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Austin Aboriginal Instruments https://www.austindidgeridoo.com Australia Inspired, Austin Made Didgeridoos Thu, 28 Jun 2018 03:31:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.9.3 Innovations and Future Directions in Didgeridoo Production, Performance, and Exhibition https://www.austindidgeridoo.com/innovations-and-future-directions-in-didgeridoo-craft-and-performance/ https://www.austindidgeridoo.com/innovations-and-future-directions-in-didgeridoo-craft-and-performance/#respond Wed, 06 Dec 2017 22:23:28 +0000 http://austindidgeridoo.com/?p=351

Our last article on Cultural Appropriation discusses a fairly pervasive problem facing would-be innovators of didgeridoo craft, exhibition, and performance: the didgeridoo is often promoted as a “traditional” and/or “primitive” instrument.  Frequently, collectors and fans of the didgeridoo and didgeridoo music perceive Aboriginal people and cultures as “primitive” and/or “traditional” out of a type of romantic appreciation. The logic is something like: aboriginal people may seem impoverished and marginalized from the perspective of the highly materially focused economies and cultures of America and Europe; however, Aboriginal people live in unspoiled harmony with nature, enjoying a simple, yet dignified life. For many who take on this romantic perspective, Aboriginal lifestyles and cultures appear almost heroic, particularly when counterposed to the environmentally, economically, and socially damaging externalities of globalizing consumer culture (for more on romantic perceptions of indigenous societies, read Gone Primitive: Modern Lives, Savage Intellects and Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Modern Spectacle).

Though we empathize with the perception that Aboriginal peoples are somehow free from – and therefore lack implication in – market forces of the globalizing world, our time in Yolngu communities provided us with a different view.  Pre-colonial trade with Macassan peoples bear forth from the archaeological record evidence of Aboriginal peoples’ long standing participation in cross-cultural trade; colonial European forces brought tremendous upheaval and violence to Aboriginal communities, changing the identities, territories, and beliefs that held Aboriginal societies together; post-colonial consumerist forces – including the widespread use of digital technologies in Aboriginal communities – continue to influence the ways, in which Aboriginal people must refigure their lives and identities (the fantastic documentary film In Between Songs does a tremendous job of bringing the complicated lives of Yolngu Aboriginal people to the broader world – a must see!).

As such, we at AAI don’t view Yolngu Aboriginal people as “primitive”, nor do we think the didgeridoo is a “traditional”  instrument; conversely, the Yolngu musicians we met are incredible, sophisticated rhythmicians who masterfully produce syncopated didgeridoo beat patterns that would find welcome reception in the world of high-end jazz percussion, and the didgeridoo – though essentially a hollow tube that amplifies the players’ vocalizations – is likewise a tremendously complex instrument that requires years of focused and dutiful apprenticeship to master and a deep passion for play to innovate new didgeridoo performative stylizations.

Given the complexities of Aboriginal cultures – and of the didgeridoo itself – we believe the well-meaning assumption that Aboriginal peoples are “primitive” and that the didgeridoo is “traditional” generates a romantic feeling of reverence for Aboriginal peoples and the didgeridoo.  While some Aboriginal people may find this spontaneous adulation flattering, many Yolngu Aboriginal people we spoke with believe that this romantic stereotype is based on a significant degree of confusion.  For many Yolngu, the image of the “primitive” Aboriginal man that appears in Yolngu myth and ceremony is a useful device for keeping their identity alive and to help Yolngu youth who are battling addictions and feelings of marginalization and isolation. Further, many Yolngu use the image of “primitive” Aboriginal man as a way of maintaining land claims in the face of dubious mineral rights contracts that have forced many Yolngu away from former hunting and fishing grounds.

