WARNING! This page contains voices and images of people who deceased.

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 scratches the surface only and talks about the didgeridoo in a general way. It is not easy to find the valuable knowledge about this unique instrument, especially if we would like to learn about its origins and traditional context. So below there are some basic facts about the didgeridoo, that are based on thorough research and on-ground engagement with Indigenous custodians and players, fellow didgeridoo experts and enthusiasts. Since this website is dedicated to the traditional didgeridoo, we won’t talk about the contemporary context. We hope to encourage you to go further than reading this website and study the history, the traditional and global culture of the didgeridoo. For references and further readings, please see the bibliography here.

This page has been updated 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 east, through the Daly river region, 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 solo 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.

During the mid-twentieth century, when the Western human sciences became to be interested in the Indigenous cultures of Australia, there were over a dozen different sound instrument used in traditional music across the whole continent. The map on the right/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 used in traditional music 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.

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.

David Dharrapuy from Ramiŋiṉiŋ 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.

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 originated from the rhythms played on the instrument in the West Arnhem Land region, and 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 ever 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 so there are many names are used in Indigenous languages to refer to the didgeridoo. As we mentioned above, the didgeridoo is a common term used for all instruments that belong to the didgeridoo family, therefore it is correct to use it to describe any kind of instruments that are similar in shape and played by the same playing technique. However, if we choose to borrow a name from Aboriginal languages, we need to avoid to misuse the term; a good example is yiaki, a word that is known all across the world, and borrowed from Yolŋu Matha languages of Northeast Arnhem Land. In fact, the majority of didgeridoo enthusiasts misuse this term: yiḏaki is a specific type of the didgeridoo family that is made and played by the Yolŋu clan groups of the region, therefore it is incorrect to use this word for any didgeridoos (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: use only when appropriate, or alternatively, use a common term such as didgeridoo. The word bamboo has no Indigenous origin, although it has become widely used by the Indigenous people during the last century or so.

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) is scientific indication of the longevity of the tradition of the instrument. Photo credit: Janos Kerekes

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.

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 environment over the long period, keeping their traditions and languages alive that remain incredibly rich in some parts of the country today. Before the colonisation of the country, 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.

Due to the significant differences in languages and traditional customs, it is almost impossible to talk about Aboriginal culture as one – if we do so, we are risking stereotyping. Since our focus is on the didgeridoo, perhaps it is worth to focus on the north of the continent. The languages and traditional culture in this part of Australia is still strong today, same as the ceremonial and spiritual practices. The foundation of life and the worldview can be explained through the intricate relationship between all existing, living and non-living, human and in-human. In the centre of this existence lays a dualistic view, where the entire world is divided into two, so everything without exceptions belong to one of the two moieties (moiety in Latin means half): in Arnhem Land these called Dhuwa – or Duwa – and Yirritja – or Yirridja. In the context of the didgeridoo, every instrument belong to one of the moieties, depending on the clan affiliation of its maker, the clan design painted on its body, or the songs it is meant to accompany. Furthermore, there is a strong connection and shared responsibilities between people, Land and the environment, that is defined through a kinship system, bonding everything together. The knowledge were preserved and passed on in the form of songs, that – even today – play a significant role in life; then the songs are connected together in different ways, forming songlines that criss-cross the country, connect Land and People together, even beyond the continent. It is important to mention, that none of these concepts should be – or can be seen – on their own; all part of a holistic worldview, where one equals the whole.

The didgeridoo is recognised as one of the oldest instruments in the world. Nobody can be sure how long it had been played, but 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 (Moyle, 1981). Traditional custodians of various clans in different regions across the Top End say, that 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.

In terms of the place of the didgeridoo within the culture, as we mentioned above, it plays a significant role as a ritual instrument among the clans of the region, played on certain occasions and ceremonies. In this context, 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 (Moyle, 1974; MacKinlay, 2003)). 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 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 helping to protect, and empowering the traditional culture of this instrument.

Many types

As we pointed out above, ‘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 regions, not to mention the more recent contemporary inventions that created different forms and shapes for the instrument made all around the word. Due to this great variety, it might be useful to create categories to describe different types of didgeridoos. Especially because the traditional custodians of the didgeridoo advised to distinguish between traditional instruments – that are carrying the real cultural values of the Indigenous peoples who make and play them -, from any other didgeridoos that are made and played outside of the traditional context (see 1999 Yiḏaki Statement).

Perhaps the easiest way is to create two main categories:

  • Traditional didgeridoos: instruments that bear with cultural integrity, and made by a person who is identified as Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander, and by birth or culturally belong to one of the clan groups of Northern Australia. Traditional didgeridoos are made of material that historically used for didgeridoos in the Northern Territory: certain termite hollowed eucalyptus species (stringybark, bloodwood or woolybutt), bamboo or pandanus. Traditional didgeridoos can be further grouped by different aspects: the area of its origin, the clan affiliation of its 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 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 might mean that a didgeridoo made by an Indigenous person may not always necessarily fall into the traditional category, even though it is an authentic instrument (made by an Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander). 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 will use two main categories to group traditional didgeridoos, that are the mago and the 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

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

Traditional yiḏaki-style didgeridoo from Northeast Arnhem Land made by Yali Munuŋgurr. In personal collection.

