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The term yiḏaki is perhaps the most well-known name for the didgeridoo. It is little known however, that most of the times the word is incorrectly used with the intention to name or describe didgeridoos with superb playing qualities, authenticity, or, just as an alternative Indigenous word for the instrument. Learn about its name, cultural background, types, playing technique and history below.

This page reviewed in May 2022

The trumpet of Northeast Arnhem

The yiḏaki /jiːdɒkɪ/ sprouts from a certain type of the didgeridoo family, made and played in the Northern Territory of Australia, in Northeast Arnhem Land. The origin of the instrument is engraved in the ancient stories of various clan groups who live in the area for thousands of years. These clans connected through an intricate kinship system, shared religious beliefs, ancient traditional system of law, history, affiliation over their land, and marriage systems. Every clan speak their own language, have their own songs and ceremonial tradition, patterns, design and symbols they use on paintings. Because of the shared tradition, these clan groups blend into one cultural group, and called themselves Yolŋu /jolngu/.

Yolŋu have their own unique types of yiḏaki that are crafted for their specific songs and passed through generations. The instrument itself intertwined on deep spiritual beliefs, where the sound of the instrument represent different aspects of the sacred and the profound: it has the power to bring the People together, calm the mind, heal or cleanse the body of the living, and be the communication channel between the human and inhuman worlds. Same as other traditional didgeridoo, yiḏaki serves as an accompaniment for songs (manikay); the yiḏaki player (yiḏaki djambatj or yiḏakimirr) follow the senior leading songman (ŋaḻapaḻmirr biḻmamirr) and the other supporting songmen (manikaymirr mala), the beat of the clapsticks (biḻma) alongside with the dancers (buŋgulmirr).

The word yiḏaki does not have a specific meaning, in Yolŋu worldview it refers to any didgeridoo-like trumpet – either a sacred ceremonial instrument, or a PVC pipe (read more below). Because of this generic approach to the word itself, yiḏaki is perhaps the most widespread Indigenous term for the instrument, however often it is misused: as we will point it out below, the yiḏaki refers to the didgeridoos made and played by Yolŋu, and not other instruments created and blown outside of this context. Also, in written form often the word is capitalised (Yidaki) or used in plural (yidakis) that are both incorrect: the yiḏaki is a noun refers to a generic instrument, it is not needed to be capitalised (even if we meant to show respect); in Yolŋu language, the term can refer to one or more instruments, therefore if we are talking about multiple yiḏaki, we should not use the -s suffix – otherwise just say didgeridoos.

The map above shows the Yolŋu cultural block along Northern Australia with the two distinctive playing styles

David Dharrapuy from Ramingiṉiŋ community, the north-western side of Northeast Arnhem Land plays ‘old-style’ yiḏaki. Credit: iDidj Australia

Adam Marrilaga Wunuŋmurra from Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island plays ‘new-style’ yiḏaki; Marrilaga (deceased) was well known as an ‘explosive’ skilled yiḏaki player across the region. Credit: iDidj Australia

The “yiḏaki-style”

The Yolŋu clans are able to trace back the use of the yiḏaki for thousands of years through songs; according to the oral history, the yiḏaki was created by their ancestors – the same as the traditional Law, languages and clan groups. During this span of time, a specific playing technique had been developed to accompany their traditional songs and dances. This typified technique deeply embedded in language, and, by giving space for individual talent, produces different adaptation of playing styles, which was essential in its constant change due to the incessant evolution of musical needs, ideas and expectations. We can tune in to the `old style` of playing on different field recordings from the `50s and `70s, where instruments in lower musical keys were common, while these days the higher pitched yiḏaki and fast playing styles are preferred. As always, the musical demand specifies the physical appearance of the instruments.

