Keeping with last month’s tribute to him on the 10th anniversary of his passing, this month’s featured yidaki was made by the late Milkay Munuŋgurr in 2005. Here he is playing it in 2006.
He found this yidaki while doing his ranger duties, clearing roads after a cyclone that took a heavy toll on the region in early 2005. Mr. Munuŋgurr couldn’t help but notice the potential yidaki among the fallen trees. I believe he made two from what he found post-cyclone.
He originally intended to sell this elsewhere along with a few others, but asked me what I thought about the lot first. A couple were really great, with this at the top of the list. I raved about it but told him his hole patching wouldn’t fly. It’s normal to come across knot holes in the wood while carving down a yidaki. He used epoxy to cover up these holes, leaving visible white lumps on the otherwise natural wood instruments.
I said, “c’mon, you’ve got to at least paint over these patches.” I raved about this instrument, anyway, and told him if he could make more like it, I’d buy them all day, any day for top dollar at the Yirrkala art centre.
He came back a week later with this instrument painted. He told me that since I liked it so much, it was for me. And I’ll always keep it.
This little cyclone-power yidaki got used a lot over the next few years. We used it for the pictures on his instructional CD, Hard Tongue Didgeridoo instead of the actual instrument used on the CD which was made by someone else. If this yidaki existed at the time of recording, I’m sure he would have chosen it instead.
We took it to festivals and workshops. I loaned it out for ceremony if I was there to keep an eye on it. I had a collection of 8 yidaki that I showed to different payers and elders to get comments for my master’s project, and this was always the favorite of younger players like the late Mr. Munyarryun in this clip.
After he played all the yidaki, I asked him to pick a favorite, tell me why, and show off on it for a bit. Unfortunately, my camera battery ran out just then and I only have a few seconds of that. I’m glad I at least have the above simple clip.
Djakapurra and Mirarra also participated in that project and loved this instrument.
It was used on the first three Mulkay Manikay Archives CDs that I recorded at Dhalinybuy, Yilpara and Gurrumuru. I brought a couple of options, but the players and singers always settled on this yidaki for the majority of the recording. Here’s a clip from the Gurrumuru session which I’ve posted before.
And here is young Arnold Djunbiya Marika playing it at Dhalinbuy with some of the youngest songmen you’ll ever see.
Incidentally, I have a sealed set of those first three CDs. If you want them, contact me. You can also buy downloads from all the usual online suspects. Here are links to Amazon: Gurrumuru – Dhalinybuy – Yilpara. Several more were recorded and released after my time there as well. I’ll write another post about that series later on.
Most elders said that this yidaki is a potential ceremonial instrument called Dhaḏalal. In this clip, slightly extended from what appears on elsewhere on this site, Djalu’ plays the yidaki, taps it a bit and then says, “Guḻkuḻa,” referring to the birthplace of the Dhaḏalal for his mother’s Gumatj clan.
Oddly enough, its maker disagreed. To him and the younger players I showed it to, it’s a perfect “lead yidaki” suitable for any clan song. Yolŋu today use rock and roll terms and talk about, lead, rhythm or bass yidaki. Despite older museum examples and what many elders said, Mr. Munuŋgurr, who played Dhaḏalal ceremonially countless times, preferred a deeper yidaki with a fuller trumpet note, like the one he’s pictured with here. He chose that one for the trumpet note exercises on his instructional CD. But that’s for a future Yidaki of the Month episode.
Nevertheless, I used this little cyclone-power yidaki semi-formally as a Dhaḏalal, myself. The annual Garma Festival takes place at the origin of the Dhaḏalal at Guḻkuḻa. The Yirrkala art center’s Gapaṉ Gallery traditionally opens at the festival with Mr. Munuŋgurr’s mother and her sisters doing a small bit of that ceremony, performing ritual mourning, or milkarri. Crying songs. Garma 2007 was just a few weeks after his passing. I figured they’d need a yidaki for that gallery opening ceremony. I brought this one out and showed it to his mother and asked if she’d like that one to be used. She cried briefly, hugged me and asked me to play it. So as dark fell that night, I played the ceremonial dups, triggering the beginning of the ritual crying of his mother and her sisters, obviously in a more real and heartfelt way than usual.
It then had a little break out of the public eye, then continued to be a popular loaner. Yolŋu men often saw the craftsman’s signature and pointed it out to others. This little yidaki continued to get respect on behalf of its maker who earned it.
