Yothu-Yindi and Yidaki Crafting

People looking to buy smaller, high-pitched yidaki often name Yirritja craftsmen or clans to suggest possible makers. It is important to remember the concept of Yothu-Yindi. A craftsman will not always make instruments appropriate for his own clan. Everyone has responsibilities for and knowledge of their mother’s clan, which is the opposite moiety to their own. Yidaki players and makers will know about and enjoy their mother’s clan’s music and instruments. To complicate things further, not every person has the same understanding or opinion of what their or their mother’s clan’s yidaki should be like, and not everyone feels that there is a need to be specific about yidaki that are intended for use in public ceremony or for sale. At a simpler level than that, while someone like Djalu’ will always look for trees suited to his style, many other craftsmen are simply looking for any good hollow tree that is a potential yidaki, and make whatever style of yidaki is suggested by the natural shape.


These two yidaki were made by Mirarra Burarrwaŋa, a young Gumatj clan (Yirritja) man whose mother is Gälpu (Dhuwa). Mirarra apprenticed with Djalu’, and as such learned to make the thunderous yidaki Djalu’ prefers, and a lot of his knowledge and tastes about yidaki are informed by Djalu’s. But Mirarra also loves to make the smaller, more subtle instruments that Djalu’ deems appropriate for the Gumatj clan (Gumatj is Mirarra’s own clan and Djalu’s mother’s). The above large-bored instrument is 156cm long with a bell up to 19.5cm, and has a very deep-sounding and loud Eb drone that Djalu’ appreciated. It is painted with the three bands that are a signature of Djalu’s branch of the Gälpu clan.

The second yidaki by Mirarra is a smaller E at 141cm, with a 10.5cm bottom end, and a brighter sound and smaller bore. It has been painted with the Gumatj totem of Bäru the crocodile. Mirarra is a clear example of the Yothu-Yindi system as it applies to yidaki crafting. He has trained with the best craftsman of his mother’s clan and can make powerful instruments that please Djalu’. He can also make fantastic yidaki for Gumatj song, which would also be preferred by the young men who play for many different clans today.

Barayuwa plays the Eb.

Barayuwa plays the E.


Pictured above are two yidaki by Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr, in fact the two he and his son played in the photos on his teaching CD Hard Tongue Didgeridoo. The top one is relatively deep and straight, similar to what he described as a proper instrument for certain of his Dhuwa Djapu clan’s songs. It is 150cm long with an 8.5cm distal end, and is in the key of Eb with an F horn tone. This is the instrument Milkayŋu chose to use for the first work on his instructional CD, and it appears on the horn tone exercises. He complimented the instrument on its balance. Djalu’ however said it was similar to his own clan’s sound, was a good instrument for general use in public ceremony, but had too much back pressure for his liking. Yolŋu who play faster modern styles desire that higher back pressure to help them keep up. Many Yolŋu called this a good “bass” yidaki for use in slower songs from any clan.

Below it is a smaller and higher-pitched instrument, 129cm long, 8.5cm bottom, and pitched between F# and G, with a G horn tone. Its sound is loud and full without being thunderous, and has a soft, easily attainable horn tone. Djalu’ and Madarrpa clan (Yirritja) leader Djambawa Marawili both quickly and without hesitation identified this yidaki as a proper Dhadalal, or ceremonial instrument for Yirritja clans such as the Madarrpa and Gumatj (Djalu’s and Milkayŋu’s mothers’ clan). Milkayŋu, on the other hand, prefers deeper yidaki with fuller trumpet sounds for this purpose. This pair of yidaki is an interesting example of the different understandings of instruments that different people can have. While these two would be a perfect example of a Yothu-Yindi pair in some people’s eyes, the maker disagrees. The other two men are older ceremonial leaders, but Milkayŋu has spent years as the favoured yidaki player of the senior men of his mother’s Gumatj clan who care for the land at Gulkula, the origin of the Dhadalal. It is not correct to say that either opinion is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. We’ll learn more about the Dhadalal later on.