As we mentioned elsewhere, the modern musicology identifies two main traditional didgeridoo playing styles; the yiḏaki – or Yolŋu – playing styles are classified as ‘b-type’, overtone (toot or trumpet sound) present playing style. Some of the main characteristics of this style are the extensive use of strong tongue movements while focusing on the tip of the tongue (interdental and retroflexed sounds), the intricate syncopation rhythms, and the quick jump to the short trumpet sounds (dups) within the rhythm. Several musicologists, linguists and expert suggest, that the differences between these styles are language specific – read our notes on language and didgeridoo playing here. Indeed, while describing rhythms (mouth sounds), Yolŋu players use sounds and phrases embedded in Yolŋu Matha (an ‘umbrella’ term for Yolŋu languages).

Clan-specific yiḏaki

Considering the long history of the didgeridoo which dates back to thousands of years of craftsmanship, skills and expertise developed since the first yiḏaki was made, these instruments bear with one of the finest qualities of the didgeridoo family – although not every instrument is the same, nor their craftsmen. Same as its playing technique heavily informed by the spoken language, its shape and physical characteristics are defined by the playing technique and musical demands. While in the past didgeridoos made in the region were longer, cylindrical and low-pitched, to mach the faster and energetic playing styles, nowadays we find shorter, tapered and high-pitched instruments. The tighter aperture along the neck provides better balanced pressure that supports the player to blow faster, and the conical shape amplifies the sound. For ceremony, yiḏaki – and the yiḏaki player trained to accompany the songs (yiḏaki djambatj) – are chosen by the leading songman (biḻmamirr) based on acoustics (rirrakay) and note to mach the tone of the singers and the song to be performed.

As we suggested above, strictly speaking, the world ‘yiḏaki’ refers to the traditional didgeridoos, that are made by an Aboriginal person of Northeast Arnhem Land. It is important to emphasise that the yiḏaki (and its name) is the cultural property of the Yolŋu clan-groups; creating the yiḏaki and playing it in clan songs is limited to the traditional custodians of the instrument only. In Yolŋu languages there are several names for the didgeridoo, some of them are general terms – such as yiḏaki, mandapul or bamboo -, but there are also clan-specific names for instruments that play a significant role in ceremonies. The use of these names are usually culturally sensitive and either not to be used outside of context, or not to be used at all – read more about some of these instruments at the Yidaki Story website. It is important to note, that not every yiḏaki fall into these culturally defined categories, most of the traditional yiḏaki that are available for the public to see, are generic instruments – however some of them bear with the characteristics of a ceremonial didgeridoo.


Dhuwa moiety yiḏaki


Yirritja moiety yiḏaki

Djalu’ Gurruwiwi yiḏaki, Gälpu clan.
Acrylic paint on termite hollowed stryngibark.
Parameters: key E (drone)/E (first toot);  length – 1570mm. Djalu’ (deceased) was the most popular yiḏaki maker of the Northeast Arnhem Land area, a clan leader and ceremonial expert. His instruments are famous for their powerful sound, and have been in high demand all around the world for the last couple of decades.
In personal collection.

Bruce Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra yiḏaki, Dhaḻwaŋu clan.
Natural pigments on termite hollowed stringybark. Parameters: key G (drone) / G (first toot);  lenght – 1570mm.
Burrŋupurrŋu (deceased) was a legendary yidaki player and maker; his instruments are known for their exceptional playing characteristics.
In personal collection

Dhapa Ganambarr yiḏaki, Ŋaymil clan.
Natural pigments on termite hollowed stringybark. Parameters: key F (drone)/D (first toot), length – 1300mm.
Dhapa is a popular yiḏaki maker, his instruments are known for the detailed craftsmanship, high-quality finish and superb playing qualities.
In personal collection.

Balku Wunuŋmurra yiḏaki, Dhaḻwaŋu clan.
Earth pigments, feathered pendants of natural string, red parrot feathers and red kangaroo bones on termite hollowed stringybark. Parameters: key E (drone) / G (first toot);  length – 1570mm.
Ceremonial yiḏaki for several Yirritja moiety clan groups called Dhadaḻaḻ.
In personal collection

Ŋoŋu Ganambarr yiḏaki, Ḏatiwuy clan.
Natural pigments on termite hollowed stringybark. Parameters: key E (drone)/F# (first toot), length – 1420mm.
Ŋoŋu is a long-term famous yiḏaki maker, his yiḏaki are known for its balanced playing characteristics and highly detailed artwork.
In personal collection.

