When, Where and by Who Yiḏaki are Played

Really, yidaki is just for a real thing. Manikaywu (for the ceremonial songs).

Dhukaḻ Wirrpanda
Dhudi-Djapu clan leader

Yidaki is primarily an instrument for serious ceremonial business. You will often hear the sounds of young boys practicing yidaki in Yolŋu communities for fun, improvising fast and furious sounds to compete with each other and develop their skills. From there, some will show talent and be encouraged to learn proper ceremonial playing, and others usually leave the instrument behind as they age into their later teens. Dhukal says, “generation after generation, we see boys are growing with good didjeridu playing, they know how to play didjeridu for us in the manikay (ceremonial singing).”

Young men are more often heard practicing proper traditional songs rather than improvising as fast and loud as they can play. Sometimes they will play serious ceremonial songs for practice, some men singing or dancing, but there are also less formal songs known as djaṯpaŋarri that many Yolŋu enjoy.

Milkayŋu, like many young Yolŋu boys, practiced yidaki all the time.

Djambawa Marawili on adults, playing
yidaki at the right time.

Wukun – “We believe that
yidaki is our power.”

When ceremony is on, perhaps a funeral or boys’ initiation, you will almost always hear yiḏaki accompanying sacred songs. Yiḏaki is not traditionally a solo instrument, but an integral part of the whole ceremonial scene along with singing, clapsticks and dance. There is some flexibility for the player in many songs, but it is vitally important that sacred laws are followed, and the yiḏaki parts are played properly by a well-educated man who was identified for his talent at a young age. The songs are very complex with many changes, not one simple repetitive rhythm.

While most public ceremonies that everyone can attend include yiḏaki, there are some that do not. Only clapsticks are used for many of the most important and most sacred songs. There are also special sacred yiḏaki that are only used in deeper, secret ceremony, and are not shown in public where everyone can see and hear them.

Usually, young men, from late teens to early thirties, play the yiḏaki in ceremony. Middle-aged men will sometimes play the yiḏaki if necessary, for example if there are no young men present who are knowledgable enough about the songs. The well known yiḏaki maker, player and teacher Djalu’ Gurruwiwi is rare as an elder who still plays yiḏaki regularly, at home and in ceremony. Most older men retire from yiḏaki and prefer to lead the singing. Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr is a good example – he loved yiḏaki and called it his destiny, but before his untimely passing at the age of 40, began moving on to being a singer.

Yolŋu women do not usually play yiḏaki, but contrary to popular theory, they have been known to. We’ll talk about this more later in the Yiḏaki Issues chapter.