Overview of the basic information about the didgeridoo

Information overload – what is correct and what is wrong?

There is a lot of information about the didgeridoo 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 scratches the surface only, and talks about the didgeridoo in only a general way. It is not easy to find the valuable knowledge that helps someone who wants to learn about this unique instrument. So on this website, I would like to provide some basic but important facts about the didgeridoo. In doing so I hope to encourage you to go further along the road, and study the history, the traditional and global culture of the didgeridoo.


What is the didgeridoo?

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. 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.

The map below is the work of Dr. Alice Moyle as it was 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 show where the instruments was played in traditional context during the early 20th century. The map includes regions such as Far-North Queensland, however several research and early accounts suggest, that the instrument was originally used in the northernmost part of the Northern Territory only, such as Arnhem Land and regions to the west.

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.

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.

During the last three decades or so, the didgeridoo became a worldwide phenomenon. Hundreds of players 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 – moved away from the traditional playing and sound, and created a new musical approach to the instrument. Today, didgeridoos are made from a wide range of materials in various shapes and lengths on every corner of the Planet.

The name ‘didgeridoo’ originated from the sound and rhythms played on the instrument in different regions of the ‘Top End’ region of Australia. The word was first used by early European settlers of the Northern Territory, who met Aboriginal didgeridoo players on the Cobourg Peninsula. 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, thus there are many names are used in Indigenous languages to refer to the didgeridoo.The most known is yiaki, used by the Yolŋu Matha languages of  Northeast Arnhem Land. In fact, the majority of didgeridoo enthusiasts misuse this word – yiḏaki is a specific type of the didgeridoo family that is played by the Yolŋu clan groups of the region. A few other Aboriginal names used for the didgeridoo are artawirr (Iwaidja and Mawng of North-West Arnhem Land), kenbi (Darwin and Daly River region), mago or mako (Kunwok languages in the West Arnhem region), marluk (Murin-Patha around Wadeye), and many more. The word ‘bamboo’ has no indigenous origin, although it has become widely used by the Indigenous people during the last century or so.

Many types

Strictly speaking, the term ‘didgeridoo’ refers to the instrument that is originally played by the Indigenous peoples of Australia. There are many different types of didgeridoos within each regions, not to mention the more recent inventions that created different forms and shapes for the instrument around the word. Due to this great variety, it might be useful to create categories to describe different types of didgeridoos. The traditional custodians advised to distinguish between traditional instruments, that are carrying the real cultural values of the Indigenous people who make and play them, from any other didgeridoos (see 1999 Yiḏaki Statement). Perhaps the easiest way is to create two main categories according to instruments’ cultural background and integrity (traditional or not), and its material (eucalyptus, timber, plastic etc.). It is important to mention that during the last century the didgeridoo has become used by many Indigenous groups all around Australia, many of whom adopted the instrument into their own customs. It means that a didgeridoo made by an Indigenous person may not always necessarily fall into the ‘traditional category’.

We could categorise instruments further based on their  length, shape and sound. Traditional didgeridoos are grouped by different aspects: the area of its origin, the clan affiliation of its maker, the ceremony it is made for and used in, and its shape and sound quality.

‘Mago-style’ didgeridoo from North-Central Arnhem Land, made by renowned artist and master maker Bob Burruwal.

yiḏaki from Northeast Arnhem Land made by Bruce Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra

‘Mago-style’ didgeridoo from North-Central Arnhem Land, made by renowned artist and master maker Bob Burruwal.

‘Mago-style’ didgeridoo from North-Central Arnhem Land, made by renowned artist and master maker Bob Burruwal.

Cultural context

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 their traditions and languages alive 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 on the Australian continent. Each groups had their own traditional customs, languages and instruments to accompany their songs.

The didgeridoo is recognised as one of the oldest instruments in the world. Nobody can be sure how long it had been played, but the didgeridoo had 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 – that 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 the First Nations peoples. It is important for non-Indigenous players 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 helping 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.

How it is made

The traditional didgeridoo is made of the naturally termite hollowed Eucalyptus trees. There are many urban legends about this method, most of them are false or misleading. Termites hollow out the inside of the tree by entering through its roots underground. Every hollowed tree is different, thus so is every didgeridoo.

The didgeridoo maker needs to find the proper trunks suitable for didgeridoo; they look for the shape of the log, but most importantly the size of the hole inside it. The best didgeridoos are made by nature inside, and finished by the maker on the outside .