That said, there are many Yolngu who desire to fully integrate into the globalizing world and many others who have already done so. Yolngu professionals take on careers both within and outside Yolngu communities; Yolngu athletes play Australian-rules football and other major sports; Yolngu musicians bring a distinctly Yolngu sound to global hip-hop, rock-and-roll, and gospel; you’ll find Yolngu on Facebook. When people who maintain a romantic perception of Yolngu life encounter Yolngu participation in the broader world, we see that the ability to hold on to this stereotype diminishes.

Still, there remains somewhat of a spontaneous prohibition around attempts to innovate the form of the didgeridoo. Even if this prohibition isn’t explicit, but rather, is an expression of general assumptions about the “traditional” character of the didgeridoo, the stultifying effect is the same. Because the instrument is perceived and held up as “traditional” many non-Aboriginal people–and even some Aboriginal people themselves–who come in contact with the instrument perceive it as unchanging–having arrived long ago in its final “traditional” form–with no room for innovative growth.

Because of the lasting presence of this artificial prohibition on didgeridoo innovation, we believe there is still room for a tremendous amount of innovation-driven experimentation around the didgeridoo that could produce marvelous results.  Thankfully, in 2004 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal didgeridoo craftsmen and hobbyists worldwide worked to create the fantastic book The Didgeridoo Phenomenon which explored future directions in didgeridoo craft.  Further, several inventive craftsmen charted new paths for didgeridoo production that have lead to innovative developments, opening doors for cross-genre collaboration that were formerly all but closed to didgeridoo performers.

The book’s clearly articulated vision–and the efforts of a handful of thoughtful instrument producers–notwithstanding,  few craftsmen follow the paths laid out in that book far enough to capture views of newly innovative horizons. In an attempt to stimulate conversation about and efforts toward innovations in didgeridoo cultural production, this article takes on the notion that the didgeridoo is an adaptive instrument and explores future directions that may lead toward innovations not only in didgeridoo craft, but also in performance and exhibition.


Didgeridoo craft as it was developed in Australia largely left the production of desirable acoustic qualities to a relatively imprecise process.  While this statement may seem to support the notion that Aboriginal people are “primitive”, we believe imprecision in didgeridoo craft has much more to do with the relative lack of precision tools in past centuries, with which Aboriginal craftsmen worked to produce didgeridoo, particularly when compared to the tools now available following the rise of global industrialization. Said another way, if didgeridoos were made elsewhere in the world anytime pre-industrialization, didgeridoo craft would have remained at a similar level f precision.

International craftsmen who produce didgeridoo via methods that include the use of precise power tools have advanced the ability of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal craftsmen to reliably create instruments with desirable acoustic qualities far more predictably and consistently.

Though many international didgeridoo craftspersons know the essential processes required for didgeridoo production, only minimal work has been done to study the constituents of didgeridoo sound and the mechanisms of didgeridoo sound production as they relate to the physical shape and material characteristics of a didgeridoo (see the Nature article on use of glotis in modulating didgeridoo acoustics).  More research is necessary before we have available a comprehensive understanding of how to totally control all the acoustic properties of the didgeridoo and intentionally create instruments that produce the full range of sounds the producer desires.

Thankfully, there are some pioneers exploring the frontiers of didgeridoo production that take into account the means by which didgeridoo sounds are produced, controlled, and modulated.  We are in complete fanatical awe of the team over at Didgeridoo Physics; they have done the most that we are aware of to advance understanding of didgeridoo acoustics as it relates to didgeridoo craft techniques and processes.

There are also didgeridoo craft innovators who have done much to expand the form of the didgeridoo through experimenting with industrial materials.  Simon “Si” Mullumbuy of the Australian band Wild Marmalade worked with didgeridoo craftsmen to develop carbon fiber, fiberglass, and hemp didgeridoos that are lightweight for travel, but also possess the hardness necessary to produce sounds similar to hardwood didgeridoos.  The durability of carbon fiber in particular also does much to stand up to the impacts often sustained by musical instruments that spend much time on the road.

