WARNING! This page contains voices and images of people who deceased.
We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of land, knowledges, law and languages across the Australian continent. We recognise the First Nations people of Australia as the custodians of the musical instrument known as the ‘didgeridoo’. Even though we claim copyright over this website, the information we provide on this platform belongs to Aboriginal knowledge systems, and, by no means, do we claim ownership or custodianship over this material. Our understanding of the didgeridoo and its cultural background is based on thorough research and ongoing dialogue with Aboriginal people. We are confident that we publish public information, however if any of this material raises concerns, please contact us.
There is a lot of information about the didgeridoo publicly available on the internet. Some goes into detail about the origins of the instrument, the history of its spread around the globe, how it is made, played, and its place in the traditional music of the First Australians and in the global music scene. Much of this information only scratches the surface and talks about the didgeridoo in a general way. It is not easy to find the correct information about this unique instrument, especially regarding its origins and traditional context. Provided below are some basic facts about the didgeridoo that are based on thorough research and on-the-ground engagement with Indigenous custodians and players, fellow didgeridoo experts and enthusiasts. Since this website is dedicated to the traditional didgeridoo, we don’t discuss the contemporary context. We encourage you to go further than reading this website and study the history and the traditional and global culture of the didgeridoo. For references and further readings, see the bibliography here.
This page has been reviewed in May 2022
The wooden trumpet of Northern Australia
The didgeridoo is an Australian Aboriginal aerophone instrument that is part of the tradition of the Indigenous peoples of the Northern part of the continent. Even though Arnhem Land is considered to be the birthplace of the didgeridoo, the instrument was also played further to the west, through the Daly River region, and all the way to the Kimberley. The modern musicology classifies the didgeridoo as a brass aerophone or wooden trumpet, although it is much more than that. It is played as a rhythm instrument to accompany the clap sticks and songs. We often refer to it as a ‘mouth drum’. The sound and playing styles vary, and the characteristics of its sound and rhythms differ from region to region.
In the mid-twentieth century, at the dawn of modern ethnology and cultural anthropology in Australia, there were over a dozen different sound instruments used in traditional music across the continent. The map on the right is the work of Dr. Alice Moyle as published in the companion booklet for the Songs from the Northern Territory discs (Moyle, A. 1974). The didgeridoo player icons along the Northern part of the continent mark the regions where the instruments was used in traditional music during this period. The map includes regions such as Far-North Queensland, however research and early accounts suggest that the instrument was originally used only in the northernmost part of the Northern Territory, such as Arnhem Land and regions to the west.
During the last three decades or so, the didgeridoo has become an international phenomenon. Players around the world express their own musical and artistic views through aerophone pipes that are commonly called didgeridoo. The modern playing techniques that were mainly developed by non-Aboriginal players have moved away from the traditional playing styles and sound, and have created a new musical approaches to the instrument. Today didgeridoos are made in numerous countries acround the world from a wide range of materials and in various shapes and lengths.
David Dharrapuy from Ramingiṉiŋ community plays a traditional didgeridoo, and explains the regional variations of the instrument in Gupapuyŋu language. Credit: iDidj Australia
Map showing the distribution of Aboriginal sound instruments. Fine lines mark State boundaries; thicker lines mark language or ‘tribal areas’; heavy lines mark tentative boundaries of musical regions.© AIATSIS, 1974. No reproduction without permission.
Different names and different didgeridoos
The name didgeridoo, also spelt didjeridu, originates from the rhythms played on the instrument in the West Arnhem Land region. It used by the first European explorers and settlers of the Northern Territory to describe the sound of the wooden trumpet they observed on the Cobourg Peninsula. The first written record of a didgeridoo player was made in 1835 by T.B.Wilson who included a drawing of an Aboriginal player in his narrative of his voyage around the world.
The name refers to a rhythm section played by a type of technique that sounds like ‘didjeridu’, or ‘didjeridu-diru’. The spelling varies: ‘didgeridoo’, ‘didjeridu’, ‘didjeridoo’ or ‘didgeridu’ and so on, depending on the phonetic transcription. The most commonly used spelling is didgeridoo or didjeridu.
Linguistically, Australia’s Top End is one of the richest areas in the world, and consequently, there are many names used to refer to the didgeridoo in the Indigenous languages of this area. As we mentioned above, the didgeridoo is a modern, common term created by non-Indigenous people, and used for all instruments that belong to the didgeridoo family. Therefore, it is correct to use it to describe any kind of instrument that is similar in shape and played using the same playing technique. However, if we choose to borrow a name from Aboriginal languages, we need to avoid incorrect use of the name. A good example is yiḏaki, a word that specifically refers to a type of instrument in the didgeridoo family made and played by Yolŋu clan groups, but which is often incorrectly used generically for any didgeridoo (see more on this below). Other Aboriginal languages have other words to name and describe the instrument they use in their own musical tradition, so we encourage the correct, and culturally acceptable use of these words. If the correct cultural term is not known then a common term such as didgeridoo can be used. The word bamboo has no Indigenous origin, although it has become widely used by the Indigenous people during the last century.
