I’ve talked a lot about Dhalinybuy since this blog started last April, mostly in the series of posts about the short film Two Brothers at Galarra. The families of the late Mathuḻu Munyarryun embraced the creative potential of the Mulka Project’s new media facilities before other local Yolŋu. They pitched the first film idea outside of a workshop and recorded the first CD within a month of Mulka’s official launch.
On 31 August 2007, I drove out to Dhalinybuy with Mulka’s first two employees, Ḏiṉḏirrk Munŋgurr and Ṉuwaniny Burarrwaŋa, some basic recording and filming equipment, and a bunch of food. We began with the senior singers, Malalakpuy and Wakaŋ, supervised and sometimes joined by Mathuḻu, along with the late Mirrwatŋa on yidaki.
Listen to what happened from there on the CD, which is available from all the usual digital music retailers and from several yidaki sellers around the world. Here’s one sample.
After the recording, I asked Mathuḻu, “what will this CD be called? What will the album cover be?”
He only had to think for a few seconds. The title would be Baltha. Baltha, the Wangurri clan thundercloud which they sang at the beginning and end of the cycle we just recorded. He described the shape of it for me. He explained that they sang the journey of water from where we sat near the river Gularri to the sea, where it is sucked up by Baltha and rained down on the land to begin the journey again. They sing this cycle at funeral ceremony, the story of water paralleling the story of the human soul. The cover image would be a photograph of the cloud called Baltha.
While I loved the idea, I didn’t like my chances of pulling it off. I thought, “How am I supposed to get a picture of that? Call the Bureau of Meteorology and describe it to them, hoping they’ve got an archive of cloud photos?”
But I didn’t have to. Not long after the recording session, funeral ceremony was underway at Dhalinybuy. These ceremonies can last for weeks or even months. On 6 November, all of us at Yirrkala knew the funeral was wrapping up. My wife and I were out for a walk at sunset, looked in the direction of Dhalinybuy, and there it was. Baltha. Rising over the sea in Arnhem Bay. Possibly just as they were singing the end of this song cycle to conclude the ceremony.
I snapped a bunch of pictures and showed them to Mathuḻu at my next opportunity. He said, “yes, that’s it. That’s the cover.”
the old man tells the story
As I said in my prior blog post about the CD series, the late founding Mulka Project Director, Dr. Raymattja Marika, and I had big plans for the liner notes. We wanted to show up every outsider academic who published recordings of Aboriginal music. Dr. Marika sadly passed away suddenly before we finished the process on any of the three CDs we had recorded, then I suddenly had to leave Yirrkala due to my own family medical crisis. Those three CDs and several more in the end were released with simplified titles and no information other than track and artist names. I do have the recording and text of the late Mathuḻu telling the story as he wanted it in the liner notes, so will share those with you all now. The late Margaret Yunupiŋu and I did the basic transcription and translation, which was then polished with help from Dr. Marika and the late (wow, I have to say that a lot) Gulumbu Yunupiŋu.
Tracks 1-7 on the final version are archival recordings, some of which are discussed thoroughly here.
Tracks 8-12 Baltha
Ŋunha nhän ga dhäya mayali’ dharyundawu. Murrun nhän Ŋarru ga dharyun nhän ŋarru. Ŋunhan nhän ga mayali’ miyaman dhaŋuyam Baltha.
That cloud standing there shows that rain is coming. There will be thunder and rain. These songs are about the cloud called Baltha.
The cloud Baltha is forming, rising up. It begins to rain on the cycad palm leaves and the ground of the valleys. The valleys and rivers begin to flood from the rain. Murruyil the pigeon flies through the rain to get away from the storm. It fled from the rain, soaking wet, like Yolŋu People would. That’s the story.
Tracks 22-30 Murruyil (Pigeon)/Meṉḏuŋ (Snail)
Yow, ŋunha dharyuwan nhän ga manymak buṯthuwan murruyil’ dharyunda, dharyunda buṯthuwan murruyil’ djukdjukthuwan ga manymak after bayiwaḻiya murruyil’ŋuru nhän ŋätjin rirrakay’yuwan maypaḻ meṉḏuŋ yäku gunaminy.
