I love telling people this story, mostly so I can say the following sentence. This is the only yidaki I ever bought because I didn’t like it.
Early in 2004, Milkay and I scheduled our first meeting to work on the Hard Tongue Didgeridoo CD. He recently sold a batch of yidaki to us at Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka. When he met me there, I showed him my favorite of the bunch and suggested that he use it to teach me. He played it very briefly then dismissed it. He chose another one. One that I could barely even play, due to its tight mouthpiece and very high back pressure for a lower-pitched yidaki. Milkay declared that it had “good balance.” I didn’t understand.
After that first lesson, it went back into the available stock at Buku-Ḻarrŋgay. I decided I better practice on it until it sold, to try and figure out why it was good to him but practically unplayable for me. My lip control improved over a few weeks of picking it up and playing for just a minute at a time here and there throughout my work day. After about a month, nobody bought it from Buku’s website, so I decided I simply had to buy it for myself. I still have it and love it, although I admit it’s still not the easiest for me to play.
We went on to use it for the trumpet exercises and cover images of the CD. So I trust all of you have seen and heard this one already.
Stats: drone – right on the edge of D and D# • first trumpeted note – F 150cm long • 2.8cm mouthpiece (interior average) • 8.6cm bell (largest part of exterior)
Here’s the maker playing it.
Djalu’ taking his turn.
Interestingly, Djalu’ commented that this yidaki has the same deep and powerful sound as his own, but that he didn’t like the higher back pressure. He spotted it right away as the sound of an older man, but the playing qualities that younger Yolŋu go for.
Here’s another one of those younger Yolŋu players, the late Mirrwatŋa Munyarryun. He and a few of his family at Dhalinybuy all agreed this was a good “bass yidaki” suitable for ceremonial use.
Lastly, here’s when I played it as part of my “Didjeridu of the Day” series on Instagram.
Last month, I gave you a mother lode of information about the Mulka Project’s Dhalinybuy CD. Documentation for the other titles I recorded wasn’t so far along when I suddenly had to leave Yirrkala, but I’ll provide you what I can to try and fulfill the original educational goal of these CDs. This month, Gurrumuru.
We recorded at the Dhaḻwaŋu clan homeland of Gurrumuru on 28 September 2007. Once again, it was a road trip from Yirrkala with a stash of food, basic recording gear, the original young Mulka staff Ḏiṉḏirrk Munuŋgurr and Ṉuwaniny Burarrwaŋa and this time Buku-Ḻarrŋgay staff member Balwaltja Munuŋgurr, who wanted to see the process and visit family at Gurrumuru. Dhaḻwaŋu clan leaders Yumutjin and Warralka Wunuŋmurra sang while their gäthu, or nephew by non-Yolŋu thinking, Wambuna played yidaki (a yidaki you can hear more of HERE).
We had one little mishap that day and the external hard drive used for the recording took a tumble. It seemed fine, but died completely shortly after the trip while I was trying to back it up. Fortunately, I already made a rough mix for the artists. That rough mix had to serve as the final mix. At least on this CD, there was no hard work to be done mixing it!
We recorded Yumutjin telling the story of the songs before I left Yirrkala, but we didn’t finish transcribing or translating it. My knowledge of the Dhaḻwaŋu Dhay’yi language and the high level ceremonial words Yumutjin used isn’t sufficient for me to do it on my own now. Instead of pestering some Yolŋu to help for free long distance, I’ll summarize as best I can.
The songs tell of Birrinydji, or Ḻiya-Yiki, the knife warrior. Some say he was a Macassan, one of the sailors from modern day Sulawesi in Indonesia who came to Arnhem Land hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. Some say he was something else. Macassans didn’t normally venture as far inland as Gurrumuru. Maybe he was one of the Bayini, a group shrouded in myth who arrived before the Macassans. Maybe he was something else. Some historians believe Chinese sailors visited the Arnhem Land coast first. In either case, the songs of Gurrumuru and Birrinydji include introduced material culture such as knives, tobacco, playing cards, and rice.