Tyler Spencer at Primaltones creates modular hardwood didgeridoos and bamboo slide didgeridoos that have also changed the “traditional” form of the instrument, so that it may now be played within the context of Euro-American standards of tuning and notation.  These instruments are particularly appealing to contemporary musicians who wish to perform in multiple keys without being forced to transport multiple didgeridoos.

William Thoren at WET Didgeridoo also innovated upon the form of the didgeridoo – and as a result, the instrument’s acoustic range – by developing a trumpet-like didgeridoo mouthpiece that advanced the ability for didgeridoo players to access multiple drones and a wide array of horntones in a single instrument. This innovation appears particularly useful for players who wish to collaborate with bands playing in genres such as funk, hip-hop, rock and electronica.

The above-mentioned innovations and yet others notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether or not further exploration of  the mechanisms of didgeridoo sound production will lead to new innovations in the form and capacities of the didgeridoo. Experimentation with CNC, 3D printing, and a wide array of industrial materials may lead to more precise understandings of the ways didgeridoo sounds can be controlled and modulated, leading to the production of didgeridoos with easily accessible and perfectly tuned horn tones that may be produced reliably and easily, pentatonically tuned multi-drones, didgeridoos whose fundamentals are so low that only the harmonics are audible to the human ear, or didgeridoos whose vocal resonances are optimized for perfect pitch barks and vocalizations.

Experimentation with modular components may also allow for significant innovations in didgeridoo sound production. Such innovations may allow players to alter more than just the fundamental pitch of the instrument; modular components will help to reliably produce horn tones perfectly tuned to the fundamental, optimized vocal pitches for varying fundamentals, or variously tuned and isolated harmonic frequencies. We’ve seen successful implementation of modular components already succeed in several innovative didgeridoo designs.

In addition to innovations in didgeridoo form, further exploration of integration of electronics into the didgeridoo is also needed.  For years, musicians have struggled with ways to effectively amplify the didgeridoo. Though sufficient microphones exist, integrated amplification is still a largely unexplored frontier.  Integrated amplification may lead to advances in didgeridoo sound modulation through the use of secondary sound processing pedals and sound boards in ways that microphone inputs do not fully allow.

Built in amplification may also benefit from the recent use of Bluetooth technology and its integration into instrument output and soundboard input channels, presenting a tremendously exciting possibility for didgeridoo amplification. Integration of onboard amplification mechanisms would also allow for the possibility of integrating onboard user controlled sampling technology. For technical and creative direction toward this end, we may look to the innovative Roli Seaboard keyboard and concept of multidimensionality in musical instrument production.

What if craftsmen were able to build into the surface of the didgeridoo means by which to modulate the sound of the instrument, add percussion sections, or even play melody over the drone, using the touch of a players’ hands? The additive sound controls could be contoured and affixed to the exterior of the instrument in ways similar to Roli keyboards. Built upon a carbon fiber body, a lightweight and technologically advanced didgeridoo may help bring the character of the didgeridoo–once seen as “primitive”–into conversation with the latest innovative musical concepts and technologies.

While these prototype concepts may prove to be completely impractical on account of current lack of consumer demand to support production, there is perhaps some possibility of generating a following behind such an innovative instrument if we leverage one current trend of dissatisfaction found among electronic musicians and audiences.  Many musicians and audiences report that musical performances driven by laptops and electronic equipment lack the performative vigor of acoustic musicianship. Though current music production technology amplifies the capacities of a single musician to produce sounds that once required full orchestras and beyond, the mystique and dynamism of acoustic musicianship has been drained from the stage and from the body of the musician.  Sadly, much of today’s musical landscape is often dominated by virtual musicianship and absentee performance.

In response to the decreased technical need for musicianship, many musicians take reactionary steps, retreating too far into the imagined past to find “real” instruments. These musicians bring with them to recording studios and the stage instruments like Greek lutes, the hurdy gurdy, and others.  The didgeridoo – given its “traditional” popular perception – may also solve the nostalgic quandary computerized musicians face, forcing at least some tactile relations and physical skill back into musicianship; yet with the proposed electronic modifications listed above, may also add to the instrument a futuristic aesthetic and functional appeal, thus allowing Aboriginal peoples a prominent position as cultural contributors to global, electronic, futuristic, musical genres, thus escaping from the “primitive” image often associated with them.