It was raining, the pigeon flies through the rain, soaking wet, and after that, the snail gunaminy cries out.
Tracks 31-34 Ŋerrk (White Cockatoo)
Ga bayiwaḻiyam ga nhän buṯthuwan ŋerrk’nha ga ŋerrk’nha ḏurruwan ḏinguŋuru bäŋŋuru ŋayakandi dhopaṉŋuru. Nhän ḏurruwan ŋerrk, ŋarru wäyinma banha nhän wanhurr nininyŋu bawarraṉ ga dhaŋuya waŋganyma dhäwu.
From there, the white cockatoo flies away from the cycad palms, where it lives. That’s one part of the story.
Tracks 35-39 Warrkarr (Grass)
Note: Mathuḻu originally named this section Bulmirri. another name for the grass that he used in his story.
In this next part of the story, it rains, then the new shoots of grasses come out. The razor grass – the special name for that is wokara or bulmirri. Those two come out, the razor grass and the stringybark trees. New growth from the rain, the grasses come out. And the cycad palms. The old plants were burned, but when the rain comes, the new growth comes up. The new grasses and trees grow up. That’s the story.
Tracks 40-51 Gapu (Water)
Note: Mathuḻu originally called this section Guḻarri after the specific water course, rather than Gapu, which is the general word for all water.
Now we are turning our minds to another part of the story. Our minds and our tongues. The water is calming, becoming more still as it flows down river. This water (Guḻarri) has become calm. It is all the same thing, the same old song, but as it returns to our country where the fresh and salt waters meet, the melody changes.
This song is about the barramundi, we call Balin or Ratjuk. This is the very sacred song for barramundi. The faster clapsticks signify that we have reached where all the leaves and plant material washed downstream by the storm have gathered up in the still water. The barramundi is biting at the leaves and drinking the water of the bottom of the river. The mouth of the barramundi in the water called Djakurrŋa Guyuwuruyu. Ŋayawuḻuḻ, Biruyuwanan are important names for the barramundi’s mouth. Everyone eats the barramundi, just like the kingfish.
This is the song of the freshwater mullet waṯpirriya. The song of where waṯpirriya lie, splashing in the water. Where the leaves and branches are bunched up. Lying at the roots of the Yirritja pandanus. That is this song.
Tracks 70-76 Gomuḻu (Heron)
Note: Mathuḻu used another name for the heron, Gany’tjurr. Which incidentally, is one of my given Yolŋu names.
This is the song of gany’tjurr the heron. It is looking back at Baltha, towards the places Raripa, Guṉuyulumi, Marrtjinya, Baḻkpaḻk. That is what I sing. Then the bird looks down to the water, hunting for fish. We also sing to the places Muthamul, Warritja, Ŋamundjiyu, Banygarranhami. That’s this song.
This is Baltha, after singing about the bird hunting. We return to Baltha, then we are finished. The cloud is building up to Dhaliny, Gunygunya, Marrtjinya, Ŋuḻpurray, Guṉuyulumi and Baḻkpaḻk. That Baltha is building up and returning to Dha-Yurpu, Ŋamundji, Muthamul. Baltha is rising. From the heron to Dhä-Yurpu and Dhä-Wupa, the top and the bottom of the river. Singing the heron at Warritja and Muthamul.
There you go
There was meant to be more written to flesh out the context, but this has been what the senior man of the family wanted to tell all of you out in the world about what was happening in the songs. I hope that if you have the album, this brings you some new appreciation of it. If you haven’t bought it, I hope you do.
It seems odd, but yes, 1977 saw the release of a 7″ record featuring the late great Rirratjiŋu clan leader Wandjuk Marika playing solo yidaki.