Djalu’ plays the Eb.

Djalu’ plays the F#-G.

Mirrwatŋa plays the Eb.

Mirrwatŋa plays the F#-G.

Younger men today have different ideas on what is ceremonial and what is an “everyday yidaki” than their elders. All but one of the ceremonial yidaki players under 40 years old who were involved in this project picked this F#-G by Milkayŋu as their favorite yidaki out of all those pictured on this website, and said they would use it for any clan’s songs. They called it a “lead” style yidaki, as opposed to “rhythm” (such as Burrŋupurrŋu’s on the last page) or “bass” (such as Djalu’s). The one who disagreed, Gunybi Ganambarr, is a favoured yidaki player of many of the senior men of the Laynha region, the homelands south of Yirrkala. Gunybi, like Djalu’, favours “bass” yidaki without the high back pressure most younger players depend on.


Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra is a Dhalwaŋu clan (Yirritja) leader who was known as a hot player in his younger days, and is credited by many younger players, including Milkayŋu, as an influence. He is currently highly regarded among Yolŋu as a yidaki maker. The above are two very fine instruments crafted by Burrŋupurrŋu that have extremely different qualities. The top one is a somewhat big-bored D with F horn, lightweight and thin-walled, 150cm long with a 9.5cm bottom. Its sound and back pressure are in between that of Milkayŋu’s above Djalu’s on the previous page. It has crisp highs and warm bass, with a soft, full horn tone. Many Yolŋu players consider it a bit old-fashioned, but usable for any clan’s slower songs. Djalu’ and Djambawa both associated it with Djalu’s Djuŋgirriny’ we saw on the last page.

Below it is a sharp F with a G horn tone, 139cm long with a 10.5cm distal end. This instrument is thicker walled and heavier, with a tighter bore leading to higher back pressure and a more aggressive, grittier sound, with lots of mid and high harmonics, and a harsher horn tone. This sound and playability is appreciated by many Yolŋu today. This yidaki has been used as the primary instrument on the Hard Tongue Didgeridoo instructional CD and repeatedly in public and on the radio by Milkayŋu as well as his nephew Barayuwa Munuŋgurr. It is loved by many Yolŋu who have tried it, but of course would be totally unsuitable for Djalu’ and his preferred sound. It is what many non-Yolŋu didjeridu buyers would consider a typical Yirritja yidaki, made by a Yirritja maker. But Djalu’ actually identified the sound and playability with that of a specific sacred Dhuwa yidaki owned by the Dätiwuy and Ŋaymil clans, called Dhuduthudu after the tawny frog mouth owl. Burrŋupurrŋu made this and the other instrument pictured, which would be considered Dhuwa by most yidaki shoppers, and both instruments have been painted with Dhuwa designs of Gudurrku, the brolga, by Burrŋupurrŋu’s wife Djul’djul Gurruwiwi. Most of the yidaki Burrŋupurrŋu crafted in 2005 were D# and below, sharing more in common with the larger instrument pictured above.

Djalu’ plays the D.

Djalu’ plays the F.

Mirrwatŋa plays the D.

Mirrwatŋa plays the F.

Mirarra, Milkayŋu and Burrŋupurrŋu are all highly regarded among local Yolŋu as “yidaki men.” One is Dhuwa and two Yirritja, and all have proven the ability to make fine yidaki that would fit descriptions we have heard of both moieties’ instruments – whether they themselves describe them as such or not. Djalu’ is perhaps the exception among Yolŋu, in that he sticks to his own style in the crafting of yidaki for sale. His strict adherence to his own deep sounding (even if not deep pitched) Gälpu instruments might be part of why he came to such reknown in the didjeridu world. Others like Mirrwatŋa and Mirarra lean towards their own clan’s preferences, but are less strict about it. Most Yolŋu craftsmen seem to be simply making the best yidaki they can from the trees they find, and reserve judgement about what style of yidaki they should be making for when they are in fact making specific ceremonial instruments for specific purposes.