To paraphrase Yumutjin:
This is how we sing the land at Gurrumuru. We sing of the warriors of the knife at Gurrumuru. Of the preparation of the place for the spirit we call Ḻiya-Yiki.
They followed the path, came to this place and prepared the land, clearing the brush. Making the place clean. This is the place they and we belong.
He spotted a special tree and went to sit in its shade to look over the clearing. He fell asleep and dreamed of the place. When he awoke, he smoked tobacco from his long pipe. It is a special smoke given to the people of Gurrumuru. Then he got up and began playing and singing. (YidakiStory side note: he plays the djoling, often translated either as ‘mouth harp’ or ‘flute’. I suspect it is not a coincidence that Indonesians have a bamboo flute called suling, and that Yolŋu don’t have an ‘s’ in their language).
From there, he went to find money and started playing cards with the other men. There is tension among them. He goes and gets alcohol and drinks. As he gets drunk, he gets more wild. He gets his knife and begins an aggressive dance. The red calico flags of Gurrumuru are raised.
Meanwhile, rice is being cooked. Some is stirred in the pot and some is tossed into the clearing. All the leftovers are thrown out to the clearing. The jungle fowl Djiḻawurr emerges, stamps its feet in the rice and calls out. It announces to other birds and by extension the humans that the north wind is coming, clearing the air and the land.
As Djiḻawurr cries out, the sun sets, casting spectacular colours of red and yellow in the clouds.
I’ve posted this several times before but here again is a video clip from near the end of the recording session.
Much of Yumutjin’s telling included lists of ‘power names’ for places, people and objects. I don’t feel comfortable including them here without his oversight even though he recorded the statement for the public. I might get something wrong and the specific words don’t contribute much to the story for us outsiders, anyway.
I don’t want to overstep any other bounds, but I’ll say that Djiḻawurr’s calls are often said to be announcements of death and the raising of flags is part of mortuary ceremony. It’s probably safe to assume that Birrinydji’s drunken aggression with his knife was his undoing, and that this story establishes Dhaḻwaŋu funeral practices. That’s all I’ll say about that.
A couple of years later, the Mulka Project worked with Yumutjin and others at Gurrumuru to create a short film of the dance for a small part of this song cycle. You can get a little more context and see the quick version of the story as told here:
I hope this helps you appreciate that CD or download you’ve got a little bit more and gives you another small window of insight into Yolŋu culture.
See also my post about the origins of the CD series HERE.
It seems odd, but yes, 1977 saw the release of a 7″ record featuring the late great Rirratjiŋu clan leader Wandjuk Marika playing solo yidaki.
From the original liner notes by Jennifer Isaacs, with modern spellings added for the titles:
(a) Dangultji (Ḏaŋgultji) – the Brolga. A secular camp dance in which the performers, particularly children, imitate the behaviour of the brolga.
(b) Malwiyi (Maḻwiya) – the Emu. A camp dance about the emu, Australia’s largest bird. It is flightless and may grow to 1.8 m in height. The Aborigines hunt them for food and relish their large green eggs.
(c) The Wawilak (Wäwilak) Story – The Wawilak myth gives rise to a most important cycle of ceremonies in North East Arnhem Land. In the Dreamtime the two Wawilak sisters, one of them pregnant, travelled over the land and finally came to rest by a lagoon where they built a shade for the birth. One of the sisters was gathering paperbark when she accidentally polluted the pool wherein dwelt the Lightning Serpent, a huge snake which could reach from the heavens to the earth. In a fury he sent a black cloud overhead, and torrential rain. The sisters cried out and danced to appease him but it was to no avail, and he swallowed them. The Wawilak sisters are the Creation Sisters – they gave rise to the present Aboriginal population.
(I) The first solo accompanies the Wawilak song which tells of the girls’ travels before they reached the pool. (II) The second solo accompanies the Wawilak song which tells of the torrential rain sent by the Lightning Serpent.