There are many Eucalyptus species in Australia, only a few used for didgeridoos. The type of timber varies from region to region; the most commonly used types of trees are the stringybark, woolybutt and bloodwood in the Northern Territory;  the boxwood, bloodwood and ironwood in North Queensland; and different types of mallee in the New South Wales region and Western Australia. The bamboo, pandanus and screwpine are also used in the Territory, although this is not common nowadays.

Many different materials and methods used to make didgeridoos all around the world today. All kinds of timber, hemp, glass or plastic are used for didgeridoos nowadays. The available material, the musical needs and the urge to develop new types of instruments and sounds are tall factors in the worldwide success of the didgeridoo, although many of these didgeridoo types are distant relatives of the traditional didgeridoos.

Left picture: Djalu’ Gurruwiwi is harvesting Stringybark eucalyptus timber for didgeridoo in Northeast Arnhem Land in 2011.

How it is played

Many different playing techniques have developed since the first man started to play the didgeridoo – which playing techniques lead to a wide variety of playing styles. We believe that every single player can have their own characteristic style, delivered through their playing technique, personal character and musical ideas. We do not attempt to teach to play the didgeridoo on this website, as it is far more complex than the written word can explain.

Choosing a suitable didgeridoo for learning to play is an important step to start with. The first step is to get the basic drone by blowing the air into the instrument by loose lips. The amount of the air and the position of the lips are vital, as under- or over-blowing the didgeridoo with tight lips can produce a false sound. There are two types of didgeridoo players: ones who play from the centre of the lips, and others who blow on the side. We encourage everyone to play on the centre, in the same way the traditional players do.

The one who wishes to learn to play the didgeridoo needs to master a breathing technique that allows the player to maintain the drone sound. This technique is called circular breathing, or rhythm breathing. The main idea is that while the player blows the air into the instrument from the cheeks, he takes air in to the lungs through the nose at the same time. The player is using different parts of his body, controlling his respiratory system and muscles from his stomach up to his cheeks and lips.

During the learning process the player needs to understand the route of air circulation in the body and within the instrument. Many non-Indigenous players concentrate on circular breathing as the starting point; the traditional players start to play and learn rhythms even without being able to produce the basic drone, or know how circular-breath.

To learn to play the didgeridoo is sometimes painstaking and always a long process. A fit body is important to master the didgeridoo, also training the lips, cheeks and diaphragm muscles are vital part of the playing practice.

Global phenomenon

The European settlers first met the didgeridoo in the early 19th century in Northwest Arnhem Land, then in other regions as they moved around the Top End. From the mid-1900 a few anthropologists and musicologists – including A.P.Elkin, Trevor A. Jones and Alice M. Moyle – studied the traditional music of the different clan groups; several recordings preserved their work, and many of them are still available today.

Due to the political situation around the Aboriginal land rights during the `70s and `80s, the traditional Indigenous life, culture and art came to the interest of the wider Australian community. During this period, the first contemporary didgeridoo playing styles were developed by Aboriginal players, who did not prefer to use the ceremonial instrument ‘out of context’. Non-Aboriginal players and bands picked up the didgeridoo to use its sound in their music, although they had limited connection to the traditional background of the instrument. The first contemporary recordings were released by the non-Aboriginal player Charlie McMahon and Gondwanaland in 1981.

During the `80s and `90s, the legendary rock band Yothu Yindi from Northeast Arnhem Land popularised the didgeridoo through their music all over the world, and showcased their traditional yiḏaki. By the end of the 20th century, thousands of people attended popular didgeridoo festivals in Europe and the USA, enjoyed the sounds and tunes of the world-famous didgeridoo players – both white and black from Australia and all around the world.

During the last two decades there is 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 style, but a technique as well that nobody has explored before. There are only a few performers who made the effort to learn the traditional playing to take their traditional-influenced-style to the stage.

The didgeridoo became a national Australian icon. By the end of the 20th century, many Aboriginal Australian tribes and clans lost their cultural heritage due to the devastating contact with the western settlers. Many groups, with the loss of their traditional customs and languages, lost big parts of their culture as well. For them the sound of the didgeridoo carries something, that talks about their identity and helps to restore thousands–years’ old traditional knowledge. Today the didgeridoo is seen as the sound of the Australian Aboriginal culture.

Everybody who plays the didgeridoo has a responsibility to support the traditional owners of the instrument by respecting their culture, learning about their history, and acknowledging their ownership over the sound that captivates thousands around the world.