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

Traditional mago-style didgeridoo from North-Central Arnhem Land, made by renowned artist and master maker Bob Burruwal. In personal collection.

Contemporary didgeridoo from Far-North Queensland, made from a termite hollowed redbox eucalyptus log by a non-Indigenous maker. In personal collection.

Cutting and crafting yiḏaki with the Gurruwiwi family in Northeast Arnhem Land.
The photos were taken between 2011 and 2020.

Organic trumpet

The majority of traditional didgeridoos are made of the naturally termite hollowed eucalyptus trees. By entering through the roots underground, the termites hollow out the tree from the inside out (heartwood), gradually moving from the bottom upwards. Since they eat the inner core away, it does not damage the tree. Every hollowed tree is different, thus so is every didgeridoo. At the start of the process, 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. Due to the geographical, climatical and environmental differences across the region, there are different types of tree species used for didgeridoo: while the local species of stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and bloodwood (Corymbia ptychocarpa) are the most common didgeridoo material across Northeast and Central Arnhem Land, the woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) is used in West Arnhem, across the Daly region to the Kimberly’s. Even though, in the mid-twentieth century there were many records of the use of local species of bamboo (Bambusa arnhemica), it is not a common traditional didgeridoo material anymore. The soft and lightweight trunks of pandanus species (Pandanus spiralis) were also used along the coastlines, although this practice is faded away in the last century.

Due to the extreme worldwide popularity of the didgeridoo, there are thousands of instruments are being made annually all around the Planet. Unfortunately, traditional didgeridoos make up only a small percentage of these, that raises questions around cultural misuse and cultural appropriation. To support the continuity of traditional didgeridoo making, purchase traditional instruments from genuine sources only, and always ask for certificate of authenticity.

Turning the breath into sound

Many different playing techniques have developed since the first didgeridoo were blown, not to mention the wide variety of individual playing styles. Every players 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, then blow the basic drone are the first important steps. To understand and master the breathing is at the centre of the playing: the circular breathing, or rhythm breathing allows the player to blow the air into the instrument from the 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, the traditional players start playing rhythms even without being able to produce the basic drone, or know how circular-breath. To learn to play the didgeridoo is a painstaking and long process, and requires a deep understanding of the body and the physics of what is happening inside the tube: the amount of the air blown into the didgeridoo, the position of the lips, the control over the respiratory system and the muscles are important, as well as being familiar with the aero-dynamics of different instruments.

Either way, every players produce different sounds, that is even more evident between players of different cultural ground. Regardless of playing technique and style, an Indigenous player will produce sound and rhythms different to a player from Europe or Japan. The first-language of the player, the sounds and music he or she were previously exposed to are hard-wire the brain and will affect the way the individual plays the didgeridoo (read our article on Language and Didgeridoo Playing). There are significant efforts being made by non-Indigenous players to learn and copy the traditional sound and rhythms – that, as we pointed out somewhere else, lead to problems of cultural appropriation. Perhaps instead of reducing the gap between cultures, it is better and more appropriate to embrace it, and find new ways to apply the basics of the traditional didgeridoo playing within our own, non-Indigenous musical-expressions.

As the Western musicology understands, there are two distinctive didgeridoo plying techniques were developed in Northern Australia over the past 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 both bear with distinctive acoustics, sound and rhythm characteristics that needed to be discussed in-context. 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.

Global phenomenon

As we mentioned above, European settlers first saw the didgeridoo in the early 19th century, then from the mid-20th century anthropologists and musicologists studied the traditional Indigenous music of Australia

The Aboriginal land rights movement during the `70s and `80s, the traditional Indigenous life, culture and art became to the interest of the wider Australian community. During this period, the first contemporary didgeridoo playing styles were developed by Aboriginal players, who did preferred not to use the ceremonial instrument ‘out of context’ – so they developed their own contemporary styles. Non-Aboriginal players and bands picked up the didgeridoo to use its sound in their contemporary music. 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 the 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, due to the devastating effects of colonisation of the country, many Aboriginal Australian tribes and clans lost their cultural heritage. Many groups, with the loss of their traditional customs and languages, lost big parts of their musical heritage 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.

Due to the instrument’s authenticity and deep cultural value within Australian Indigenous traditions, every didgeridoo enthusiasts 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 over the sound that captivates thousands around the world. We hope, that websites like this will provide some guidance for anyone 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

Didgeridoo bibliography

Collection of links to further websites