(a) The Wawilak Story (from side one).
(III) Djuwan – This accompaniment tells of the time after the Dreamtime, when the children of the Creation Sisters return to the sacred waters where the Serpent Lives and re-enact, in ceremony, the original events. The song and didjeridu accompaniment are used in mortuary and age-grading ceremonies.
(b) Kadabana (Gatapaŋa) – the Buffalo. Buffalos brought by early European settlers have run wild in the swamps and plains of Arnhem Land. This is a camp dance which describes the heavy animal crashing through the undergrowth being hunted by Aboriginal men for food.
(c) The Wawilak Story
(IV) The clouds – this segment accompanies the song which tells of the rain, and dark cloud which the Lightning Serpent sent overhead.
(d) Katjambal (Garrtjambal) – the Kangaroo. The story of the kangaroo as he bounds along the grassy plains through the scrub.
The Rest of the Liner Notes:
Wandjuk Marika is a ceremonial leader of the Riratjingu (Rirratjiŋu) clan of North East Arnhem Land and Chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. He was born about 1930 om what was then the small mission settlement of Yirrkala. This has since become the focal point of one of the most important struggles for ownership of land by traditional Aborigines, and the site of the huge bauxite mine, Nabalco. Wandjuk Marika and his people have been catapulted into confrontation with an industrialised society and in the process they have emerged with a great degree of strength and political and social cohesion. Traditional culture remains a vital part of life in Eastern Arnhem Land, the stories of the exploits of the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime such as the Djanggawul (Djaŋ’kawu) and the Wawilak Sisters providing the basis for lengthy ceremonial cycles involving ritual and social obligations covering every aspect of life from birth to death.
Wandjuk Marika learnt to play the didjeridu as a small boy from his father, Mawalan, who was a great and respected ceremonial leader, and who passed on to Wandjuk his knowledge of the sacred lore, the ceremonies and the sacred designs, just as Wandjuk is training his own sons today.
As well as his role in the traditional life of the Riratjingu, Wandjuk is also striving to explain the stories and create an awareness of the depth of his own culture in all Australians, through his work on the Australian Aboriginal Arts Board.
He says: “We realise the old way will never return, but we believe that much of our music, songs, dance and art can and must be preserved as a vital part of the culture of mankind.”
THE DIDJERIDU (or YIDAKI)
The didjeridu, or drone pipe, is the traditional wind instrument of the Aborigines of Northern Australia. It is in fact a branch or trunk of a young eucalyptus, or string bark tree which has been hollowed out by termites. The musician taps the tree to see if the resonance indicates it is sufficiently hollow, and then after he cuts it down, he selects a suitable length for the instrument. This is smoothed and painted, and bees wax or gum is applied to the end to be placed in the mouth. This narrows the diameter of the interior hole, and provides a comfortable mouthpiece. The length and diameter of the instrument determine its pitch and the tone produced when it is blown with loosely vibrating lips. Variations in the sound produced occur when the lips are tightened, or when the tongue is moved towards and away from the opening. The vocal chords are also used when producing a croak.
The sustained rhythm is achieved by a unique form of breathing. Air is drawn in through the nose in quick breaths. This is retained in the cheeks and continuously expelled through the mouth to maintain the sound.
The instrument is generally played as a rhythmic accompaniment to the songman and clapsticks, however, it is also played solo for camp dances and general fun and amusement.
SEMINAR ON ART IN THE THIRD WORLD
Wandjuk Marika was invited to be a guest lecturer at the Seminar on Art in the Third World at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1976, organised by the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. Wandjuk Marika gave a lecture on Aboriginal art and music, together with a performance on the didjeridu. In addition he demonstrated the art of bark painting and opened an exhibition of Aboriginal art at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.