From the original liner notes by Jennifer Isaacs, with modern spellings added for the titles:
(a) Dangultji (Ḏaŋgultji) – the Brolga. A secular camp dance in which the performers, particularly children, imitate the behaviour of the brolga.
(b) Malwiyi (Maḻwiya) – the Emu. A camp dance about the emu, Australia’s largest bird. It is flightless and may grow to 1.8 m in height. The Aborigines hunt them for food and relish their large green eggs.
(c) The Wawilak (Wäwilak) Story – The Wawilak myth gives rise to a most important cycle of ceremonies in North East Arnhem Land. In the Dreamtime the two Wawilak sisters, one of them pregnant, travelled over the land and finally came to rest by a lagoon where they built a shade for the birth. One of the sisters was gathering paperbark when she accidentally polluted the pool wherein dwelt the Lightning Serpent, a huge snake which could reach from the heavens to the earth. In a fury he sent a black cloud overhead, and torrential rain. The sisters cried out and danced to appease him but it was to no avail, and he swallowed them. The Wawilak sisters are the Creation Sisters – they gave rise to the present Aboriginal population.
(I) The first solo accompanies the Wawilak song which tells of the girls’ travels before they reached the pool. (II) The second solo accompanies the Wawilak song which tells of the torrential rain sent by the Lightning Serpent.
(a) The Wawilak Story (from side one).
(III) Djuwan – This accompaniment tells of the time after the Dreamtime, when the children of the Creation Sisters return to the sacred waters where the Serpent Lives and re-enact, in ceremony, the original events. The song and didjeridu accompaniment are used in mortuary and age-grading ceremonies.
(b) Kadabana (Gatapaŋa) – the Buffalo. Buffalos brought by early European settlers have run wild in the swamps and plains of Arnhem Land. This is a camp dance which describes the heavy animal crashing through the undergrowth being hunted by Aboriginal men for food.
(c) The Wawilak Story
(IV) The clouds – this segment accompanies the song which tells of the rain, and dark cloud which the Lightning Serpent sent overhead.
(d) Katjambal (Garrtjambal) – the Kangaroo. The story of the kangaroo as he bounds along the grassy plains through the scrub.
The Rest of the Liner Notes:
Wandjuk Marika is a ceremonial leader of the Riratjingu (Rirratjiŋu) clan of North East Arnhem Land and Chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. He was born about 1930 om what was then the small mission settlement of Yirrkala. This has since become the focal point of one of the most important struggles for ownership of land by traditional Aborigines, and the site of the huge bauxite mine, Nabalco. Wandjuk Marika and his people have been catapulted into confrontation with an industrialised society and in the process they have emerged with a great degree of strength and political and social cohesion. Traditional culture remains a vital part of life in Eastern Arnhem Land, the stories of the exploits of the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime such as the Djanggawul (Djaŋ’kawu) and the Wawilak Sisters providing the basis for lengthy ceremonial cycles involving ritual and social obligations covering every aspect of life from birth to death.
Wandjuk Marika learnt to play the didjeridu as a small boy from his father, Mawalan, who was a great and respected ceremonial leader, and who passed on to Wandjuk his knowledge of the sacred lore, the ceremonies and the sacred designs, just as Wandjuk is training his own sons today.
As well as his role in the traditional life of the Riratjingu, Wandjuk is also striving to explain the stories and create an awareness of the depth of his own culture in all Australians, through his work on the Australian Aboriginal Arts Board.
He says: “We realise the old way will never return, but we believe that much of our music, songs, dance and art can and must be preserved as a vital part of the culture of mankind.”
THE DIDJERIDU (or YIDAKI)
The didjeridu, or drone pipe, is the traditional wind instrument of the Aborigines of Northern Australia. It is in fact a branch or trunk of a young eucalyptus, or string bark tree which has been hollowed out by termites. The musician taps the tree to see if the resonance indicates it is sufficiently hollow, and then after he cuts it down, he selects a suitable length for the instrument. This is smoothed and painted, and bees wax or gum is applied to the end to be placed in the mouth. This narrows the diameter of the interior hole, and provides a comfortable mouthpiece. The length and diameter of the instrument determine its pitch and the tone produced when it is blown with loosely vibrating lips. Variations in the sound produced occur when the lips are tightened, or when the tongue is moved towards and away from the opening. The vocal chords are also used when producing a croak.