Critique of romantic interpretations of Aboriginal cultures can equally be leveled at professional curators and interpreters that develop work focused on Aboriginal peoples for art gallery, museum, and documentary film audiences.  The typical line of critique of the way Aboriginal arts are commonly interpreted in exhibitions runs something like: Aboriginal painting and various arts are displayed more frequently in natural history museums than in cultural history museums.  This leads many social observers to correctly point out that non-Aboriginal people continue to hold onto a misperception of Aboriginal people as “primitive” – less cultural and more natural – than non-Aboriginal people. Unfortunately, this bias finds its roots in colonial European rhetoric that justified colonial violence and appropriation of Aboriginal lands and peoples; colonial Europeans espoused the belief that Aboriginal peoples were less evolved physically and mentally than Europeans.

As mentioned in the section above on didgeridoo craft, the “primitive” and “traditional” image of the didgeridoo is no longer an image that serves to intentionally justify an active policy of colonialism; however, we see that many fans and aficionados of the didgeridoo tend to highlight the “primitive” and “traditional” perceptions of the didgeridoo and use those perceptions as a way of building their own social capital in their respective societies. For example, it is no accident that most American and European-based didgeridoo festivals take place in rural environments, somewhere hidden in the woods.  While many who host and participate in the festivals treat the terms “primitive” and “traditional” with a certain reverence, the unfortunate side-effect for Aboriginal peoples is one that maintains a “primitive” image of Aboriginal culture that stymies Aboriginal cultural participation in global, innovative projects.

The 1980s, 1990s and 2000s saw movements toward reframing contemporary Aboriginal art as high art in effort to recognize the cultural achievements of Aboriginal artists and to level mismatched playing fields inherited from the colonial era (for masterful treatments of issues surrounding the international trade in Aboriginal art, see Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art by Fred Meyers and Primitive Art in Civilized Places by Sally Price).

Though these movements certainly produced successful Aboriginal artists and helped to reframe Aboriginal art in ways that move the genre out of the natural history museum and into the art world, Aboriginal art production and curation is a rarefied world, with very few Aboriginal artists creating works that make it into museum and private collections.  The relatively few producers of high end Aboriginal arts also must cater their art production to the tastes of an equally minor number of collectors, many of whom seek to secure the value of their art investments, demands which typically constrain rather than encourage innovative moves in Aboriginal art production.

With the movements for high Aboriginal art several decades behind us now, much of Aboriginal art production generally seems to be at a bit of a standstill. In our estimation, Aboriginal artists are also in need of integrating some innovative moves into their art production to bring new interest to Aboriginal art and to help reframe the roles Aboriginal artists and exhibitors fill.  Where are the new generations of Aboriginal artists integrating their painting styles into trends of emergent art production? Where are the deconstructionist Yolngu artists and critics producing alternative narratives of Yolngu history? Where are the activist Yolngu, developing politically motivated guerilla performance art? These questions are not to insinuate that these movements and individuals do not exist, nor that Yolngu use and appreciate art in the same ways as art is currently generated in urbane academic circles, we at AAI are simply unaware whether or not these artists exist.

That said, we have encountered  a few innovative contemporary Aboriginal artists that we admire who produce painted art, museum installations, and interpretive, documentary style film.   For example, Barayuwa Mununggur of the Wandawuy outstation paints enormous 3-D murals that mix the pointillism and dot-painting styles of the Djapu and Munyuku clan designs with innovations in muralism and installation art.  His artwork is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney.

In the realm of documentary film and interpretive arts, Jennifer Deger and Paul Gurruwuruwuy created the incredible 2014 short film Ringtone that features interviews with Yolngu people who play their cell phone ringtones for the camera and discuss why they chose their particular ringtones. This film was screened at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. on November 4th, 2014 (though, unfortunately, the film was screened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), helping to ground public perceptions of Yolngu in the present and illustrates that Yolngu are integrally connected to the global world.

