“Mimih gave us mago”
The traditional custodians of mako originate the instrument in the spiritual realms. According to their origin stories, mako was given to them by the Mimih, the specific powerful spirit beings who often make contact with the living and pass on knowledge to them. There are several accounts of senior song and lawmen receiving songs, law or important instructions from the spirit word, that is general across the West Arnhem region. As a senior lawman Alan Maralung explained a song series he recorded in 1988 (1993), he was visited by two spirit beings, one of them taught him the songs, the other the didgeridoo accompaniment. Since the spirits approach individuals to pass on knowledge, these information – wether it is a song or didgeridoo accompaniment – are individually owned and inherited through kin. As musicologist Allan Marret observed (1993), this specific feature of the songs do not leave room for much improvisation, while, for example, in Northeast Arnhem Land, songs are owned by clans and the songmen have more flexibility in terms of individual style and improvisation during the performance.
Original site for the didgeridoo?
As we mentioned elsewhere, old paintings on walls of rock shelters across West Arnhem Land informed the way the modern mainstream culture recognise the authenticity of the practice of didgeridoo playing. Sites at Ubirr in the Kakadu National Park, and then other sites nearby across the South Alligator River around Gunbalanya, depict mako players. Some of these paintings are around 1500 years old, that makes these the oldest known record of didgeridoo players. Nevertheless, the area of our current interest is the oldest known sites of the didgeridoo.
Perhaps nobody knows where exactly the first didgeridoo was played, but some other suggestions might lead us to West and Northwest Arnhem Land. During our consultations in Arnhem Land between 2017 and 2021, several Indigenous elders pointed to the area North of the above-mentioned rock paintings, namely Goulburn and Croker Island. During personal conversations with senior Gupapuyŋu elder Dhulumburrk Gaykamaŋu (dec.), we were told that originally the didgeridoo belongs to the Maung, the traditional owners of Goulburn Island and the adjacent mainland. Our countless conversations with senior yiḏaki-boss Djalu’ Gurruwiwi (dec.) focused on a didgeridoo type that he was responsible for, called Djuŋgirriny’; as Djalu’ explained, Djuŋgirriny’ is connected to Goulburne Island through songlines (read more here). During our fieldtrips to Croker Island in 2017 and 2018, Iwaidja artawirr (the Iwaidja name for mako) players Jimmy Cooper and Ian Yarmirr talked about a local sacred instrument, located in the bush near Minjilang community, and according to their accounts it is linked to the neighbouring Goulburn Island. Even though these conversations cannot lead us to any conclusions about the origin of the didgeridoo, they show us some interesting correlations between different independent views amongst Indigenous people across the region.