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 enviroment over the long period, keeping alive their traditions and languages that remain incredibly rich in some parts of the country today. Before the ‘white man’ invaded the country about 300 years ago, there were hundreds of Indigenous groups or nations living through out the continent. Each of them had their own traditional customs, languages and instruments to accompany their songs.
It has been said that the didgeridoo is one of the oldest instruments in the world. Nobody can be sure how long the instrument had been played, but it has certainly been used for thousands of years by several clan groups of Northern Australia. The age of the didgeridoo remains unknown; some clans in Arnhem Land can trace back the use of the instrument for many generations. Rock paintings in the West Arnhem Land region suggest the didgeridoo was being used for about 1,500 years in the area.
Traditional custodians of various clans in different regions talk about their ancestors passed on the didgeridoo to them in ancient times, along with their customs, languages and laws. Astonishingly, since the first man played the didgeridoo, there are no structural changes have been done on the instrument. This underscores the instrument’s incredible antiquity and its deep connections to traditional Indigenous Australian cultures.
Formerly the didgeridoo was played only in the northern part of Australia, known as the Top End. It plays a significant role as a ritual instrument among the clans of the area, played on certain occasions and ceremonies where the didgeridoo player accompanies the songmen and the beat of the clapsticks by blowing rhythms on the instrument. There is only one didgeridoo being played at the time. Apart from ceremony, it is played for recreational purposes as well.
In most of the regions, women are not allowed to play the didgeridoo, although there are reports of women players in traditional context. We need to note that most of the time such laws are applied to the traditional people themselves, thus strictly speaking non-Indigenous women can play the didjeridoo, since they are not part of the cultural practice. However, it is important to remember that gender taboos are a highly sensitive topic for Aboriginal peoples.
Undoubtedly, the arrival of ‘white’ settlers had a devastating effect on every Indigenous groups in Australia, many Aboriginal clans and languages did not survive these troubled times. The cultural clash between the Indigenous people and the dominant culture is still happening today, and the destruction of traditional knowledge and customs of the foreign non-Indigenous culture spawns massive challenges for Aboriginal peoples. The non-Indigenous players need to recognise that the didgeridoo is a traditional property belongs to certain Indigenous groups of Northern Australia, and every didgeridoo player, regardless of his or her nationality, gender, or spiritual view, has an important role to help to protect the traditional culture of this instrument.
Right picture: Dancing mob – rock painting in the Kakadu National park at Anbangbang, today known as Nourlangie Rock.