History of the Didgeridoo


Although some believe the Australian Aborigine has been using the didgeridoo for over 40,000 years, the oldest records of Aborigines playing the didgeridoo date back 2000 years in the form of old Northern Territory cave and rock paintings. In the west we have only been playing the didgeridoo for a maximum of 30 years and only in the last ten years or so have we been trying to play traditional Aboriginal style. A growing number of westerners are now discovering the beautiful rich harmonics and subtleties that come from playing West Arnhem Land or North East Arnhem Land style!

Just a century ago the didgeridoo had a restricted distribution in Australia. Earlier researchers such as Elkin (1938) reported that the didgeridoo was 'only known in eastern Kimberley and the northern third of the Northern Territory'. With the introduction of missions, roads and infrastructure, the art of making the didgeridoo seemed to then spread across most parts of Australia.
Despite removing indigenous Aboriginals from their land, separating them, damaging their culture, impressing our beliefs on to them (and using violence in non-compliance); despite these our actions, a rich cultural heritage of our human past lives in North Arnhem Land and it is a priceless heirloom that we must do everything to protect. For in this time of social fragmentation in the west, we have much to remember about ourselves and to understand what worked well for different indigenous tribes, who co-existed and thrived for thousands of years before outside interference.

In the 1930's to the 1940's Donald Thomson visited Arnhem Land. Donald Thomson was a professor of anthropology at the University of Melbourne and his work remains one of the most important anthropological studies on the Yolngu people and their culture. The large number of artefacts and other items of material culture he collected are now housed at the Melbourne Museum.

In NE Arnhem Land there is an unbroken tradition of crafting and playing the didgeridoo, the vast majority of Yolngu made Yidaki from NE Arnhem Land are made from 'Stringybark' however, sometimes 'Woolybutt' or 'Bloodwood' are used. The trees are naturally hollowed out by termites which burrow in to the ground, lay eggs and the larvae eat up the inside of the eucalyptus tree. An Aboriginal yidaki maker has a sense of the approriate tree which he then tests by removing a small piece of bark and hitting the tree with his finger or a tool to hear if the sound indicates a hollowness. An experienced Yolngu can tell from that sound, how hollow the tree is and where to make the initial cuts for the proposed yidaki. If the tree is not sufficiently hollowed the subject location is remembered and the tree left for another time. Such sensitivity to nature is vastly different from the non-indigenous approach where large sections of forestation are cleared without regard for the environment and readiness of any particular tree. It is interesting to note that 99.9% of all didgeridoos and yidaki sold on the global market are not indigenously crafted and painted.

In West Arnhem Land the didgeridoo is commonly referred to as the mago and was made famous from the 60's by David Blanasi (and some promotion by Rolf Harris). David Blanasi was an exceptional didjeridu player and mago maker who co-founded 'The White Cockatoo' performing group. David Blanasi travelled and performed extensively throughout the world for 30 years and brought the mago to international prominence for the very first time.

Djalu Gurruwiwi is the Custodian of the didgeridoo, a senior member of the Galpu clan in North Arnhem Land and an internationally acclaimed yidaki maker and player. Djalu Gurruwiwi reveals that a didgeridoo made by a traditional owner or custodian has spirit and that spirit is in the instrument itself! A yidaki, mago or didgeridoo made by a non-Indigenous person has no spirit and is merely a musical instrument. Djalu, goes further and states the same lack of spirit is evident in didgeridoos made by Aboriginal people who don't have the instrument as part of their cultural heritage. Which translates to just because a craftsman is an Aboriginal Australian, it does not necessarily mean they have the right and cultural backing to make an indigenous didgeridoo.

There are many other names for the didgeridoo, a fact dependant upon region and clan. In Groote Eylandt the didgeridoo is also called ngarrriralkpwina and in Mornington Island a djibolu. Didgeridoos are now made by different races of people and from various types of material including, hemp, bamboo, cactus, plastic, glass, clay, metal, etc,.

The most important issue for the discerning didgeridoo buyer who seeks authenticity and wishes to participate in and support the rich cultural heritage of the 'didgeridoo,' is to buy from a source which guarantees instruments are made by an indigenous Australian Aborigine who has the instrument as part of their cultural heritage!

The British Medical Journal published a study in 2005, which found that practicing the didgeridoo helped reduce snoring as well as daytime sleepiness. The study concluded that using the didgeridoo for just 25 minutes a day helped people with sleep apnoea.
The disorder causes the throat to close and breathing to stop, waking the patient, but the didgeridoo sessions helped by strengthening the airways. About 5% of the population has the syndrome, which can cause people to wake up regularly during the night, the team decided to investigate whether playing the Aboriginal didgeridoo wind instrument helped patients after hearing reports that it had solved some sleep-related problems."Our results are the first to show that training the upper airways significantly improves sleep related outcomes." University of Surrey sleep expert Neil Stanley said: "Exercising the airways in such a way is known to help people with this condition."

Click here to see the sleep apnea movie and our 10% discount offer!

Another good reason to keep up your practice!


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