We have been collecting the different Aboriginal terms for the didgeridoo; some of these words below refer to ceremonial instruments, and may be used only in that context. If any of these names raises any issues or concerns, please contact us.
Rock painting depicts didgeridoo player at Ubirr Rock at the east-side of the Kakadu National Park. The age of the paintings on these rocks estimated around 1500 years, the earliest known records of the instrument; paintings like this (and two or three other examples on nearby rock shelters) are scientific indication of the longevity of the tradition of the instrument. Photo credit: author
Bamboo didgeridoo from Cobourg Peninsula, Northern Territory, collected in the early 19th century; the instrument is called artawirr by the Iwaidja, the traditional owners of the area. Photo credit: National Museum of Australia
The first sightings of the instrument by the early explorers were recorded at the same area, at the site of the first Western settlement called Port Essington.
First Nations peoples of Australia maintain the longest unbroken traditions in the world. Aboriginal Australians arrived to the continent over 60,000 years ago and survived multiple dramatic changes in their environment over this long period. Before European colonisation, hundreds of distinct Indigenous groups or nations populated the Australian continent, each with their own traditional customs, languages, and instruments to accompany their songs.
Due to the significant differences in languages and traditional customs across Australia, it is almost impossible to talk about a homogenous Aboriginal culture and to do so would risk stereotyping. For the purposes of discussing the didgeridoo we will focus on the cultures of northern Australia where the languages, traditional practices and spiritual belief systems are still relatively strong. The foundational worldview of Aboriginal groups from this region is based on the intricate relationship between all things: living and non-living, human and non-human. This worldview is underpinned by a dualistic structure which sees the entire world divided in two, where everything, without exception, belongs to one of two moieties (moiety in Latin means half). In Arnhem Land these moieties are called Dhuwa (or Duwa) and Yirritja (or Yirridja). In the context of the didgeridoo, every instrument belongs to one of the moieties depending on the clan affiliation of its maker, the clan design painted on it, or the accompanying songs. Another defining feature of these cultures is the highly complex kinship system that connects all people, land and the environment together in specific relationships which incur different roles and responsibilities. Ancient knowledge systems are contained, preserved and passed on in the form of songs. These songs relate to specific geographical places which span vast tracks of land to form ‘songlines’ that connect land and people across the region, continent and even beyond. With their roots deep in the past, these systems and practices continue to define contemporary life in many northern Aboriginal communities. Finally, it is worth noting that these concepts are deeply interdependent and cannot be seen or understood on their own.
The didgeridoo is recognised as one of the oldest instruments in the world. It is not known exactly when playing began, however some clans in Arnhem Land can trace the use of the instrument back several generations. Rock paintings in the West Arnhem Land region suggest the didgeridoo has been played for about 1,500 years in the area (Moyle, 1981). Custodians of various clans across the Top End say that their ancestors passed the didgeridoo onto them in ancient times, along with their customs, languages and Law. Astonishingly, no structural changes have been made to the instrument since the first man played the didgeridoo, demonstrating the instrument’s incredible antiquity and deep connections to traditional Aboriginal cultures.
In terms of its place in the culture and society, the didgeridoo plays a significant role as a ritual instrument which is played at certain occasions and ceremonies. In this context, the didgeridoo player blows rhythms which accompany the songmen and the beat of their clapsticks. Each group of singers is accompanied by only one didgeridoo. Apart from ceremonies, it is also played for recreational purposes. In most of the regions in northern Australia, women are not allowed to play the didgeridoo, although there are reports of women players in traditional contexts (Moyle, 1974; MacKinlay, 2003). Generally, this cultural law is only applied to Aboriginal people from the area and therefore non-Indigenous women are permitted to play the didgeridoo. However, it is important to remember that gender taboos are a highly sensitive topic for Aboriginal peoples and ignorance or transgressions in this regard can cause offence.
Undoubtedly, European colonisation has had devastating impacts on Aboriginal people and cultures across Australia. Many Aboriginal clans and languages have not survived. The cultural clash between Aboriginal people and the dominant ‘white’ culture continues today and the erosion of Aboriginal peoples’ agency, traditional knowledge systems, languages and customs creates enormous challenges for their health and wellbeing and the strength of their cultures. It is important for non-Indigenous players to recognise the didgeridoo as a traditional property that belongs to certain Indigenous groups of Northern Australia. Every didgeridoo player, regardless of his or her nationality, gender or spiritual view, has an important role in helping to protect and empower the traditional cultures of this instrument.
