The North Eastern part of Arnhem Land is the birthplace of the renowned Didgeridoo or ‘Yidaki’ as the First Nations peoples have been calling it for thousands of years. When European colonists first heard the music of this ancient instrument, it sounded like it was making the word ‘Didgeridoo.’ As a result, the slang term ‘Didgeridoo’ was coined, and has been used by the wider Australian community ever since. The Yidaki song carries the history of the First Nations peoples, who inhabited Arnhem Land. Today, the majority of people from wider Australia only hear the yidaki playing in major cities, and automatically link the Didgeridoo to Aboriginal Australians (SAFC, 2016).
Clan Elder Yakar Garimala, from Bickerton Island in eastern Arnhem Land, provides insight into how the First Nations peoples’ world is accompanied by the sound of the yidaki - the beat of their tradition, which binds the clan together and grounds them to their land:
“It’s our sacred instrument. With its sound the great god Baiame created the stars in the Dreamtime. The men who know how to play it in our culture are very important. With the yidaki they communicate our wishes to the spirits. And they call on them to come to our aid when tragedy befalls us. This sacred instrument brings us closer to the world of our ancestors. It awakens the Rainbow Serpent without making it angry, and allows us to speak with the God of Creation.”- Yakar Garimala
Yakar Garimala continues “The didgeridoo is not made by man...we simply look for them, clean them and decorate them.” He explains this further:
“Our land here in Northern Australia is the kingdom of the ants. There are hundreds of thousands of termite hills of many different forms. The termites invade trees, especially the eucalyptus trees and hollow them out from the inside, but never kill the trees.” - Yakar Garimala
Yakar Garimala (Courtesy of Planet Doc, 2014)
Galpu Clan Elder from Yolngu nation and world-renowned yidaki song man Djalu Gurruwiwi uses his music as a bridge between his clans’ ancestral traditions and the cultural integrity of his community in the 21st century. Djalu Gurriwiwi has many decades of experience making yidakis. He begins by going into the bush and tapping on eucalyptus trees with an axe, in order to find which trees have been hollowed out by termites. When a trunk of the right length and thickness is found, Gurriwiwi cuts it to form the long cylindrical shape of the yidaki. The basic pitch of the yidaki is determined by its length, and in Yolngu nation they are generally 1.3 - 1.5 metres. The Yolngu people of north east Arnhem Land don’t require a particular pitch to the yidaki; instead they place emphasis on the sound quality whereby a clear, deep resonant sound is sought. Next, Djalu shaves off the bark with a draw knife, and by the heat of a fire he uses a hot metal bar to burn the excess wood and excrement the termites have left behind in the hollowed out trunk (SAFC, 2016).
Djalu Gurruwiwi shaving off the bark of a log with a draw knife (Courtesy of Yidakistory.com, 2017).
After Djalu Gurruwiwi has shaved off the bark, he hollows out the log and tests the sound of the yidaki to see if he needs to adjust the length of the log (Courtesy of Yidakistory.com, 2017).
Interestingly, the yidaki is categorised as a brass instrument, despite its being made of wood. This is because of the vibrating sound that is made with the lips. The yidaki is a difficult instrument to play as it requires the technique of circular breathing. Circular breathing involves the expelling of air using the cheeks and tongue, and at the same time the inhalation through the nose. Expertised yidaki musicians can continue the sound without stopping for ten minutes. According to Dr Killen, a QUT physics lecturer, all didgeridoos have a unique sound as “termites haven’t been trained so they will do almost anything to the inside piece of wood, and so the fluctuations or irregularities are going to make all instruments different...and the amplitude your generating, how hard your blowing, will all make for different harmonics generated in the didgeridoo” (SAFC, 2016).
Djalu’s wife, Jennifer Gurruwiwi, has an important role in her community to decorate the yidakis with designs related to Dreamtime or totemic animals. Jennifer employs traditional Aboriginal painting techniques to illustrate her clans’ totems. However, she is unable to paint these representations without the permission from her clan. Jennifer explains “My father gave me authority to paint. They paint their own totems...file snakes and water lilies.” The paintings are not just decorative art; they add an element of reverence to the yidaki, which accompanies the Yolngu people’s sacred storytelling ceremonies (SAFC, 2016).
Painting yidakis is a family affair: Djalu and his sister (left) and wife Jennifer (right) (Courtesy of Yidakistory.com, 2017)
Each yidaki song is accompanied by a story which describes a specific path to a significant ground, or the course of a river, mountain or forest. The yidaki songs of the clans are passed down from generation to generation, through formal and informal ceremonies; binding past and present communities together. With the flickering light of the campfire and the stomping of feet in the dust, the rhythm and song of the yidaki takes the clan on a spiritual journey that celebrates the spirits, and gives rich meaning to their lives (Planet Doc, 2014).
If you would like to find out more about the yidaki making process you can find out here. However, please respect the sacred tradition of the yidaki making process, and do not post the images elsewhere as the Aboriginal community members involved have only given consent to the content creator of the site involved.