The didjeridu, or yiḏaki, as the instrument is known in northeast Arnhem Land, originated in Aboriginal Australia but has since spread all over the world in different forms. As it travelled, it became removed from its ritual origins, evolving into a fun tool of self-expression for people from many cultures around the world. Many myths have spread about its origins and uses. As indicated in the 1999 Garma Yidaki Statement, some of the instrument’s traditional owners are concerned about this and wish to spread accurate information and gain increased respect for their culture.
Note: This was originally hosted on the Garma website but it seems to be gone now, so we are preserving the text of this important document here until we learn that it is available again on the copyright holder’s own website.
The Garma Festival was held on the occasion of a Garma ceremony involving many clans from Arnhem Land. This Garma has as its purpose the sharing of knowledge and culture, and the opening of hearts to the message of the land at Gulkula, where the ancestor Ganbulapula brought the Yidaki (didjeridu) into being among the Gumatj people.
The sound of the Yidaki at Gulkula is a call to the clans of northeast Arnhem Land to come together. It is a call to all peoples to come together in unity.
The Yidaki comes from Aboriginal law and is used in sacred contexts that have ever deeper layers of meaning. The Yidaki and the bilma (clapping sticks) are the rhythm and pulse for the stories of our ceremonies that go back to our ancestors. They also look forward to the world we share with Balanda (non-Aboriginal people).
The Garma Festival is an opportunity to explore an ethical place in global culture for the Yidaki. Yolngu leaders of Arnhem Land are pleased that guests invited to the Garma Festival organised by the Yothu Yindi Foundation have started the journey of learning Yolngu culture and traditions.
The emergence of an ethical relationship between senior clan elders, whose custodianship of the Yidaki includes the right to permit the use and teaching of the Yidaki, and those guests invited to attend a Yidaki master class led by Djalu Gurruwiwi, lays the foundation for finding ways that Yolngu and Balanda worlds can coexist on the basis of mutual respect, shared rituals, and reciprocal obligations.
Yet Yolngu people are concerned that the emergence of a global culture and the commercialisation of the Yidaki has the potential to separate the Yidaki from its origins in the sacred stories which are at the heart of the songs. Ritual leaders of northeast Arnhem Land are calling for a new relationship with Balanda which recognises the centrality of the Yidaki to the Aboriginal groups who by right and tradition have the Yidaki as one of the instruments of cultural expression.
At this Garma Festival, the clan elders have identified five principles to guide the developing relationship between Yolngu custodians of the Yidaki and the Balanda people who use the instrument:
The basis of a new relationship is respect for the origins and significance of the Yidaki to Aboriginal people of northern Australia.
Aboriginal law protects the Yidaki and establishes ritual exchange processes and reciprocal obligations between those elders with the authority to collect, make, perform and teach the Yidaki, and those people – Yolngu and Balanda – who desire to learn about the instrument.
Yolngu law has always regulated the production and use of the Yidaki in Yolngu society. It is wrong for Yidaki to be produced without reference to, and respect for, these laws. Permission from the custodians of these laws is required.
The Yolngu concept of Yothu Yindi, which recognises duality and fosters balance where there is difference, is a guiding Yolngu philosophy that applies to this new relationship.
The basis of a new relationship will be mutual respect, goodwill, and a commitment to working together to define and evolve an ethical place for the Yidaki in world culture.
With this statement, Yolngu elders of northeast Arnhem Land open their hearts to a new relationship for the Yidaki with global culture.
This website was prepared with this goal in mind, as a collaboration between many Yolŋu Aboriginal People, Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka, the art and craft centre in remote Yirrkala, Northern Territory, Australia and myself, a musician from the United States of America who relocated to Australia to learn about the yidaki as part of a Master’s Degree in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies at Charles Darwin University, sponsored by a fellowship from the Australian-American Fulbright Commission. We’ve created this site to answer questions and clarify common misconceptions about the didjeridu from the perspective of Yolŋu Aboriginal People.
While there are some notes on how the instrument is played, it is only to show the ways Yolŋu yidaki playing differs from other styles. This is not a comprehensive “How to Play Didjeridu” website. We also produced Hard Tongue Didgeridoo. This album teaches the fundamentals of Yolŋu yidaki playing.
The development of this website included a survey of didjeridu players who are active on the internet, to assess worldwide knowledge of and interest in Yolŋu yidaki and to collect statements on various issues related to the didjeridu. The results, presented in the appendices of this website, opened a channel of communication between cultures. Yolŋu listened and decided what response was necessary. Thank you to all the participants in the survey.
It must be noted right from the start that the didjeridu is not solely owned by Yolŋu People. Many diverse Aboriginal groups have used the instrument for a long time and no one group can claim full ownership of it. It is also impossible to represent all the views of a whole cultural group in one small document. This website represents the views of certain individuals of one cultural group in one small part of Northern Australia, some of the people who are traditional owners of the specific didjeridu known as yidaki.
Yolŋu knowledge belongs to Yolŋu people. Information, images, video and audio provided here are to be treated with respect and not reused without permission. If you have any questions about use of this material or would like to discuss the site further, please join us on our Facebook page.
The website is set up like a book, with a natural progression of information that builds on earlier material as it goes. It is best viewed from beginning to end, one page at a time. You can skip to the bits you are most interested in if you like, but your understanding of the whole will be much better if you start from the beginning!
All that being said, I hope you enjoy viewing this site, and hope it makes you think and feel more deeply about the didjeridu. Whether you play the instrument as a way to connect to Aboriginal Australia or use it solely for self-expression, I hope you learn something and gain respect and appreciation for the culture that invented the didjeridu.
Yirrkala, NT Australia
(edited with added Facebook link in 2017)