The most interesting Aboriginal musical instrument is the didjeridu. It was
only known to the tribes of Eastern Kimberly and the northern third of the
Northern Territory. The instrument is an unstopped hollowed piece of bamboo or
termite-hollowed wood, usually the latter, about four or five feet long, and two
or more inches in internal diameter, with a mouth-piece made of beeswax or
hardened gum. The player blows into the instrument in trumpet fashion.
The wooden variety are termite-hollowed branches or trunks of trees with the
bark removed and the ends internally scraped or, nowadays, chiseled and rasped
to improve the playing sound.
Some trees used in Didjeridu production are Stringy Bark (Eucalyptus
Tetrodonta), Wooly Butt (Eucalyptus Miniata), River Red Gum (Eucalyptus
Camaldulensis), Ironwood (Erythrophlaeum Laboucherii) and in more recent years
in South Australia, Box Gum and Wattle though the instrument is not native to
Bamboo Didjeridus are traditionally hollowed out with a fire stick or hot
coals however, in recent times, extension drill bits have been used.
The instrument may vary in length from just under a metre to 2.5 metres (used
for sacred rites and ceremonies) however, preferred length seems to be between 1
and 1.5m. The instrument is often decorated with ochre and clay designs and in
modern times, carved or burnt patterns may be utilized.
Didjeridu playing is learned when young. A good player, or "puller" as he is
called, produces two pitches, one usually a tenth above the regular one but it
is always a short sharp sound, with no suggestion of a Didjeridu.
The Name can also be spelled 'Didgeridoo'. There are approximately forty
aboriginal names for it are known where it is used, from the north of Western
Australia through the Arnhem Land peninsula to Northern Queensland.
The Didjeridu is used with other instruments such as the Bull Roarer and
Click (or Clap) Sticks. It is often used as an accompaniment to song and dance.
It is also used in ceremonial functions. A large version of the Didgeridoo
called a Yurlunggur is used only in ceremonies.
Three distinct styles of traditional playing have been identified. West
Arnhem Land uses quiet and uncomplicated patterns. A feature of that style is
that hummed notes are used in conjunction with blown notes to produce slower
patterns. North- East Arnhem Land uses the first overtone, at about a tenth
above the fundamental droning note. This may be heard as a long hoot or a short
Eastern Arnhem Land styles use the second pitch as well as a variety of
techniques using manipulations of the tongue, lips and breath to create fast
energetic rhythmic patterns. The precision and variety of rhythm produced on the
didjeridu are very striking. Sometimes it sounds like a deep pipe organ note
being played continuously; at other times like a drum beaten in three-four time,
and so on, varying according to the type of song and dance which it is
The continuous nature of the sound is most remarkable. The breath is taken,
or "snapped", through the nose. Two quick breaths are usually taken but some of
the incoming air is kept in the mouth to be blown into the instrument while the
next quick intake is being made. This process, called circular breathing,
results in the cheeks being used much like a bellows.
The Didjeridu is the center-piece of most of the Corroborees danced by the
Northern tribes in the Territory and the East Kimberleys. A corroboree is an
important ceremonial when all the various tribes of a region would come together
to hear and recount the sacred stories.
There are a number of stories revealing something of the significance of the
Didjeridu in the Aboriginals of northern Australia. It is seen as a phallic
symbol and male instrument, with women in many areas traditionally prohibited
One story that links the Didjeridu with creation tells of how in the
beginning the Great Spirit Balame (Byamee) created man and woman and they
in turn had the responsibility to create the animals and birds which they did by
either singing them into form or sounding them into form through playing the
The Didjeridu itself was supposed to have been created or conceived a long
time ago. In the North of Australia, two young and beautiful adolescent girls
were captured by a mean giant who wanted them to be his wives. After some time
the girls managed to escape and hastily made their way back to their tribe.
The mean giant was angry when he discovered what had happened and endeavored
to reclaim what he considered his property. Meanwhile, the elders of the young
girls' tribe set a trap for the giant. They dug a huge pit along the path
leading to their home camp.
The giant, in his angry haste, fell into the pit and was immediately killed
with many spears thrown by tribal hunters hiding nearby. As he curled on his
penis, looking very much like a huge porcupine, he began to blow on his penis,
making an amazing droning sound. They tried to copy it, to no avail' so they
searched for and found a large hollow log, the center of which had been eaten
out by termites. By blowing on one end of this hollow log, they were able to
create the sound made by the giant in his death throws.
- From Alistair Black
Three men were camped on a cold night in the outback. One of the men told
another to put another log on the fire, because the fire was getting low and it
was so cold. So, the other man turned around and grabbed a log, which was
awfully light to the touch, for it was hollow. As he turned to drop it into the
fire, he noticed the entire length was covered with termites. He didn't know
what to do, for he could not throw the branch into the fire, because it would
kill the termites, and his friends were telling him to do so because it was
cold. So he carefully removed all the termites from the outside of the log by
scooping them into his hand, and he deposited them inside the branch. Then he
raised the branch to his lips and blew the termites into the air, and the
termites blown into the air became the stars, and the first didjeridu was
- Gary Fenstermacher
This story of the didjeridu comes from the
dreaming of the people of the Northern Territory and they say that YIDAKI the
warrior was coming home from a hunt with kangaroo over his shoulder when he saw
a dead branch lying on the ground. He picked it up and there was daylight coming
in the other end and noticed there were a lot of little insects (which you call
termites) in there. And he blew through it to get rid of them and it made a
sound something like this.
And the warrior liked the sound that it made. He found that by breathing
through his nose and out through his mouth in a circular fashion he could make
rhythm and many other sounds. Something like this :
The warrior took his hollow branch back with him and played it for his
people. And they were drawn to the sound and they painted up with coloured ochre
and danced Corroboree to it's rhythm. And during his lifetime the warrior taught
many other young men the circular breathing method and this simple instrument
became very popular and part of their culture. And it was used in ceremony,
dance and forms of healing.
When the warrior died, his spirit left his body and went into the hollow log
that you call the DIDJERIDU. And if you listen in a quiet place somewhere by
holding one end to your ear, you can still hear YIDAKI playing in this
instrument. And the aboriginal people of the Northern Territory believe that
because there is a man's spirit in there it is a man's instrument and women
should not play the DIDJERIDU. This then, is the story of what aboriginal people
call the YIDAKI and you know as the DIDJERIDU.
And if you listen now to this spiritual instrument, it will not only enter
your ears, but it will open your heart and reach and lift your spirit.
- Francis Firebrace
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