The recent documentary film In Between Songs (mentioned above) by Joshua Bell in collaboration with the Gurruwiwi family also provides an intimate view into the contemporary lives of Yolngu Aboriginal families and how their Yolngu identity meets with the forces of global economies and the spread of nationalism.  This film does much to engage art gallery and museum patroning audiences and provide alternative narratives of Yolngu identity and history.

Given the popularity and prominence of Aboriginal art and music that lead to the production of the above art installations and documentary films (and for that matter, the ubiquity of Yolngu Facebook accounts) it would seem that Yolngu and other Aboriginal peoples will have a difficult time selling Aboriginal arts that continue to forward a “primitive” and “traditional” image. Perhaps a compelling strategy for contemporary Aboriginal artists would be to contrast their new artistic productions and performances with outmoded exhibition methods in effort to shine light on the ways curators of past decades have presented Yolngu history through the biased lens of institutionalized museum praxis.

And what of newly created, innovative didgeridoos and their role in altering the established museum image of Aboriginal peoples and of the didgeridoo as a global instrument? We envision an exhibition that illustrates innovations in the didgeridoo that have occured as the didgeridoo circulated the globe during the past 30 years. Let’s pull didgeridoo performers out of forest gatherings and get them into prominent venues, develop an exhibition and performance series that brings the innovations in didgeridoo production and performance to the world.  It is high time that the global collaborations between inventive Yolngu and non-Yolngu are presented to the world, or at the very least, that such a goal is established and actively pursued.

There is much work yet to be done.


In the last few decades, the didgeridoo made its way onto stages representing a variety of musical genres.  Looking up from the audience, didgeridoos appear alongside drum sets, guitars, DJs, vocalists, belly dancers, fire spinners, quartets, and full blown orchestras. Yet, as in the section above, regardless of what instruments and performers the didgeridoo plays alongside, the didgeridoo still tends to fill the “primitive” and “traditional” roll within these performative spaces.

For example, watch this video of Yothu Yindi  performing the song “Treaty”:

We see totally contemporary Aboriginal musicians performing on an technologically contemporary stage, replete with microphones, amplifiers and a projection screen.  You’ll no doubt notice that one musician wears “traditional” Yolngu dress and body paint. There is nothing wrong with representation of Yolngu past and mythology; it makes an obvious point – somewhat heavy handedly – that Yolngu have their own musical stylings and performative adornments in contrast to the homogenizing global world.

However, in our view, the Yothu Yindi band – though clearly performing instruments that are not derived from the Yolngu past – are performing these instruments in a uniquely Yolngu way.  That is to say, the Yolngu Matha lyrics, the physical appearance of the performers, the aesthetic character of the music, even the sounds of the didgeridoo, already communicate to the world that these are Yolngu musicians; there is no need to dress the didgeridoo performer as though he is “primitive” and “traditional”.  Why not allow the didgeridoo and the didgeridoo player to appear just as contemporary as the rest of the band and the rest of the band’s instruments?

Certainly, Yothu Yindi did more to successfully popularize the didgeridoo and Yolngu music than any Yolngu group previous or prior, but where is the new generation to carry the torch? What if we saw Yolngu performers take their musical ideas, instruments, etc. and fully join contemporary global movements in music?  Not that Yolngu should leave behind their historical and mythical ideas and identities, but rather, Yolngu musicians should apply their musical concepts to global performative trends and create something still identifiably Yolngu but also strikingly innovative.

For example, there are some Yolngu rap and hip-hop artists emerging, but none that I am aware of have made it into a level of pop-awareness, even in Australia.  Yolngu interest in hip-hop seems a natural fit, given similarities of experience between African American communities – which birthed rap and hip-hop – and Australian Aboriginal peoples (this isn’t to say that these communities occupy the same space politically and socially; rather, hip-hop and rap developed out of and were inspired by African American blues and jazz, musics that expressed the feelings of marginalized peoples.  It is safe to say that many Aboriginal peoples experience forces of marginalization).