As previously discussed, ‘didgeridoo’ is a general term used to describe the trumpet that is originally played by the Indigenous peoples of Northern Australia. There are many different types of didgeridoos within each region, as well as more recent contemporary inventions that are created by non-Indigenous players around the world with different forms and shapes. Due to this great variety, it is useful to distinguish between the different types of didgeridoos, especially as many traditional custodians of the didgeridoo request a distinction by made between traditional instruments that are carrying the real cultural values of the Indigenous peoples who make and play them, and other didgeridoos that are made and played outside of the traditional context (see 1999 Yiḏaki Statement).
A constructive distinction is traditional or contemporary:
- Traditional didgeridoos: instruments that bear cultural integrity and are made by a person who is identified as Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander, and by birth or culturally belonging to one of the clan groups of Northern Australia. Traditional didgeridoos are made of materials that were historically used for didgeridoos in the Northern Territory, such as termite hollowed eucalyptus species (stringybark, bloodwood or woolybutt), bamboo or pandanus. Traditional didgeridoos can be further grouped by different characteristics, for example: the area of origin, the clan affiliation of the maker, the ceremony it is made for and used in, the playing style applied, and its shape and acoustics.
- Contemporary didgeridoos: any instruments made outside of the traditional context. It is also important to mention that during the last century the didgeridoo has been adopted by many Indigenous groups around Australia, many of whom have adapted the instrument into their own customs. This may mean that a didgeridoo made by an Indigenous person in a different part of Australia may not always necessarily fall into the traditional category, even though it is an authentic instrument (made by an Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander person). Contemporary didgeridoos can be made of any material, including termite hollowed eucalyptus, any species of timber (bored or chiseled), bamboo, agave, plastic, natural resin or glass.
On this website, we categorise traditional didgeridoos into two main categories: mago and yiḏaki. Read more about them in the two links below.
Mago – the traditional didgeridoo across West Arnhem and beyond
Yiḏaki – the traditional didgeridoo from the land of Northeast Arnhem
Examples of didgeridoo-types
Cutting and crafting yiḏaki with the Gurruwiwi family in Northeast Arnhem Land.
The photos were taken between 2011 and 2020.
The majority of traditional didgeridoos are made of the naturally termite-hollowed eucalyptus trees. Entering through the underground roots, the termites hollow out the tree from the inside, gradually moving from the bottom upwards. Eating the inner core, the heartwood, does not damage or kill the tree. As every hollowed tree is different so is every didgeridoo. At the start of the process, the didgeridoo maker finds trunks suitable for a didgeridoo; they consider the shape of the log, but most importantly the size of the hole inside it. The best didgeridoos are completely hollowed out by nature and finished by the maker only on the outside.
There are many eucalyptus species in Australia but only a few are used for didgeridoos. Due to the geographical, climatical and environmental differences across the region, there are different types of tree species used for didgeridoo: the local species of stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and bloodwood (Corymbia ptychocarpa) are the most commonly used for didgeridoos across Northeast and Central Arnhem Land, while the woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) is also used in West Arnhem, across the Daly River region and to the Kimberly in Western Australia. Although in the mid-twentieth century there were many records of the use of local species of bamboo (Bambusa arnhemica), it is no longer a common traditional didgeridoo material. The soft and lightweight trunks of pandanus species (Pandanus spiralis) were also used along the coastlines, although this practice has also faded away in the last century.
Due to the popularity of the didgeridoo, thousands of instruments are being made annually around the world. Unfortunately, traditional didgeridoos make up only a small percentage of these, which raises questions about cultural misuse and cultural appropriation. To support the continuity of traditional didgeridoo making we encourage players to only purchase traditional instruments from ethical sources and always seek a certificate of authenticity.
Turning the breath into sound
Many different playing techniques have developed since the first didgeridoos were blown, as well as a wide variety of individual playing styles. Every player has their own characteristic style, created through their playing technique, personal character and musical ideas. We do not attempt to teach playing techniques on this website as it is far too complex to explain in written words.
Choosing a suitable didgeridoo for beginners and learning how to blow the basic drone are the first important steps. At the centre of the playing is understanding and mastering the breathing technique: circular breathing or rhythm breathing allows the player to blow the air into the instrument from their cheeks while taking air in to the lungs through the nose. During the learning process the player needs to understand the route of air circulation in the body and inside the instrument. While many non-Indigenous players concentrate on circular breathing as the starting point, traditional players start playing rhythms even without being able to produce the basic drone or circular-breath. Learning to play the didgeridoo is a painstaking and long process, requiring a deep understanding of the body and the dynamics of air inside the tube. Influencing factors include: the amount of the air blown into the didgeridoo, the position of the lips, the control over the respiratory system and the muscles, and the players familiarity with the aero-dynamics of different instruments.
