In August of 2009, the Yolngu aboriginal elder and leader of the Galpu Clan — Djalu Gurruwiwi — walked ahead of our group toward the edge of a rocky cliff that rose above the waters of a crescent shaped bay along the Arafura Sea coastline of Austalia’s Northern Territory. Our group of Texan musicians followed behind Djalu, talking with members of the Gurruwiwi family about the land through which we strolled — an undeveloped area called Gikal that the Yolngu treat as a natural preserve and weekend getaway. Djalu’s sister — Ms. Gurruwiwi — told us that Yolngu culture identifies itself strongly with elements of the Australian landscape, and that much of Yolngu identity is expressed through art, dance, and music.
“We have songs for everything you see here. The birds, the clouds, the waves: there are songs for it all. Song is how we keep our knowledge and pass it to the young ones. Our clan – the Galpu – we are responsible for remembering the songs that represent certain elements of our landscape; other clans must know songs for the elements we do not. Life’s demand for full knowledge of our land brings all of us Yolngu together”.
Our group arrived at the edge of the cliff and we gazed along with Djalu out onto the bay. Azure waters spread gently away from us toward the far shore, and in the very center of the bay, an enormous, solitary tree rose up from the water’s surface. Ms. Gurruwiwi again spoke,
“On that little island, where you see the tree, lives an olive python — Witij — as we know him in our language. He is an animal that we in the Galpu Clan deeply identify with; his skin is olive colored but when the light shines on him, his scales bend the light into a rainbow.”
Interrupting Ms. Gurruwiwi, a rush of air carrying a burst of saline mist erupted from two holes in the rocky outcropping upon which we stood.
“Ah! You see those holes in the rock? We say that they are the nostrils of the Olive Python, and that this rock is his head. When the sea water rises into the hollow of the rock we are standing on, the air is pushed out like he is breathing”.
The surging waters receded, and air rushed to fill the hollow beneath us, causing the rock to reverberate beneath our feet, releasing the sound of a massive inhalation.
Ms. Gurruwiwi continued,
“Now turn around and look back into the landscape behind us. You see the ridge line that connects with this rock here at our feet, you see how that ridge cuts through the land? We are standing on the head of witij; his body is part of our land, and the air that comes from these rocks — his breath — it is like the sound of our music that comes through our instrument, the yidaki, the didgeridoo. We sing this story, we dance it as our ancestors did. This is our land”.
Following our trip to Gikal, we returned to the Gurruwiwi family home in Biritjimi, a small community of houses outside Nhulunbuy on the Gove peninsula. Originally built for families of Australian bauxite miners, Yolngu received the homes as a portion of ongoing post-colonial reparation disbursements. The attendant social problems of these communities are well documented; and the Gurruwiwi family told us what they felt necessary to share about their living conditions, as well as the political situation surrounding the installation of the bauxite mines and associated land lease (dis)agreements. Given those issues, we spent much of our time with Yolngu away from these communities in less overcrowded areas, mainly focused on collecting materials for art and craft production.
Djalu — in particular — saw utility in our visit, putting us to work collecting termite-hollowed eucalyptus logs and crafting them into didgeridoos in preparation for the then upcoming 2009 Garma Festival. A few days after our return from Gikal, we walked through sparsely vegetated eucalyptus groves near Biritjimi in search of prime timber. Knocking on each tree trunk as we passed allowed us to listen for the tell-tale signs of a potential instrument. Djalu asked me to place my ear against a particularly likely tree. With the side of my face pressed against the stringy bark, he swung the blunt rear of the hatchet blade toward a spot on the trunk opposite my head. Eyes closed, the sound of the impact resonated loudly, causing my hearing to buzz and warp. But then I heard it: the nearly imperceptible, almost metallic clinks of partially devoured eucalyptus chunks falling through the tree’s hollow core.
Our day of collecting hollow logs in the forest near Biritjimi progressed, and each time a hollow tree was located, one of the Gurruwiwi family members called out, their joyful enthusiasm echoing through the forest. Lena and Vernon Gurrwiwi diverted my attention away from the hunt for didgeridoos at one point and asked me to look toward the forest’s canopy. At the very top of a dead eucalyptus tree, a stream of flying, black insects entered and exited a small hole in the tree’s trunk. Lena looked at me with an infectious grin, “Guku!”.
Setting to work with vigor and excitement, Lena quickly felled the tree, and with a swift blow of her axe, split the tree trunk in half lengthwise at the point where the insects entered the tree, revealing a web-work of honeycomb and a profusely flowing channel of wild honey. Scooping her fingers into the canoe shaped interior of the tree trunk, Lena invited me to try one of the Yolngu’s most sought-after delights. The honey was impossibly sweet with the obvious floral and menthol notes of eucalyptus and tea tree.
Vernon Gurruwiwi joined us, and after sampling the honey, he said,
“Wawa Eliot, did you know that we have a yidaki song for guku? It goes like this…”.
Clapping his hands at a constant tempo, Vernon began reciting the phonetic patterns one must articulate through the didgeridoo when playing the wild honey song:
“Didik dit, didik didik drrro dit, didik didik didik dit, dikdik didik drrro drrro, drro didho drrrl drrro, drro didto drrrl didik, dit didik didik didik, dit didik drrrl drrrl, drrl ditho didik drrl, didhot didhot didik dit!”
“What a powerful rhythm!”
Then Vernon replied,
“These songs, Yolngu songs, they are very powerful, yes, but also important. They tell me about the honey, where to find it, how to get it from the tree. We Yolngu have this knowledge because our culture, our ancestors, they were here a long time ago and they passed it down to us. That is how we know this land belongs to us, and that is how we protect the land, too”.