Ten years ago, we lost a legend. He may not be a household name, but few people influenced the yidaki world as much as Milkay. In the 1980s and 90s, he broke new ground in traditional yiḏaki style, inspiring young players at home and all over Arnhem Land. As one of the Yolŋu founding members of the band Yothu Yindi, a teacher, and creator of the instructional CD Hard Tongue Didgeridoo, he brought traditional yiḏaki to the outside world. Even though they might not be a big influence on younger worldwide didgeridoo players, Yothu Yindi’s popularity in the 1990s drove a lot of interest towards Yolŋu music and culture. If not for the band, yidaki may not have ever gained notice for its special place among other types of didgeridoos. Without the yidaki’s influence, we might not have the large, conical didgeridoos that are made around the world these days.
Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr was born in 1966 at the Yirrkala mission clinic, which after much renovation is now the beautiful Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka art centre. His father was Mutitjpuy Munuŋgurr (1932-1993), one of the handful of Yolŋu artists who painted the historic Yirrkala Church Panels. Mutitjpuy in turn was son of the great Djapu clan warrior and patriarch Woŋgu. Milkay’s mother was Gulumbu Yunupiŋu (1943-2012), daughter of Mungurrawuy, another Church Panel painter, land rights activist and leader of the Gumatj clan. Gulumbu traveled the world as an award-wining artist, but cared deeply about maintaining knowledge at home, shown most publicly by her establishment of a Yolŋu healing centre at Guḻkuḻa.
Despite his two great visual artist parents, Milkay never took to painting. His passion lay elsewhere. “It got into me, I think. The yidaki,” he told me in 2004. “I think because it was… yidaki was my destination, eh? I was destined to play yidaki. I don’t know why.”
Milkay’s mother told him he started playing on PVC pipe when he was only 5 years old. After his dhapi, or initiation ceremony, possibly around age 8, Milkay moved to Gäṉgaṉ, his waku, or mother’s mother’s mother’s country. There, his father gifted him his first proper wooden yidaki, named Guḏurrku after the brolga, an important totem for Dhuwa people and yiḏaki players in particular.
He returned to Yirrkala and his passion for yiḏaki grew with some new influences. He learned a lot from his Gumatj clan uncles, but his ear really perked up when he heard tapes of Dhaḻwaŋu clan ceremony at Gurrumuru – once again, his wakupulu, or mother’s mother’s mother. Dhaḻwaŋu clan players Djalawu and Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra (read this post, too!) lead the path to a newer, more aggressive style known as yiḏaki ŋäṉarr-ḏäl, or “hard tongue didgeridoo.” Milkay studied their playing on tape, then went to live with Djalawu at Gurrumuru.
Milkay started playing yiḏaki for ceremony in his teens and quickly became a favored player for his mother’s Gumatj and other closely related clans. But his uncle Mandawuy wanted to take their culture to the rest of the world, too, and formed the band Yothu Yindi. Everything changed when a remix of their song Treaty hit the Aussie pop charts in 1991.
Plenty has been written about Yothu Yindi elsewhere, so I’ll just post two videos here. First – the clip for Tribal Voice, because it features footage of the band on the road. Milkay saw the world, and as you’ll see in a few quick flashes particularly starting around 3:30, he played yiḏaki all over the world.
Yothu Yindi performed traditional song alongside pop music. Here’s a video for Guḏurrku featuring Milkay with Witiyana Marika. Remember that Milkay’s first proper yiḏaki made by his father was named Guḏurrku.
After the initial boom of Yothu Yindi’s success in the early 1990’s, Milkay retired from the band to stay close to home and not live the rock star lifestyle. He became a ranger with Dhimurru Land Management, traveled a few times as a solo performer and teacher, and occasionally made instruments for sale when interest in yiḏaki boomed at the end of the 90’s and into the 00’s.
I met Milkay in 1999 but didn’t get close to him until I moved to Yirrkala in 2004. I ended up staying longer, but at the time, was on a one-year fellowship and volunteering at Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the Yirrkala art centre. I considered creating a new volume of my instructional CD series there with a Yolŋu guest teacher, but quickly realized it would be better to make it a Yolŋu-owned product instead. I approached the coordinator of the art centre about releasing it and Milkay about creating it, and plans quickly came together.
A future blog post will talk more about the creation of Hard Tongue Didgeridoo. For now, note the cover. Milkay insisted on Guḏurrku making an appearance with him.
Also featured: images with his gäthu, or son, Buyu and crossed yiḏaki symbolizing the transfer of knowledge. With these images, Milkay acknowledged his father, his deeper totemic identity, and the passing of knowledge to future generations.
He took me under his wing a bit as we got to know each other through the CD project. We had some good times and he taught me a lot… but those might be subjects for future blog posts.
