Cultural Appropriation or Collaborative Translation?: “White” People Building Didgeridoo with Yolngu Permission

Posted by Austin Didgeridoo on December 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

In February of 2004, icy winds blew across South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, biting my nose, forcing my jacket shut. I walked, bamboo didgeridoo in hand past vendor booths selling handmade jewelry, tie-dyed t-shirts and “vintage” records.  Searching for the monthly “First Thursday” drum circle, I kept an ear to the wind, and continued marching South. Above the bobbing heads of the pedestrian crowd, I saw the unmistakable shape of another didgeridoo, wrapped in a protective cotton bag, strapped to the back of a man who would soon introduce himself as Omid “Larrpan” Laritjani.

“Hey man! Hey!  Didgeridoo player!,” I yelled.

Omid turned around with a wide smile, bright eyes, and completely uncontrollable hair.  I began playing my bamboo didgeridoo in the cold night air, and Omid broke into ecstatic laughter.

“Right on!  You play didgeridoo also!  Let’s find a place to sit down and talk”, Omid said.

We walked south toward the sounds of djembes and tumbek drums, and found a parking curb in front of Fran’s Hamburgers to serve as seating.  Omid began,

“I just returned a few months ago from Northern Territory, Australia, where I lived with a man named Djalu Gurruwiwi.  He is an elder of the Yolngu aboriginal people and a leader of the Galpu Clan. He adopted me and calls me his son.  He gave me the name, Larrpan; it means spear cloud”.

Omid began demonstrating the incredible playing style that Yolngu musicians accomplish using their eucalyptus didgeridoos, and he was able to make sounds through his instrument that I had never heard any didgeridoo player create prior.  Immediately entranced I asked,

“How are you doing that? How is that even possible?”

Omid responded,

“The didgeridoo – or yidaki as the Yolngu call it – is a musical language.  It tells stories of the landscape and the land as they relate to your heart.  In a way, it is the language of the land. Also, in a literal way, it is a language.  Yidaki amplifies your voice. Yolngu yidaki players make sounds when they play their music that appear in the Yolngu language.  If you have only heard American didgeridoo players, then you have only heard didgeridoos amplifying sounds you hear in English.”

Facinated, I asked,

“Can you teach me some of the Yolngu sounds?”

Omid replied,

“Sure!  The first sound you should learn is dith-drrho.  You start with your tongue folded upward against the roof of your mouth where that ridge is….then you say ‘di’ and let your tongue slide forward and stop between your teeth;  you’ll say ‘th’; this will be the first part…. ‘Dith’.  After that, slide your tongue back toward the ridge, and say ‘drrrho’.”

Omid began demonstrating the sound acapella, then moved the yidaki to his mouth and began to play.  Incredible rhythmic sounds emanated from the yidaki; it was unbelievably loud and powerful.  At that time, as a novice didgeridoo player, the feat seemed impossible.

Omid stopped playing and continued to explain,

“Just keep practicing. It is difficult at first because you have to use a lot of diaphragm when you play this way.  Keep it up; you’ll get it. Oh, also, I made an animation for my website that shows you how to move your tongue to play Yolngu style.  Check it out on!”

As I walked away from my first encounter with Omid, I attempted to play through my bamboo didgeridoo the sounds that he taught me.  I put the instrument to my mouth, buzzed my lips, and said “Dith”.  The heat of my exhalation met with the freezing surface of the bamboo didgeridoo and the instrument cracked in half from mouth piece to the opening at the bell end.

I immediately knew I had to learn everything I could about this instrument, yidaki, and the Yolngu way of playing it.



During the course of the 15 years that followed, I traveled internationally, learning didgeridoo playing styles from some of the world’s foremost performers of the didgeridoo. These individuals play the didgeridoo at a high level, command respect as musicians from their audiences, and do not use the didgeridoo as a signifier of otherness.  They see the didgeridoo as an instrument that contributes real value to musical production and an instrument that should garner respect amongst musicians across multiple genres. These were the players that fascinated me the most: non-aboriginal individuals who respectfully learned to play the didgeridoo and made it their own in a way that was not appropriative and exploitative, but that showed a deep respect for the didgeridoo’s broad and adaptive musicality. These musicians seemed to be able to make the didgeridoo fit into any genre.