The sustained rhythm is achieved by a unique form of breathing. Air is drawn in through the nose in quick breaths. This is retained in the cheeks and continuously expelled through the mouth to maintain the sound.
The instrument is generally played as a rhythmic accompaniment to the songman and clapsticks, however, it is also played solo for camp dances and general fun and amusement.
SEMINAR ON ART IN THE THIRD WORLD
Wandjuk Marika was invited to be a guest lecturer at the Seminar on Art in the Third World at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1976, organised by the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. Wandjuk Marika gave a lecture on Aboriginal art and music, together with a performance on the didjeridu. In addition he demonstrated the art of bark painting and opened an exhibition of Aboriginal art at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.
Recorded at the National Broadcasting Commission 25th February, 1976
Recorded by Frederic DUVELLE Text by Jennifer ISAACS Cover photo by Jennifer STEELE First published by LARRIKIN Records 1977
Thanks to John of manikay.com for first making me aware of this recording many years ago. Images borrowed from discogs.com. No, I do not have rights to this recording or text. But it’s long out of print, most likely never will be reprinted, and I know many of Wanjduk’s living family and bet they’d be happy to let this recording be heard as long as nobody’s selling it for a profit without them.
Buwathay Munyarryun, a Wangurri clan leader from Dhalinybuy, crafted this month’s featured yidaki in 2006. It’s warm and bassy, but still crisp. It has a nice, resonant trumpeted note. It is light weight despite having good bass and power. All in all, it’s a fantastic stick. Let’s give the late, great Milkay Munuŋgurr the first play.
Stats: E drone • F first trumpeted note 159cm long • 2.8cm mouthpiece • 9.2cm bell
Djalu’ plays it here. This clip has been on our YouTube channel for a while.
The next video, however, is new. It shows what happened immediately before the above clip. Djalu’ and I were playing and discussing all the yidaki I collected during my first two years living in northeast Arnhem Land. He of course could play everything but didn’t prefer all the tight, high pressure and high-pitched instruments made by the hot young players of the day. Buwathay’s yidaki, on the other hand, has just the right depth, warmth and mid-level back pressure that Djalu’ likes. You will see him compare it to his own favorite yidaki of the moment. As he says in the video, it allows him to breath naturally. He often advocates for instruments like this, claiming that playing them is better for your health.
Now we turn the mic over to the artist, himself. In 2006, I sat with Buwathay, Ŋoŋu, the late Mirrwatŋa and the late Mathuḻu, discussing yidaki and interaction between the Yolŋu and outside worlds. In the midst of a discussion of what kind of stories to share with didgeridoo players around the world, Buwathay suddenly pointed to this yidaki he made and gave a simple, surface level but true story of its meaning.
In the next video, Buwathay’s younger brother, the late Mirrwatŋa, plays the yidaki and then everyone briefly discusses how good it is. It is usable for any ceremony. Most interestingly, Buwathay himself points out what Djalu’ did. Even though this is a thin-walled, light weight instrument, it has the same characteristics as Djalu’s normally heavier instruments. It has the sound of what Yolŋu nowadays call a “bass yiḏaki.”
You can also hear this yiḏaki on a few tracks of the Yilpara CD, which I’ll blog about soon.
Last, I’ll let you hear a white guy play it. Here I am a couple of months ago, playing this one as part of my “Didjeridu of the Day” series on Instagram.
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.
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.
This gorgeous Yidaki of the Month is one of the first instruments I bought upon moving to Yirrkala in 2004.
Eb drone • Gb first trumpeted note
155cm long • 3cm mouthpiece • 14cm 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Brandi 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.
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.
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.