of the current generation of singers.

During construction and development of the new project, the Yothu Yindi Foundation offered support including the use of their recording studio at Gunyaŋara’. Their Contemporary Masters series of CDs recorded there featured Galarrwuy Yunupiŋu, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi and more. This seemed the obvious way ahead. We would record new albums of clan song there.

Yothu Yindi Manikay CDs
The Yothu Yindi Foundation Contemporary Masters Series
Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura
Djambawa Marawilli at Yilpara
Djambawa Marawili at Yilpara 2004

The plan changed not long before the launch of the Mulka Project in mid-2007. Maḏarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili came in and poked around the new place just after I finished wiring our new theatre’s sound system. The voice of Galarrwuy Yunupiŋu from the Yothu Yindi Foundation CD Gobulu blared over the speakers. Djambawa listened for a moment and his face betrayed his thoughts.

I said, “so, do you want to record a CD of Maḏarrpa manikay (song)?”

“Yes, but I’m not recording in any studio. I’m doing it on my own homeland at Yilpara, looking out at my ocean.”

Done. Brilliant idea. I added a few items for remote recording to the list of necessary gear for the new centre and brought the idea to my colleagues. There were two Yolŋu Cultural Directors at that point; Wukuṉ Waṉambi and the late Dr. R. Marika. She deserves a whole blog post to herself, but to be brief, Dr. Marika had long been a key Yolŋu figure in Australian academia and Aboriginal activism. She loved the idea of recording remotely at significant locations and coined a name for the series: Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura, or “The Sound of the Homeland at the Homeland.”

Manikay at Dhalinybuy
Recording at Dhalinybuy in 2007

After her sudden passing and my sudden departure before the release of any of the recordings, the series became The Mulka Manikay Archives, which is much easier for non-Yolŋu minds and tongues to grapple with. I do however want the record to show that the original concept and the spirit of the recordings was definitely Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura. These are documents made in remote spots of Yolŋu singing the land. Of the three recording sessions I produced, Djambawa’s demonstrated this most clearly. As he and his clansmen sung of thunderclouds gathering over the ocean off of Yilpara, we watched it happening.

listen to them

Check them out now. If you’ve listened to them before, do it again. Know this time that these recordings are different. They’re not done in studios just to sell to the public. They weren’t done for an academic as part of his or her research. They are Yolŋu sitting on their own land, feeling what they’re singing with the intention of sharing with their families and future generations. Picture yourself on the beach at Yilpara or in the middle of Dhalinybuy and get lost in it.

I’ve posted this before, but here’s a video clip from the Gurrumuru session.

the documentation that could have been

Dr. Marika, having worked in western academia and knowing many of the commercially available recordings of traditional Aboriginal music, had a chip on her shoulder that I adored. All the prior recordings of Yolŋu music included liner notes written by non-Yolŋu academics. All of them got some things right and some things wrong. Dr. Marika declared that our CDs would come with the most thorough documentation ever, telling deeper stories direct from the Yolŋu perspective for the first time. No essays by outside academics. The layout and artwork would include symbology related to the songs and ancestral connections. She wanted to show the world what comprehensive liner notes written and designed by Yolŋu intellectuals looked like.

Yumutjin Wunungmurra
Yumutjin Wunuŋmurra at Mulka, recording the story for the Gurrumuru CD in 2008

Sadly, this idea was dropped along with her name for the series after both of us were out of the picture. All the recordings are released with just a track listing and artist information. I’m not privy to the reasoning behind the decision, but I can guess. First off, it’s less work. A LOT less. Secondly, Dr. Marika was one of few Yolŋu who knew academia and who would have read liner notes about Yolŋu music written by outsiders. Not many Yolŋu have a context for these kinds of recordings in the outside world, and certainly few if any would have that drive that Dr. Marika had to create the best liner notes ever. The vast majority of Yolŋu would be happy with a recording with no liner notes at all. Ever since the introduction of cassette tapes, Yolŋu have passed around recordings of manikay. For most of them, new technology just means better quality for the recordings that they listen to with no need for any information.

That said, I am grateful that the recordings have seen the light of day at all. The work of running Mulka is truly overwhelming. Over a year after the first recording and with two more in the can, we were just about ready to release the first CD when I suddenly had to leave Mulka and Yirrkala. I’m glad the CDs went ahead even without the work Dr. Marika and I wanted to do. It’s just a shame that they are less informative, less marketable and less significant than they could have been.

I didn’t take much with me when I left Mulka, but I do have a lot of the work that we did for what became the Dhalinybuy CD. I’ll share that in a future post so that in at least a small way, you can see some of the vision Dr. Marika had for these CDs.

Manikay from Dhalinybuy
Unfinished liner notes for what became the Dhalinybuy CD. More to come soon!

Once again, the CDs are available from some didgeridoo sellers and downloads are available from Amazon, iTunes, etc. Please support the Mulka Project and get the sound of the land in your ears by buying these albums!

Yidaki of the Month #2, August 2017: Cyclone Power

Yidaki of the Month

Keeping with last month’s tribute to him on the 10th anniversary of his passing, this month’s featured yidaki was made by the late Milkay Munuŋgurr in 2005. Here he is playing it in 2006.