Milkay struggled with alcoholism and depression like many of the disenfranchised people of Arnhem Land. Many people knew him a lot longer than I did, but I feel like I saw him at both his best and his worst in his last few years with us. For one thing, as a Djapu clan man, he was a shark. He was born of a Gumatj woman – a crocodile. He definitely embodied these ancestral totems. These raw powers of beauty and sudden aggression. But he was also a big softie.
I’ll share one personal story I’ve only told privately to a few people. Our first trip together was in October 2004. Thanks to the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, we went to Canberra for a reception with the US ambassador, spoke at the National Museum of Australia and on ABC radio, and got to look through the NMA’s collection of yiḏaki. We stopped on the way back for a workshop in Sydney. Milkay indulged in alcohol now and then during the trip. It wasn’t a problem to that point, but he took it too far that last night, getting very drunk during the workshop. We spoke about it on the plane home the next day. I tried not to be too preachy. I told him that he was an adult and free to do what he liked, but that he should remember that he was representing his people, the yiḏaki and his entire culture at events like this. The conversation was brief and to the point. He acknowledged it but we didn’t dwell on it.
Our next trip was in June 2005, to teach yiḏaki workshops at the first Dreaming Festival in Woodford, Qld. It was four days, and everything went smoothly. After the last workshop finished, he started drinking, celebrating big time. It took a herculean effort to get him on the plane the next morning, but we made it. Then he totally shocked me on that flight by bringing up the conversation we had on the plane home from our previous trip eight months earlier. He told me he remembered everything I said and didn’t want to let me or his people down this time, so stayed sober until the work was done. I almost cried. I knew this was a person with human failings but deep integrity. A person I wouldn’t give up on.
He continued as a person of extremes after that. He attempted suicide at least once then got sober for an extended period, about 7 months. It seemed a huge step. He had seen the outside word, seen different ways to live and could see a better way for his people. But the situation in Arnhem Land was too much for him. He got caught back up in the self-medication that is so common among his people as they try to survive their existence, stuck between two worlds, not knowing what the way forward could be.
Two years later, in June 2007, we returned to The Dreaming with a group of about a dozen Yolŋu to perform and present various workshops. The Yolŋu music world took a big hit while we were there. Gumatj clan singer George Rrurrambu of Warumpi Band fame passed away from lung cancer at Galiwin’ku. When word came through to the festival and our group, Milkay took on a new leadership role. As senior djuŋgaya/child of the Gumatj clan present, it fell to him to make sure protocols upon the death of this Yolŋu man were followed by our group, and by extension by everyone at this Aboriginal-themed festival. He liaised with festival organizers to put out the word that we wouldn’t be saying his name, playing his music, etc., and led a public memorial ceremony. He had spoken to me earlier about wanting to move away from playing yiḏaki and start to sing as a leader. He did that at the Dreaming in performance and in this brief ceremony. I was proud of him.
Meanwhile, funeral ceremony was ongoing back home for his own sister who had passed away from cancer. As the festival closed and it was time to head back home, Milkay didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to get dragged back into the old cycles of depression and drinking back home. He wanted to stay with his cousin who lived nearby in Brisbane, attending boarding school. He of course had been drinking at this time, so it was hard to say if he was in any state of mind to make such decisions. I did my job and rallied the group to get him on the plane, reminding him that he needed to get home for the close of his sister’s funeral.
A few weeks later, on a peaceful Sunday morning in July 2007, Milkay went fishing. Everyone said he seemed peaceful and happy. He returned home and took his own life. I got a call hinting at what happened and saying I should hurry from Yirrkala to Gunyaŋara’ to see him. The car horn started blaring around Yirrkala announcing a death. I couldn’t get myself to rush so just made it in time to be part of the procession to the hospital. I can’t say exactly what I felt, but I didn’t feel the need to see his lifeless body. I wasn’t particularly upset or sad in that moment. I remember mostly thinking that at least he could finally rest now, and being glad that I got to be part of his last few years here.
It has now been ten years since Milkay passed away. Part of me wonders what he would be doing now if he were still with us. Part of me is satisfied he completed his journey and is at peace. Both parts miss him. Both parts are grateful for what he accomplished and shared both with the world and with me, personally.
I’ll leave you with a world premiere. In 2006 as we were shooting video for Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja, he mentioned his aspiration to graduate from yiḏaki player to a singer, leading ceremony rather than accompanying it. We did a hasty recording of him playing and singing – what else – Guḏurrku, the brolga.
Have you ever wondered why are there so many different spellings of the main Yolŋu word for “didgeridoo?” Or should that be “didjeridu?” “Didgeridu?” “Didjeridoo?” And now we’re off the rails already.
Get back to the point. That’s not even the word we’re talking about.