Recorded at the National Broadcasting Commission 25th February, 1976
Recorded by Frederic DUVELLE Text by Jennifer ISAACS Cover photo by Jennifer STEELE First published by LARRIKIN Records 1977
Thanks to John of manikay.com for first making me aware of this recording many years ago. Images borrowed from discogs.com. No, I do not have rights to this recording or text. But it’s long out of print, most likely never will be reprinted, and I know many of Wanjduk’s living family and bet they’d be happy to let this recording be heard as long as nobody’s selling it for a profit without them.
Yes, I’m going there. The issue that won’t go away. And has no answer.
Should women play didgeridoo?
Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja addresses the issue at www.yidakistory.com/dhawu/yidaki-issues/women-play-didgeridoo. In conducting interviews and writing the basic text for the Dhäwu, I aimed to represent the range of views in northeast Arnhem Land as much as possible. To summarize, key male figures in the Yolŋu yiḏaki world like Djalu’ and Burrŋupurrŋu invite non-Aboriginal women to learn to play from them. Baḏikupa and Djambawa speak of Yolŋu women playing in ceremony in older days when no men knew the songs. Wukuṉ, on the other hand, believes that women should not and are in fact incapable of playing. Three women, Banduk, Merrkiyawuy and a late sister of Djalu’, share a range of opinions but all agree that Yolŋu women will stick to their traditional women’s business. Only Banduk says strictly that outsider women should never play didjeridu, while the other two leave some room for personal choice.
On this blog, I share my own experiences and views – and in this case, those of my wife, Brandi – instead of strictly representing Yolŋu opinions. I asked Brandi if she would write a guest post, but she passed and told me to write this up. Those who disagree with early parts of this post, please press on to the end. SPOILER ALERT: She used to play, but doesn’t anymore. Here we go.
First off, the didjeridu comes from the Top End.
Period. That refers to a large area and we cannot pinpoint one origin of the instrument within it. Different Aboriginal groups across the Top End tell different stories of the didjeridu’s creation. I have no interest in judging them or choosing between them and won’t discuss academic theories on that issue here. I also won’t take time debating the larger point. Although exact borders can’t be drawn, academics and many Aboriginal People from around Australia agree that the didjeridu comes from the north of the Northern Territory and spread from there. I accept this as fact.
Stories of physical harm or sudden pregnancy coming to women who play are oft repeated outside of that area. I’ll never forget a woman who came to me in tears many years ago, telling me how she went to pick up a didjeridu in a tourist shop in New South Wales, but an Aboriginal man in the shop snatched it from her and yelled at her. It broke her heart both that she wanted to play but wasn’t allowed, and that she unintentionally offended this man.
Countless arguments about this litter social media. Non-Aboriginal women post pictures or videos of themselves playing and find themselves the target of great ire from Down Under. From both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal People, but not from traditional owners from the Top End as far as I’ve seen.
I visited a few times then lived in northeast Arnhem Land for 5 years, working with countless Yolŋu People while completing a Fulbright & M.A. project on the instrument. No one gave me a reason why Yolŋu women don’t play. It simply is not done. I only heard the cautionary story of didjeridu playing making a woman pregnant once. Banduk, who lived in Sydney for many years, referred to it as a superstition.
One Woman’s Experience in Top End Didjeridu Country
Brandi and I met in the USA in 1997 through our shared interest in the didjeridu and went to Australia for the first time in 1999. We started in Sydney, and didn’t have any issue with her as a woman player there, apart from one semi-related suggestion by an Aboriginal Person that she would be speared once we got to the Top End where the law was much stricter.
We made our way north to Katherine, where we had no trouble shopping together for instruments at stores managed by white Australians. From there, we made our way to an Aboriginal community in Top End didj country for the first time. Manyallaluk offers day tours for tourists. Local people take you for a bush walk to talk about medicinal plants and native foods. We ate kangaroo tail and drank green ant “tea.” We threw spears. We heard “Dreaming stories” of the place and had a quick go at painting on bark.