These outstanding individuals aside, far more frequently than not, I found didgeridoo most readily accepted by and appreciated in Hippie, New Age, and for lack of a better term, carnivalesque circus cultures.  In these communities, the didgeridoo was often played quite poorly relative to the high musicianship I encountered when learning from known didgeridoo performers. In addition, individuals who I met in Hippie/New Age circles that played the didgeridoo often attributed to the didgeridoo intensely spiritualized narratives that told of the didgeridoo’s ability to bring listeners into altered states of consciousness, heal illness, and open portals into other worlds. These spiritualized interpretations of the didgeridoo were often also attributed to aboriginal people themselves, in ways that framed aboriginal people as hyper spiritual, primitive, almost magical negroes from a pre-modern past. These spiritualized attributions seemed to claim that no aboriginal person can just be a musician and part of the contemporary global world – as though no Yolngu person is skeptical of spirituality, but still likes to play the didgeridoo.  Anecdotally, anyway, I can confirm that many Yolngu don’t internalize spiritual interpretations of the instrument; some of them just like to play music.

These spiritualized interpretations of both the didgeridoo and aboriginal people seem also to play significant roles in building up the personas of those in Hippie/New Age communities. In a way, one who claims to represent and understand the supposed “magic” of the aborigines is asserting that they themselves – as knowing representatives – carry with them some of that same magic. It is not exactly shocking to note that those who make these claims do so often as a way of gaining a kind of social advantage amongst the credulous and unstudied.

While one can see how associating with “magical instruments” from the “native aborigines” of down under may accord compelling attributes to the personas of those who wield didgeridoos, this strategy is not without its costs.   Much has been said about the ways in which overt spiritualization of “native” cultures perpetuates the narratives, negative stereotypes, and assumptions of European colonialism – in effect, maintenance of these narratives equates to a form of neo-colonialism. In particular, one should reference classic works in the anthropology of art, such as Primitive Art in Civilized Places; Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives; or even Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle.

Specifically germane to the ways in which Yolngu culture is damaged through overt spiritualization of Yolngu music it is also worth considering the ways spiritualization of Yolngu cultures minimizes the role Yolngu histories and mythologies play in establishing land claims.  Sure, Yolngu mythology makes reference to supernatural forces, but it does so in ways that are less overtly spiritualized and literal than we – as unfamiliar foreigners – interpret those mythologies. The metaphorical values of these mythologies are often lost on us, as are the associated claims to land estates that these metaphors serve to uphold. Here I am made to think of the classic essay Body Ritual Amongst the Nacerima. Quite often, we non-Yolngu can miss the trees for the forest.

These issues and others worth considering here are laid out in the following lecture given by ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger at UCLA:

The above said, and as Deborah Root points out in her essay “White Indians: Appropriation and the Politics of Display”, much of these behaviors – while regrettable and demonstrably damaging to appropriated cultures – can be explained as youthful insecurity, a need to stand out in “white” contemporary cultures that emphasize the implementation of rigid hierarchies and place tremendous value on acts of conformity, while simultaneously enshrining the supremacy of the liberated individual.  You can read additional meditations on these issues at a partner site,

Yolngu are People 2: They’re not Clip Art

Yolngu are People 2b: Follow-up

Given these explanations and conditions, can we really blame “white” youth for naively appropriating “native” culture?  Are these acts always to be interpreted as conscious attempts at neo-colonialism? Can such unconscious acts ever truly be prevented without over-leveraging punitive retaliations? And if acts of appropriation could be totally prevented, would the popular awareness of “native” cultural productions – even in a misrepresented sense – ever reach the levels they currently inhabit?

No. To all of the above.  Though answering these questions in such an abrupt and absolute way seemingly dismisses very real claims to cultural violence that cultural appropriation can and does cause, this approach creates an avenue for practical reconciliation of unintentional wrongs and encourages market based strategies that seek to profit from unavoidable naivety and ignorance on the part of both “white” and “native” communities.  Certainly, awareness campaigns could do much to prohibit damaging appropriation of “native” cultural productions, but the complete prohibition — or even public shaming — of trans-ethnic cultural collaboration carries with it tremendously deleterious externalities.