Buwathay Munyarryun yiḏaki, Waŋuri clan.
Electrical tape on termite hollowed stringybark. Parameters: key F# (drone) / G# (first toot);  length – 1330mm.
The body of the instrument is wrapped in electrical tape, that is a common practice nowadays on instruments that are used by Yolŋu players for a shorter or longer periods of time. The reason behind ‘taping’ is simple: the plastic tape protects the timber body of the instrument and helps to avoid, or seal cracks that can occur due to extensive use. This is particularly important during ceremonies, that go on for days or weeks, so the instruments are played for hours at a time by several players. .
In personal collection

A little history and problems with popularisation

As we pointed out above and elsewhere, the traditional music of the Top-End of Australia came to the interest of western anthropologists, musicologist and researchers – and with this movement, the yiḏaki started its journey to the Western world. The first researchers, such as A.P.Elkin, T.A.Jones, R.M. and C.H.Berndt, A.Moyle published articles about the wooden blown trumpet of Northern Australia. The first recordings where we can listen to the yiḏaki were released in the ’50s by the same scholars, some of these recordings are still available today.

Later in the ’80s, the yiḏaki played a big role in the popularisation of the didgeridoo. Slowly, with the growing interest in Aboriginal art, the yiḏaki appeared in private and national collections, and became popular among non-Indigenous didgeridoo enthusiasts during the following decades. Several people bought the yiḏaki for its artistic and cultural value, didgeridoo players wanted to own a traditional yiḏaki for its playing qualities, or in preference for their respect towards the tradition of the instrument. Many of these players travelled to Arnhem Land to learn the yiḏaki from Yolŋu, that is still a tendency. In response to these interest – and in the hope, that teaching Yolŋu rom (culture) to balanda (non-Indigenous person or people) will generate respect towards First Nations People -, senior custodians shared their instruments and personal and spiritual sentiments with the outside world. One of these leaders, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi, the senior custodian of his clan yiḏaki, acquired worldwide fame and reputation; Djalu’ also set up his family business to sell yiḏaki and teach balanda. During the same period, the Yolŋu rock band Yothu Yindi hit the music charts, and took the yiḏaki on world tours; the band’s contribution to the popularisation of the yiḏaki has been underestimated.

Today, the yiḏaki is played, enjoyed and shared around worldwide by Indigenous and non-Indigenous music lovers and didgeridoo players – with very little input requested from Yolŋu. Djalu’, the Yothu Yindi band and others proved, that the yiḏaki can be a tool to successfully build bridges between cultures, however, if these efforts do not meet the ‘other side’ with genuine will to learn and understand, this powerful tool turn into a double-edged sword. Cultural colonisation and appropriation cause real concerns within Yolŋu and others – see Yiḏaki Statement, also read our article. Without genuine understanding of the place of the yiḏaki within its culture, the flock of misleading information and damaging stereotypes fly from mouth to mouth, that cause disempowerment, frustration, and deepens the trauma within People of Arnhem Land. In addition to that, the issue affects more than Yolŋu; while yiḏaki became to be the most known traditional didgeridoo type, other type of traditional didgeridoos have not received much attention yet, some of them left to fade away.

The first yiḏaki – and didgeridoo – solo album released in 1977 on a 7″ vinyl LP, recorded by Rirratjiŋu clan leader Wandjuk Marika

Djalu’ making and playing yiḏaki. Video credit: iDidj Australia

Links for further studies on the yiḏaki:

Yidaki Story – an extensive work on the yiḏaki played in Northeast Arnhem Land

iDidj Australia – a didgeridoo database and resource centre

also check the iDidj Australia`s Youtube Channel 

Manikay.com – learn about the traditional music of Arnhem Land

M. Munnungurr – Hard Tongue Didgeridoo teaching CD available for download here