And then, out came a didjeridu for everyone to try. Everyone. It was passed around for the whole group, men and women alike. Most people of course failed to play it. I wondered what the reaction would be when it got to me, the hot shot that people in the USA thought was so good. Mostly, it was buzzkill for all our fellow tourists who had just failed at it. Our local Aboriginal hosts reacted with, “hey, that’s cool, you know how to play.” I told them that I would soon be hosting a workshop with David Blanasi back home.
Then I passed it to Brandi. She played and our male tour guides went nuts. They laughed and applauded. They called over the other men and women of the community sitting nearby.
“Hey, you’ve gotta come see this white woman who can play didjeridu! She knows Blanasi!”
Instead of bringing out the spears for punishment, the moment brought a bit of joy and wonder to the community for a minute – though admittedly, it excited the men more than the women. It seemed that somehow, in 1999, this was really the first time these men had seen a woman play didjeridu with any competence. I’m sure this didn’t instigate a cultural revolution such that we’ll go back and find that all the local women play now. I know their culture holds strong. But this cross cultural moment brought no shame, anger or warnings of impending physical harm or pregnancy. Just a pleasant surprise for all concerned.
On to Yolŋu Country
A few weeks later, we found ourselves staying with Djalu’ Gurruwiwi’s family at Gunyaŋara’ in northeast Arnhem Land. Djalu’s fame hadn’t reached today’s heights yet, but he had traveled and hosted visitors before. A woman player didn’t shock his family as it did the residents of Manyallaluk. They accepted Brandi. As a western couple, we planned to do everything together while on our trip. But she was smart enough to see that not all was right.
Both at Manyallaluk and Gunyaŋara’, Aboriginal People lead lives somewhat divided on gender lines in a way we as an “enlightened” couple from the USA didn’t. When we popped in to Manyallaluk for one day, a white woman didj player was cool. Staying at Gunyaŋara’ for a few weeks, however, was a different story. It got a bit awkward. Once Brandi suggested that we go our separate ways, with me doing men’s business like didgeridoo playing while she joined in women’s business, our relationships with the Yolŋu improved. We did as the Romans did and fit ourselves into their world view rather than insisting on bringing our own to their place.
That’s not to say yidaki is 100% men’s business. In Djalu’s family, everyone helps in the crafting process. During our first yidaki cutting trip with Djalu’, his wife Dopiya brought me a log she just chopped down, asking me to test its playability. A small, irregularly shaped mouthpiece hole sat in the middle of a thick log. With my little lips, skinny face, big nose and prior experience mostly with beeswax mouthpieces, I couldn’t fit my face on there and get a seal to try it properly. Dopiya gave up on me, took it into her own hands and blew a drone on the log for herself. Just for testing purposes since this white kid was worthless.
Brandi assisting Djalu’ in 1999.
Before this trip, Brandi wanted to be a hot chick with a stick.
Few women publicly performed on didjeridu around the world. Joining those elite ranks was a sure way to get attention. The experience of the instrument’s context in Arnhem Land changed that for Brandi. It wasn’t about her anymore and she’d rather do what the women do. We visited the family a few times, then lived nearby for 5 years, immersed in life there. Brandi blew a note or two over the years, same like Dopiya testing out freshly cut instruments for herself, but she never went back to being a chick with a stick. It wasn’t appropriate for the life we lived, and it wasn’t nearly as fun as hanging with the women. As Merrkiyawuy said, Yolŋu men and women respect each other’s roles.
This is not absolutely the right answer for everyone. Djalu’s late sister (WARNING to family not to click unprepared on the following video) voices her opinion clearly. It’s up to a woman to decide for herself, but Yolŋu women will stick to their traditions.
I suppose the best thing now is to reiterate the summary I wrote for the Yidakiwuy Dhäwu.
So the best advice for non-Yolŋu women is to make your own choice for what you do on your own time, knowing that there are some Yolŋu who would encourage you to play. But be very sensitive about who you are with. If you are in Arnhem Land or in the presence of people from Arnhem Land, carefully check that no one will be upset before playing. Be aware that it may be shocking, and may inspire the laughter that women playing does in initiation ceremonies. Yolŋu women have their own business, and like to stick together and stick to their customs. You will not win any friends and begin a relationship of open sharing with Yolŋu by forcing your point of view, and will likely alienate Yolŋu women who could otherwise become friends.