To make the case, we may begin with an unintended consequence relatively unexplored in academic discourse of and around cultural appropriation: the maintenance of colonial style “nativism” as an outcome of prohibiting cultural appropriation.

Those who would claim that “white” people shouldn’t engage in the cultural practices of other ethnic groups — particularly ethnic groups that suffered atrocity at the hands of colonial empires — effectively call for a perpetual maintenance of a ban on “white” use of “native” cultural objects and practices.  This ban ossifies racism and ethnic divides. It keeps “white” and “native” ethnic groups at distance that emphasizes classically colonial tropes, maintaining difference in ways that prohibit postcolonial understanding, amelioration and healing.

If new generations of postcolonial benefactors (i.e. white people) are not allowed to interact with new generations of those inheriting colonialism’s debts, how are those who grow up in marginalized, post-colonies to benefit from the sale of their cultural items? Should “white” inheritors of a colonial past purchase “native” cultural offerings out of a sense of pity, denying themselves enjoyment of the purchase out of guilt for past wrongs?

Surely not. “White” purchasers of “native” cultural products should be able to appreciate those items. Further, it is necessary for purchasers to subjectively value an item – even in their own relatively flawed, uninitiated ways – in order to establish exchange relations and for “native” cultural productions to increase in quality and volume via reinvested income.

Said another way, if “white” consumers of culture are prevented from adopting “native” cultural productions, it prevents the development of a market around “native” goods, stunting market growth, segmentation, and ultimately innovation. Colonized “native” cultures have few natural resources to sell that do not fall victim to the frequently cited “resource curse”; therefore, cultural products are often the only goods colonized cultures can bring to the market. In our now globally hyper-connected economies, artificially stunting innovation in cultural markets will lead to the artificial stunting of a culture.  It keeps “natives” in the position of “native” – in the James Cook kind of way – and dependent on the “native” image in order to make sales of their cultural productions.

While many “native” people throughout the world create incredible craft works based on their own histories,“native” peoples did not develop their cultures in a vacuum: they traded ideas with neighboring peoples in the past who were involved in their own versions of colonialisms, hierarchical oppressions, and violent take overs that had nothing to do with “white” colonialism.  If we deny the ability for “white” people to use “native” goods that are on offer, “white” communities infantilize “natives”, imprisoning them in a “white” politically correct paradise lost, imposing a kind of ethical sanction on “native” trade, and prohibiting “native” cultures from adapting to contemporary global market conditions and perfecting their productions in ways that address direct, unmodified global demand.

Further, it prohibits “white” ethnic groups from adopting and popularizing within “white” communities the objects and practices developed by “native” groups.  Certainly, it is difficult to parse the fine points: are “white” people responsible for popularizing “native” practices within “white” communities? If “white” people are not responsible, is it ethically permissible for “white” people to take on, collaborate with, and/or reinterpret “native” cultural productions? Is it an effective strategy at all for “white” people to become spokespersons for “native” communities, considering the “native” need to generate global awareness of their own cultures and profit from the sale of their own cultural productions? Ultimately and ideally, perhaps no “white” person should ever represent a culture other than their own, but there are practical reasons why a “white” person should collaboratively present a “native” culture to a “white” audience.

As difficult a truth as it is, people generally are subject to in-group biases.  Often, it is difficult for members of a given group to accept items classified as “other” without the assistance of an in-group member that possesses knowledge of the out-group culture as well as knowledge of in-group cultural referents and even – as shallow as it may seem – a physical appearance easily familiar to the in-group.  What many call appropriation in this instance, could more charitably be called “collaborative translation”.

In-group members savy to the practices of out-group cultures play the role of making that which would otherwise appear foreign, incomprehensible, and possibly threatening, as comprehensible within the value structures of the in-group.  While perfect translation is not only unlikely, but often impossible, this is still a step toward trans-ethnic communication of values and aesthetics and an alternative to the impenetrable boundaries posited by those who would dissuade cross-cultural collaboration for fear of unintentional appropriative acts.

Of course, this argument should be read within a context that assumes close contact, truly informed consent, and a mutually defined collaborative vision between those who would collaborate across “white” and “native” cultural bounds.