He found this yidaki while doing his ranger duties, clearing roads after a cyclone that took a heavy toll on the region in early 2005. Mr. Munuŋgurr couldn’t help but notice the potential yidaki among the fallen trees. I believe he made two from what he found post-cyclone.

He originally intended to sell this elsewhere along with a few others, but asked me what I thought about the lot first. A couple were really great, with this at the top of the list. I raved about it but told him his hole patching wouldn’t fly. It’s normal to come across knot holes in the wood while carving down a yidaki. He used epoxy to cover up these holes, leaving visible white lumps on the otherwise natural wood instruments.

I said, “c’mon, you’ve got to at least paint over these patches.” I raved about this instrument, anyway, and told him if he could make more like it, I’d buy them all day, any day for top dollar at the Yirrkala art centre.

He came back a week later with this instrument painted. He told me that since I liked it so much, it was for me. And I’ll always keep it.

This little cyclone-power yidaki got used a lot over the next few years. We used it for the pictures on his instructional CD, Hard Tongue Didgeridoo instead of the actual instrument used on the CD which was made by someone else. If this yidaki existed at the time of recording, I’m sure he would have chosen it instead.

Milkay & Buku at Dhanaya
Buyu plays this yiḏaki with his father at Dhanaya – from the Hard Tongue Didgeridoo photo shoot in 2005.

We took it to festivals and workshops. I loaned it out for ceremony if I was there to keep an eye on it. I had a collection of 8 yidaki that I showed to different payers and elders to get comments for my master’s project, and this was always the favorite of younger players like the late Mr. Munyarryun in this clip.

After he played all the yidaki, I asked him to pick a favorite, tell me why, and show off on it for a bit. Unfortunately, my camera battery ran out just then and I only have a few seconds of that. I’m glad I at least have the above simple clip.

Djakapurra and Mirarra also participated in that project and loved this instrument.

It was used on the first three Mulkay Manikay Archives CDs that I recorded at Dhalinybuy, Yilpara and Gurrumuru. I brought a couple of options, but the players and singers always settled on this yidaki for the majority of the recording. Here’s a clip from the Gurrumuru session which I’ve posted before.

And here is young Arnold Djunbiya Marika playing it at Dhalinbuy with some of the youngest songmen you’ll ever see.

Incidentally, I have a sealed set of those first three CDs. If you want them, contact me. You can also buy downloads from all the usual online suspects. Here are links to Amazon: GurrumuruDhalinybuyYilpara. Several more were recorded and released after my time there as well. I’ll write another post about that series later on.

Most elders said that this yidaki is a potential ceremonial instrument called Dhaḏalal. In this clip, slightly extended from what appears on elsewhere on this site, Djalu’ plays the yidaki, taps it a bit and then says, “Guḻkuḻa,” referring to the birthplace of the Dhaḏalal for his mother’s Gumatj clan.

Oddly enough, its maker disagreed. To him and the younger players I showed it to, it’s a perfect “lead yidaki” suitable for any clan song. Yolŋu today use rock and roll terms and talk about, lead, rhythm or bass yidaki. Despite older museum examples and what many elders said, Mr. Munuŋgurr, who played Dhaḏalal ceremonially countless times, preferred a deeper yidaki with a fuller trumpet note, like the one he’s pictured with here. He chose that one for the trumpet note exercises on his instructional CD. But that’s for a future Yidaki of the Month episode.

Milkay & Buyu

Nevertheless, I used this little cyclone-power yidaki semi-formally as a Dhaḏalal, myself. The annual Garma Festival takes place at the origin of the Dhaḏalal at Guḻkuḻa. The Yirrkala art center’s Gapaṉ Gallery traditionally opens at the festival with Mr. Munuŋgurr’s mother and her sisters doing a small bit of that ceremony, performing ritual mourning, or milkarri. Crying songs. Garma 2007 was just a few weeks after his passing. I figured they’d need a yidaki for that gallery opening ceremony. I brought this one out and showed it to his mother and asked if she’d like that one to be used. She cried briefly, hugged me and asked me to play it. So as dark fell that night, I played the ceremonial dups, triggering the beginning of the ritual crying of his mother and her sisters, obviously in a more real and heartfelt way than usual.

It then had a little break out of the public eye, then continued to be a popular loaner. Yolŋu men often saw the craftsman’s signature and pointed it out to others. This little yidaki continued to get respect on behalf of its maker who earned it.

Milkay Mununggurr

Djakapurra Munyarryun & I on ABC Radio Darwin, 2004

In late 2004, I made a trip from Yirrkala to Darwin to work with my master’s thesis supervisor at Charles Darwin University. The local ABC radio affiliate’s Leon Compton invited me to come in and talk about my project. An hour or two before the show,  I ran into Yolŋu dancer, singer and yiḏaki player Djakapurra Munyarryun on the street downtown. I quickly realised that I needed to invite him to join me on the radio. They asked me to talk about my M.A. & Fulbright project about the didgeridoo. Well, the project’s aim was to collaborate with Yolŋu People to get the word out about the origins of the didgeridoo in Arnhem Land on their own terms. It seemed an obvious bit of fate that I crossed paths with Djakapurra so that this interview could also be a collaboration with Yolŋu.

Here is the entire appearance.