As I said above, this paragraph was written to represent Yolŋu opinion, but from my own limited experience, I would apply that same view to the rest of the Top End didjeridu origins in the Northern Territory. You won’t be judged as harshly as you would by people from other parts of Australia for playing didjeridu, but you won’t make friends with local Aboriginal women that way, either.
If you just want to play the instrument and don’t plan to ever be involved with Aboriginal People,
then know that some people at its origins feel you have that choice. People like Djalu’ Gurruwiwi.
People like Western Arnhem Land mago master David Blanasi who allowed women into workshops like the one I arranged in San Diego in 1999.
But also know that like any other subject, you will run into arguments about it on the internet. You will never win that argument. Those people, if they’ve read this far, are not convinced by me right now. But I personally believe all the evidence that instrument originates from the Top End and only recently spread all over Australia. I choose to listen to traditional owners from that region. Not that 100% of them agree on this issue.
I also choose not to pick fights with people from outside that region. Please don’t insult them or intentionally cause confrontation to assert your own view of your rights. They have their own struggles in the aftermath of the invasion of their country and intentional destruction of their culture. They are proudly holding on to what they can. They deserve understanding and respect.
So. Make your choice.
Do what you gotta do. If you decide to play, know that some Aboriginal People will support your decision. Many won’t. Be respectful wherever you are, including the internet, but don’t feel you need to hide yourself, either. I wish there was an easier answer for every situation to keep everyone happy but there isn’t.
Djalu’ Gurruwiwi made this yidaki in August 1999. I helped in between taking pictures for my website documenting my first visit to Australia. I’ll repeat of few of those old photos in higher resolution here. I don’t have video of any Yolŋu playing this yidaki like I did of the last Yidaki of the Month. Instead I have about 40 minutes of audio of Djalu’ playing it. Apart from a couple of excerpts in Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja and a few Mulka Project videos, these recordings have only been heard by a few of my friends.
key of D with E first trumpeted note
mouthpiece approximately 3.2cm
distal end approximately 9cm
And now, the “making of” photos. In the finest digital photo quality 1999 had to offer!
I’ll post more below, but let’s listen to just one bit now, shall we? His rapid alternation of drone and trumpet notes totally mystified me back then, so this has always been my go-to demo of how amazing the old man’s playing is. An excerpt of this track appears on the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu How to Play: The Trumpet Note page, but I’ll include the full three minutes here. He plays a few renditions and provides the “mouth sounds,” or teaching pneumonics. This yidaki part normally accompanies song and dance about monsoonal rains.
Confession. While the Yiḏaki of the Month was Djalu’s clear favorite of the three, I couldn’t get along with it for many years. I preferred the black one at the right. It had a tighter top section, more back pressure, and a larger interval between the drone and trumpeted note. I didn’t know how to play trumpet notes with any subtlety back then. I almost always pushed too hard, with too tight a lip, and overshot the trumpet note on Djalu’s favored yidaki of the batch. Yet he demonstrated hitting it with such ease in the piece you heard above. I struggled to play along with his recordings and learn, but just couldn’t connect with the yellow yidaki. I always used the black one to demonstrate what I had learned of Yolŋu style, right up to when I moved to Arnhem Land.
These yidaki all stayed in the USA while I lived in Arnhem Land. After living for five years near Djalu’ and developing my playing style and lip with his and other Yolŋu players’ influence, guess what? I now very much prefer the yellow one. Young Yolŋu probably would prefer the black one with its higher back pressure. I guess I’m an old man like Djalu’ now, preferring mid-level back pressure and a slightly more open bore.
Here are a few more recordings of Djalu’ playing 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.