OK. The reason it’s hard to standardize the spelling of the Yolŋu word is simple. It’s not an English word. It contains one particular sound that we do not make in English – the retroflexed [d].
To produce the sound, touch the tip of your tongue to the back of the alveolar ridge – that bump behind your top teeth – and then say a [d]. Don’t push way back to the roof of your mouth. Just touch the edge of that ridge. When you say a “normal” [d], the tip of your tongue touches just behind the teeth. For the Yolŋu retroflexed [d], you move the tip of the tongue back about a centimeter. For North American English-speakers like me, Spanish-speakers, 18th century pirates, and many others, your tongue is curled back the same amount as to say the letter [r], but you move the tip of your tongue straight up until you touch the ridge to make it a modified [d] instead. That’s it. Yolŋu do the same with the letters [l], [n] and [t].
Since we don’t make that sound in our languages, we don’t have a way to write it. When we just write “yidaki,” we’re ignoring the issue and letting readers think of the [d] they know. Which, honestly, is fine most of the time. “Yiḏaki” and “yirdaki” use [ḏ] and [rd] as code to indicate the retroflexed position, but they only work for readers who know the code. Let’s look at that.
Since Beulah Lowe’s pioneering work to document Yolŋu languages at Milingimbi mission in the 1950s, underlining the consonant [d], [l], [n] or [t] has been the standard way to write retroflexed letters in these languages. It’s what all the Yolŋu I know do. It’s in their educational materials and on signs around town. To me, this is the best way. As I said, it just doesn’t mean anything to you until you know the code. Now you know.
Some academics have used the [rd], [rl], [rn], [rt] convention to indicate the retroflexed tongue in Aboriginal languages. Once again, it is a code that works for readers who know the code. It makes sense because, as we’ve seen, the retroflexed [d] uses a curled tongue like an [r], but you touch the gum ridge to make a harder consonant. Moving into that position from a vowel sounds ALMOST like you’re saying an [r] first. Yolŋu languages never use a separate “rd” sound like in the English word, “card.” You simply won’t see those letters together in Yolŋu words. So using [rd] to indicate the retroflex does not create any confusion – again, IF readers know the code.
I don’t use “yirdaki” for one simple reason. The vast majority of readers do not know the code, and the result is often a much worse mispronunciation than if it had been written as “yidaki.” I’ve often heard something like:
Although some people have learned that Yolŋu emphasize the first syllable of words and say:
These have way too much [r] sound in them. We’ll hear some Yolŋu for comparison at the end. They will sound ALMOST like they’re saying an [r], but it’s much less pronounced and much quicker.
Yiragi, Yiraki, etc.
If you read old books by early missionaries and anthropologists, you’ve probably seen variations like these. I’ve seen them on lists of indigenous names of the didgeridoo. They’re not different names – just early attempts by outsiders to write “yiḏaki” before much study had been done on the language. So, to be brief, don’t use them and don’t worry about them!
I choose to use “yidaki” whenever possible and “yidaki” when typing on a device that makes underlining difficult or impossible. While “yirdaki” works for people who know the code, that is a tiny portion of the world’s population, so I don’t think it’s a good choice for use on the internet. People don’t know the code behind “yidaki” either, but at least it doesn’t make them say “yerdockey.” Hopefully it makes them pause and be curious, or better yet to go research it. By using only known “English” letters, “yirdaki,” on the other hand, can give the false impression that it communicates a full and proper pronunciation of the word.
Whatever you choose, at least now you understand why the confusion of a choice exists.
One More thing – CAPITALIZATION
Many people like to capitalize “Yidaki.” They consider it a special name for a special object and feel that this shows it more respect. This is not technically correct. “Yiḏaki” is not a proper noun. It is the general word for the musical instrument, just like “guitar” or “violin.” If we capitalize “yiḏaki, ” we should also capitalize other Yolŋu nouns like their words for “spear,” or “food.” It would get ridiculous. When it comes to more specific types of yiḏaki, like Dhaḏalal and Djuŋgirriny‘, then yes, those are proper nouns and are capitalized. They are to yidaki what Stratocasters and Les Pauls are to guitars. Make sense?
I hope this clears up any confusion and can serve as a reference for the future. Let’s wrap up by listening to a bunch of Yolŋu People from nine different clans say “yiḏaki,” shall we? Note that like any people of any culture anywhere, all Yolŋu don’t pronounce words the same as all other Yolŋu and individuals don’t always pronounce any given word exactly the same every time. I find the variation in the hardness and relative [r]-ness of the [ḏ] in these clips interesting.
YOLŊU PEOPLE ARE WARNED: This video contains several deceased people from the Djapu, Wangurri, Dhaḻwaŋu and Gumatj clans.