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.