Following a pause, Vernon asked,
“Do you like the honey?”.
After we finished collecting logs, we returned to Djalu’s house — which overlooks the shoreline of the Gove peninsula at a site just south of an enormous bauxite mine — and began to shape the rough logs into fully functional instruments. Beginning at one end of the logs, we used hand tools to decrease the outside diameter to a round shape that traces the instruments’ hollow interior, leaving a wall thickness of roughly one half an inch. The termite-hollowed interior was visible from both ends of the logs; at the base the termites hollow the core almost completely through to the outside of the log, creating an opening roughly four inches in diameter. The logs slowly taper, ending in an opening one inch in diameter that forms the instruments’ mouth piece. In this way, the hollow cavity inside the instruments taper along with the exterior of the instruments, resulting in the iconic, trumpet-like shape of the didgeridoo.
With some of the didgeridoos complete, Djalu’s wife and her sister joined us to paint Yolngu designs onto the exterior of the instruments. The paintings began on backgrounds of solid colors, red ocher and black, and were built up using cross hatching patterns consisting of lighter and lighter colors. Atop the cross hatching, the artists painted outlined shapes of animals and plants significant to the Galpu Clan: An Olive Python swimming through water lilies, the File Snake blending into the surface ripples of Rainbow Creek. These designs and their colors reflect the landscape of Arnhemland and the stories of the lived experience the artists bring to their work.
In addition to didgeridoos, Djalu guided our production of bilma — clap sticks that Yolngu musicians play alongside the didgeridoo to maintain tempo and to signal changes in song structure. Yolngu craftsmen typically form bilma out of ironwood — one of Australia’s densest wood species — so that the sound the clap sticks produce takes on a metallic quality to cut through the didgeridoo’s deep bass sounds, maintaining audibility during didgeridoo performance. Using an assortment of hand saws, hatchets, and rasps, our ironwood blanks started to take form.
Working with Yolngu craftsmen taught us a tremendous amount – not only about didgeridoo production processes and techniques for achieving the acoustic qualities that Yolngu prize, but also the ways in which Yolngu symbolic relationships with the land – as expressed through the didgeridoo – make claim to that land. Didgeridoo, as the Yolngu know it, simply cannot be recreated abroad in a way identical to what is found – both materially and symbolically – in Arnhemland. The stories that the didgeridoo tells — and the stories the Yolngu tell about the didgeridoo — are as much a part of the instrument as the eucalyptus tree trunks and the termites that devour them.
And there are significantly important reasons to maintain awareness of that fact. In today’s global world, lines between cultures may easily blur as a result of the rapid circulation of goods and ideas, but the economic relations of the day, and the shared histories they are built upon, are insoluble. As briefly mentioned above, Yolngu suffer many social and economic difficulties in the wake of colonialism and use their culture to inspire and enrich new generations of Yolngu. As such, the global sale of Yolngu cultural artifacts enmeshes consumers in chains of meaning that bolster Yolngu identity and economies — exchange relations that imply responsibility.
What didgeridoo production means for us, then, is ultimately a sentimental appreciation, an attempt at reaching out to a shared humanity that we non-Yolngu and Yolngu alike recognize in one another. At Austin Aboriginal Instruments, we do not claim that our instruments are Yolngu works, and we do not allow claims of cultural appropriation from the uninvolved to prevent our attempts to vivify Yolngu culture on the global stage. We work with Yolngu artists to bring awareness and appreciation of the didgeridoo to the broader world, to contribute to and inspire global innovations in didgeridoo craft and performance, while honoring the cultural history of the didgeridoo – and the land claims that cultural ownership of the instrument and associated mythologies grant to Yolngu. In this endeavor, we have the support of Yolngu leadership which we carry in earnest, evidenced, we believe, by the quality of our craft and the lengths of our efforts (read more about these issues in our blog article on appropriation and collaboration).
The sun set over the ocean on our final day at Biritjimi while our team concluded our work. The hollow tree trunk I collected with Djalu lay on my lap now transformed as I sanded the wood toward a smooth finish. Djalu walked passed me and stopped to inspect my progress. He asked if he could play the instrument I was working on to test the sound. As I lifted the didgeridoo off my lap, he indicated that I should point the instrument’s opening toward my heart. He began to play, and the sound overwhelmed me, preventing my attentions from drifting in any direction.
In the approaching dark, the rhythms emanating from the didgeridoo seemed to pulse in concert with the ocean waves that crashed against the shoreline in view from Djalu’s porch. Eyes closed, I remembered standing with Ms. Gurruwiwi atop the rock at Gikal, shaped like the head of the witij, hearing the rushing jet of air pushed upward by the sea. My memory and awareness began to blur, time stood still, and in my mind’s eye, Vernon appeared, sitting in the forest by the tree trunk flowing with golden honey. He reached into the honey and offered it, then retracted his hand and placed the honey back into the log. His offering motion continually recurred, as if stuck in a loop, while Vernon repeated “do you like the honey?”. The painted hashwork patterns on the didgeridoo flashed before my eyes, overlaying the image of Vernon stuck in perpetual motion, combining with his voice which grew louder, more insistent and frequent, until shouting,
“DO YOU LIKE THE HONEY?!”
The mental storm ceased in a bright flash and Djalu’s song concluded. I opened my eyes, and for a moment, my mind went silent. Then arose the thought:
Arnhem Land belongs to Yolngu.