Yolngu people I met want to – and do – interact with the broader world.  As much as they use iPhones, surf the net, set up Facebook accounts, and dance to Kanye songs, they would love for other people in the world to learn to play yidaki, especially if others learn to play it in the Yolngu style. When I asked Djalu, Vernon, Lena, and Winiwini Gurruwiwi if I could make yidaki in Texas, play in Yolngu style, and try to popularize the yidaki globally, they were enthusiastic in their reply.  They asked that I share what I could of Yolngu culture with the people I know and that I continue to practice Yolngu culture – in the limited way that I understand it – so that Yolngu cultural contributions to global human richness will not be marginalized, siloed, and forgotten.

These anecdotal claims are not an attempt to undermine or dismiss the very real problem of cultural appropriation, particularly in contexts when cultural theft completely disregards heritage and ownership to the detriment of cultural owners.  Indeed, awareness campaigns and cultural copyright are measures that should be implemented to guard against flagrant cultural theft. That said, cultural collaboration is not, and should not be considered an impossibility or something to be completely avoided.

Even as one who believes in the need for collaborative translation, the struggle for effective collaborative translation at times seems insurmountable. In Texas, when I mention I play the didgeridoo, I am often lumped in with Hippie, New Age, and the Carnivalesque Circus crowds. This isn’t to say that there is something ultimately wrong with these communities, but the ways in which the didgeridoo is interpreted in those communities often unfairly represents the musical practices of the didgeridoo to those who encounter it for the first time via Hippie, New Age, and Carnivalesque interpretations, as discussed earlier in this article. This dismissive reaction to the didgeridoo is also testament to how effectively the Hippie/New Age communities have appropriated and created a cultural value system around the didgeridoo.

There isn’t much that an individual person can do to alter collective perceptions of the aesthetics systems of a cultural other.  One can, however, attempt iteratively and over time to raise in-group evaluations of a cultural practice that has been appropriated from an out-group. In the case of the didgeridoo, there are ways in which the instrument can be performed, played, and displayed in contexts that confer high cultural value on the objects and productions within “white” value systems (see our article on Future Directions for more). We can elevate the didgeridoo to an object of art by placing it in museums, we can include didgeridoo in New Music compositions, pushing it to the forefront of innovative compositional palettes, but with these approaches, the didgeridoo will be for “white” people what we want it to be.  “White” people will never be Yolngu, and rightfully so: complete cultural transition is not and should not be the goal of collaborative translation.

The responsibility of those who would collaboratively translate is to work with those of other cultures to create a rising tide of visibility of a given practice or culture that benefits all involved as much as possible in mutually agreed upon ways, and acknowledges the many ways in which the cultural practice will inevitably be (mis)interpreted in a variety of contexts. Any troubling misinterpretations should be addressed and discussed, with a goal of anticipating such future mis-interpretations.  At Austin Aboriginal Instruments, our ongoing conversations with Yolngu ensure that we fairly represent Yolngu yidaki as distinct from the didgeridoos we produce, and that we highlight the musical potentials of the instrument as the grounds for aesthetic innovations.

In addition, 5% of our sales are donated to the Buku Larrngay Mulka Center to help support future development of Yolngu art and music.  We believe strongly that even though our didgeridoos are not Yolngu yidaki and we do not claim them to be, we are deeply inspired by Yolngu craft – having learned craft processes directly from Yolngu – and that, as a result, we are in an exchange relationship with Yolngu craftspersons and artists.  Though not legally bound to payment for the knowledge we acquired from Yolngu nor for the stamp of authenticity our association with Yolngu accords, our mission to popularize the didgeridoo globally is bound to the success of Yolngu art and musical cultures – and we want to keep it that way.

The Yolngu I know are satisfied with these efforts, and they invite you to learn more about their culture.  Visit the Buku Larrngay website here, and consider purchasing yidaki and other Yolngu art.  Also, you will find that many Yolngu are open to further collaboration with international artists and craftspersons, and they will happily host you in their communities if you reach out and propose a collaboration.

If you have any questions about working with Yolngu, please feel free to send us a message and start a conversation.


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