I stopped in on the gallery a few hours before my performance in town this Thursday night. Julie, the owner, shocked me with the revelation that she has thirteen finely painted yidaki sent by my old colleagues in Yirrkala. We pulled them out of storage, admired them for a bit, then recorded quick videos of me trying them all out. We’ll work out how to list them for sale online soon. Up until now, they were for sale to her art collector clients. Now, they will be available to yidaki players around the world.
For now, check out these examples. Attention fellow film snobs: I am not responsible for the aspect ratio of the videos.
Manini Gumana painted the first one with miny’tji (sacred design) of Yirritja moiety salt water at Garrapara. This one is a great instrument, but is a little awkward to play due to a roughly shaped natural mouthpiece. A little wax or wood filler will easily fix it.
Buwathay Munyarryun adorned this powerful yidaki with Gularri and Djapanaminy’tji of his Wangurri clan.
Lastly (for now), is a fantastic yidaki with old school playing characteristics, painted in a very fine hand by my friend and former co-worker Marrnyula Munuŋgurr with her Djapu clan’s characteristic square design.
I honestly would love to buy all three of these yidaki and a few others in the collection, but simply can’t come up with an excuse to own any more than I do already. Soon I’ll post information on how you can make me extremely jealous by buying them for yourself. Stay tuned!
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.
As I launch this new blog, I have to answer one question for both myself and you, dear reader. Why? Is there not enough content on the internet? What do I still have to add to discussion of these stringybark logs called yiḏaki? Most importantly, do Yolŋu People need or want this?
Let’s go back a bit.
When I started playing the instrument in 1993, I wanted to be a didgeridoo star. I formed a band, recorded CDs, taught workshops. My first visit to Arnhem Land in 1999 changed my perspective. Advocacy for the people at the origin grew more important. In 2003, after a few more visits and much study, I won a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue a Master’s Degree in Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies at Charles Darwin University. I moved to Yirrkala, an Aboriginal township in remote northeast Arnhem Land. I created the comprehensive didgeridoo information website Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunyda with many Yolŋu partners and some generous volunteer translators in Europe.
Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the art centre in the community of Yirrkala, hired me as assistant coordinator, yidaki specialist and then founding coordinator of The Mulka Project, a new multimedia centre wing that repatriated documentation of local culture and produced new materials. All my time and energy supported Yolŋu and advocated for their interests rather than my own.
I found myself at a loose end when a family medical crisis brought me back to the USA in 2009. Didgeridoo was a huge part of my life to that point, but I was no longer on the ground in Arnhem Land to work with the people I represented there. I couldn’t go back to old ways and promote my own self as didgeridoo star with any integrity. I shied away from the didgeridoo world for a few years. Then in 2015 I developed the show A Personal History of the Australian Didgeridoo to perform and educate by telling my story with the instrument and playing appropriate pieces along the way. I had some great experiences touring it, but was also confronted by the fact that most American didgeridoo players’ main interest was to make their own instruments and play them their own way. Overall, there is only a passing interest in the yidaki and its origins. I can’t say they are wrong, only that it does not jive well with many of my Yolŋu friends’ wishes.
Meanwhile, the website Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunyda had aged poorly. It was designed in another time, to be uploaded via dialup internet in a remote corner of the world. It required a special font. Although we promised it as a permanent resource, web designers unceremoniously deleted it in an overhaul of Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka’s site. After struggling to get it back up and then seeing it deleted a second time by another designer, I registered the domain yidakistory.com as a new permanent home for the Dhäwu. I wanted to update it, but as an artist, didn’t have time for a big unpaid project. The demands of making a website for the range of devices people use today intimidated me. Then I discovered that the videos wouldn’t play on my new computer. When I saw Omar from Mexico and Loïc from Spain posting on Facebook about the Spanish-language version, standing by it in all its half-working glory, I decided it was time to update it.
