“It is good, just because people want to learn. It’s time to share the knowledge of Yolŋu and Ŋäpaki.”
Madarrpa clan leader
No Yolŋu involved in this project believe that the didjeridu should only be played by its traditional owners, even though some don’t understand why others would use it, and don’t understand or enjoy the sounds they hear from other players. Some Yolŋu consider the yidaki a gift to the world, while others feel it was taken without permission and spread without respect for its sacred origins. Whatever the case, it is accepted that the instrument has spread around the world, and that recreational playing of the instrument is open to everyone. Many Yolŋu are happy that something of theirs is touching the world. So play and enjoy it.
Opinions do vary, however, on what style should be played by non-Yolŋu who are learning the instrument. Many people like Djalu’ Gurruwiwi and Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra think it is fine for outsiders to play however they like, including yidaki parts from Yolŋu manikay, or songs. Djalu’ has recorded two instructional CD’s which teach the yidaki parts from Gälpu clan manikay. He feels that people should learn to play properly, and that means playing proper songs with the proper technique. It is extremely rare for Djalu’ to “jam,” or improvise freely – he plays traditional songs. But Djalu’ doesn’t teach in the hope that everyone in the world will always play exactly like him. He knows that different people have developed different styles in their own places, and encourages students to learn from his style, but then to mix it with their own to create a new style in the middle.
Some people disagree, preferring to keep the sacred songs of their clans for use at their origin. They may think, “why should someone across the world be playing our sacred songs, where they have no context and their deeper meanings are not understood?” They may fear that the power of the songs may be weakened by their spread around the world and by the use of them by those who don’t understand them.
But many of these same people still feel that if a person is to learn to play, that they should learn to play correctly – in the Yolŋu style. This opinion was expressed by Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr and younger men like Yarrŋu Gondarra and Gurraramawuy Munyarryun. This view states that outsiders should learn Yolŋu techniques, but not entire Yolŋu songs. People can then make up their own songs from a better foundation in the traditional origins of the instrument and integrate Yolŋu techniques into other styles of music. Young Yolŋu men and boys do improvise for fun, unlike their elders. The end result could be similar to the mixing of styles Djalu’ encourages.
This is the view – concern over sharing of Yolŋu songs, but support for sharing of Yolŋu technique – that lead to the creation of Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr’s instructional CD Hard Tongue Didgeridoo. This CD provides exercises in the fundamental techniques of Yolŋu playing without teaching any complete Yolŋu songs. This is a good way to come to an understanding of Yolŋu playing that you can then build on either by further study of Yolŋu playing or by integrating it with your own style, without upsetting those who would rather you didn’t memorize Yolŋu songs.
Beyond that, however, is yet another view held by some, which is that outsiders shouldn’t even learn Yolŋu techniques at all. These Yolŋu, like Wukuṉ Wanambi, feel that people from around the world who want to learn the yidaki should start from their own culture’s music, and the inspiration of their own environment. They should just play the instrument and see what emerges.
With the variety of opinions expressed here, the only possible recommendationon on how you should respect the Yolŋu as a whole and not offend anyone is to lean towards the least permissive of them. The variety of voices are presented for you to listen, think, and come to your own decision. If you are learning Yolŋu music, all Yolŋu would agree that you do not own the copyright, and therefore can not record, perform or teach it without very specific arrangements. As always, it is best to be courteous and aware, deferring to any Yolŋu people you may be with. But beyond that, don’t do anything in your own country that you would be uncomfortable doing if there were Yolŋu watching. Think also about Dhukaḻ’s statement here, and consider ways in which you may give back to Yolŋu.