Are “Didjeridu” and “Yiḏaki” the same thing?

While Yolŋu yidaki are of course didjeridus, they are usually very different in terms of construction and sound. They are usually naturally more conical than didjeridus you will find elsewhere in Australia, with small mouthpieces that can be played with little or no beeswax. They are not always “perfect” on the outside, but the best yidaki have the most perfect natural bores. To Yolŋu, it is the inside that matters, not the outside. As we have seen, there are of course very specific types of yidaki.

Many academics and didjeridu enthusiasts find it useful to make a distinction between the yidaki, an instrument made from local materials by Yolŋu people from northeast Arnhem Land, and any other didjeridu. Stressing this difference helps to educate the public and didjeridu buyers. It is good to recognize that there are differences between authentic Yolŋu instruments and other didjeridus (including authentic Aboriginal-made didjeridus from other regions).

Yolŋu agree with this idea as it respects the cultural identity of the yidaki and sets it apart in the marketplace. Yolŋu quickly see and sense the difference.

“Well, it looks like a yidaki, and sounds like a yidaki, but we don’t know how it’s made…. maybe it’s something different.”

Wukuṉ Wanambi
Marrakulu clan leader

But in daily life in the Miwatj, the terms “didjeridu” and “yidaki” are interchangeable. When speaking in English, a Yolŋu man may ask that you pass him the didjeridu, pointing to a locally made yidaki. On the other hand, there are foreign-made didjeridus that have found their way into Arnhem Land, usually as gifts to Yolŋu people from visitors or when Yolŋu have travelled overseas. Some of these have even been used in Yolŋu ceremony, and are referred to as yidaki by Yolŋu. Yolŋu have been taught that “didjeridu” is the English word for the yidaki, so they will use it when speaking in English just as they would use other words like “tree” or “water.”

It is our recommendation that the distinction between Yolŋu yidaki and other didjeridus be made in the marketplace and in discussion of the didjeridu by non-Yolŋu players, in order to respect the people at the origin, to acknowledge the differences inherent in the instruments and to increase awareness of the instrument’s traditional origins and variety of forms.

It also should be mentioned again that many non-Yolŋu Aboriginal groups also own the didjeridu and have other names for it. Calling any Aboriginal-made didjeridu a “yidaki” may be offensive to people who do not use that word in their language.