Differences in sounds are most evident between players from different cultural grounds. Regardless of playing technique and style, an Indigenous player will always produce sounds and rhythms different to a player from Europe or Japan. The first language of the player and the sounds and music he has previously been exposed to will effect the way the individual plays the didgeridoo (read our article on Language and Didgeridoo Playing). Many non-Indigenous people attempt to learn and copy the sound and rhythms of traditional players, however, as discussed previously, this often leads to problems of cultural appropriation. Instead of trying to reproduce traditional styles, it is perhaps more appropriate and interesting to embrace the differences in playing styles and find new ways to apply the fundamentals of the traditional didgeridoo playing within our own, non-Indigenous musical-expressions.
According to Western musicology two distinctive didgeridoo plying techniques developed in Northern Australia over the previous centuries. These types were first mentioned by anthropologist and musicologist A.P. Elkin and T.A. Jones in 1953 (Elkin, A. P. & Jones, T. A., 1953):
- A: the ‘a-type‘, overtone absent style played across the western-side of the Top End (including West Arnhem Land) and Northeast western Australia;
- B: the ‘b-type‘, overtone present style played in East Arnhem Land.
Both playing styles use the same foundation in terms of creating the sound and continuous rhythms, however they bear distinctive acoustics, sound and rhythm characteristics that merit further discussion. To read more about these, see our articles Mago – the traditional didgeridoo across West Arnhem and beyond and Yiḏaki – traditional didgeridoo from the land of Northeast Arnhem.
Learning traditional-style requires patience, deep-listening, attention and time. Our friends at iDidj Australia recorded a huge amount of material. See the slow-motion analysis of the two distinctive playing style below.
‘a-type’ playing style
‘b-type’ playing style
Mago master David Blanasi from Beswick community took the didgeridoo to England in the early ’70s; this was the first time when the instrument travelled outside of the Australian continent. He continued to teach the tradition of the instrument until his passing at the end of the century.
Yothu Yindi band took the traditional didgeridoo played by Yolŋu to the world-stage – from early on of their career, yiḏaki was recognised all around the Planet.
The didgeridoo was first seen by European settlers in the early 19th century, and from the mid-20th century anthropologists and musicologists had begun studying the traditional Indigenous music of Australia.
In the 1970s and 1980s the Aboriginal Land Rights movement ignited the interest of the wider Australian community in Indigenous art, music and culture. During this period the first contemporary didgeridoo playing styles were developed by Aboriginal players who preferred not to use the ceremonial instrument ‘out of context’. At the same time, non-Aboriginal players and bands picked up the didgeridoo, using its sound in their contemporary music. The first contemporary recordings were released by the non-Aboriginal player Charlie McMahon in Gondwanaland in 1981.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the legendary rock band Yothu Yindi from Northeast Arnhem Land popularised the didgeridoo internationally and showcased the traditional yiḏaki as their music swept the globe. By the end of the 20th century thousands of people were attending popular didgeridoo festivals in Europe and the USA, enjoying the sounds and tunes of world-famous didgeridoo players, both white and black from Australia and around the world.
During the last two decades there has been a tendency among didgeridoo artists to develop and play a wide variety of contemporary playing styles and deliver something new, unseen and unheard. They evolve not just their own styles, but techniques that are perviously unexplored. There are only a few performers who have made the effort to learn the traditional playing styles, which have influenced their stage performances.
The devastating impacts of colonisation on the First Nations people of Australia cannot be understated. The erosion, and in some cases loss, of Indigenous peoples’ languages and cultural practices has inevitably had significant impact on their musical heritage as well. For many Aboriginal people today the sound of the didgeridoo carries something that speaks to their identity and helps to reclaim and restore their ancient traditional knowledges and practices. For many, the didgeridoo is the sound of Australian Aboriginal cultures.
Due to the origins and deep cultural value of the didgeridoo within Australian Indigenous traditions, every didgeridoo enthusiast regardless of age, gender, nationality, religious belief or cultural background has a responsibility to support the traditional custodians by respecting their culture, learning about their history, and acknowledging their ownership of the sound that captivates thousands around the world. We hope that websites like this provide some guidance for people who wish to learn about the traditional didgeridoo.
Read our further articles:
Mago – the traditional didgeridoo across West Arnhem and beyond
Yiḏaki – traditional didgeridoo from the land of Northeast Arnhem
Language and didgeridoo playing
Case studies and essays about the didgeridoo