Thanks to way more generosity than I thought I would receive from the crowdfunding world (you know who you are!), I raised funds to do the project in July-August 2016. I never had any doubt that keeping the website alive was in the best interests of the Yolŋu I had worked with to create it, but around this time came an unexpected benediction from one of them.
Wukun Wanambi was one of my close friends and colleagues in Yirrkala as one of Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka’s more successful artists and a founding Cultural Director of the Mulka Project. I interviewed him for the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu despite questions from others. “Why? He’s not a yidaki player!” I wanted a large cross section of Yolŋu voices on the website, but more importantly, Wukuṉ is a singer and young leader of the Marrakulu clan. They are the main local holders of gaḏayka, the stringybark tree that most yiḏaki are made from. He spoke to me in the past about his concerns. Others around the world were giving the didgeridoo, born from his own clan’s very soul, a new life without regard for its origins.
This painting on stringybark by the late Marrakulu artist and leader Ḏuṉḏiwuy Waṉambi may surprise you.
You might assume that it shows a yidaki and be confused by the title, Ceremonial Ground Design Associated with the Sugarbag Ceremony. In certain Marrakulu ceremony, Yolŋu dance in and around the sand sculpture Gundimulk. You know what? It’s kind of also a yidaki. And a ḻarrakitj, the hollow log coffin made from larger stringybark trees. It’s the home of the honey bees. It’s the stringybark tree itself. The Marrakulu clan family name Waṉambi is in fact a special name for gaḏayka. And it’s the river Gurka’wuy that runs through their land and empties into the sea at what the map calls Trial Bay. It is the whole of the stringybark and everything connected to it. Yolŋu art has many layers of meaning – a phrase I learned from the work of Aboriginal art scholar Howard Morphy. If you can, get your hands on the film Djungguwan at Gurka’wuy to hear Ḏuṉḏiwuy himself talk more about this story.
In August 2016, right when the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu crowdfunding campaign wrapped up, I got a rare email from Wukuṉ out of the blue. He never uses email. While in Melbourne for an art exhibition, he called on a common friend to write to me on his behalf. After some catching up, the conversation moved on to his continued concern for the yidaki around the world.
Now today, people are still asking me a question about yidaki and this reminds me of you playing didj in America. I know nowadays, yidaki is gone out into the world. It means Dhuwa side ga Yirritja side. It comes from one tree the stringybark yäku (called stringybark). But to name the yidaki name… I think you know what I am saying.
1. Respect the Yolngu.
2. Do not trespass the yidaki because that belong to Yolngu.
3. Put it in the surface side but don’t dig the gold because we don’t dig your gold.
As you know, today the yidaki is now a musical instrument in the world that is really not run by Yolngu, but by a lot of people. These are a few things that I am protesting in the protocol side.
My friend, I am not criticising, I am debating in a manner that I respect you and professional player of yidaki in the world, knowing that in this world we should work together somehow, because nothing is run by Yolngu only Ngäpaki.
I’m saying this because the future of our generation might not be doing this. Yidaki be still around but it will be all whitefella’s entertainment.
yours sincerely, Wukuṉ.
(email correspondence August 2016, used with permission)
Coming right on the heels of the Dhäwu crowdfunding campaign and my own questions about my role in supporting the culture that created the yidaki from afar, this seemed an incredibly auspicious benediction. My Yolŋu friend and colleague, a stringybark man, suddenly reached out with a new, personal revision of the 1999 Garma Yidaki Statement that inspired my 2004 Fulbright & master’s project in the first place. He still wants the story spread, and he still wants us to work towards more cooperation between the origin of the didgeridoo and those who are spreading it around the world.
And with that, I launch this blog. I’ll write one to four posts a month, depending on the size. Some big, some tiny. Reflections on my experiences in Arnhem Land. Reviews of books and films related to Yolŋu culture. Additions to the material in the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu. Over time, guest posts from Yolŋu. The ever popular more. This American who went down the rabbit hole of yidaki and Yolŋu culture will share his experience with you to deepen your awareness of the culture that brought us this wonderful instrument that we all love.