Beyond rap and hip-hop, where are the Yolngu artists performing in electronic dance music, club, house, etc.?  The sounds of the didgeridoo lend themselves so perfectly to the crashing bass and distorted futuristic harmonies and melodies of electronic genres.  Given the innovative technologies involved in the production of electronic dance music, an Aboriginal EDM performer would bring together two seemingly opposed perceptions: the Aboriginal musician as representative of an ancient, pre-technological past, and the technologically adaptive and innovative EDM stage as an image of progress and possibility.  The joining of these two opposite images would produce an uncanny shock for audiences, and a step toward dismantling stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples and the rolls they are allowed to fill.

While more than a bit over the top as an example, here we are made to think of the recent worldwide success the film Black Panther enjoyed.  As mentioned above, there are many parallels between Australian Aboriginal peoples and African Americans, beyond skin tone.  In a way, a futuristic didgeridoo performance artist could create a movement for Australian Aboriginal empowerment that in someway would resemble the expressions of African American empowerment in Black Panther. No longer trapped by a traumatic, colonial identity, the didgeridoo performer of the future charts a new course toward the spread of an empowered and prosperous Aboriginal identity.

There are several non-Yolngu didgeridoo players who have taken the didgeridoo in a futuristic – or atleast contemporary – direction, but unfortunately, many of these performers still leave one foot in the past, referencing in one way or another the “traditional” character of the didgeridoo.  We absolutely LOVE the Australian group Wild Marmalade. Simon “Si” Mullumbuy, the headman and didgeridoo player for the group emphasizes his respect for the Aboriginal ownership of the didgeridoo, but has developed his own playing style that draws from a variety of musical genres’ percussive approaches. Here is Wild Marmalade’s promotional video, illustrating the band’s performance style:

Si’s didgeridoos are made from industrial materials, the music is totally contemporary, upbeat, energetic, and exciting. That said, his rhythms are typically polyrhythms taken from West African and Northern Indian musical styles that are “traditional” genres. On the Wild Marmalade website, the marketing language declares that Si is an innovative and contemporary didgeridoo player – a claim we do not at all dispute – but also discusses Si’s goal of “invigorating life through the power of breath” as well as his production of didgeridoo music for yoga classes.  While there is nothing wrong with any of this, the linkage between didgeridoo and yoga and vaguely spiritualized notions about the breath maintains a general conceptualization of the didgeridoo as “primitive” and “traditional”.

We at AAI appreciate Aboriginal heritage and have dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy learning about and working toward the promotion of Aboriginal arts and music.  This article is not meant to degrade, insult, or cast shame upon the use of “primitive” and “traditional” imagery, but rather, to explore possible paths for innovative aesthetic choices that may open new paths for didgeridoo craftspersons, interpreters, and performers.  We hope this provides food for thought and some inspiration for developing a series of innovative didgeridoo projects!

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Cultural Appropriation or Collaborative Translation?: “White” People Building Didgeridoo with Yolngu Permission https://www.austindidgeridoo.com/appropriation-or-collaboration-didgeridoo-and-the-global-world/ https://www.austindidgeridoo.com/appropriation-or-collaboration-didgeridoo-and-the-global-world/#respond Wed, 06 Dec 2017 22:20:47 +0000 http://austindidgeridoo.com/?p=349

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 didgeman.com!”

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, YidakiStory.com.

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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Didgeridoo Craft Apprenticeship with Djalu Gurruwiwi and Family https://www.austindidgeridoo.com/didgeridoo-craft-apprenticeship-with-djalu-gurruwiwi-and-family/ https://www.austindidgeridoo.com/didgeridoo-craft-apprenticeship-with-djalu-gurruwiwi-and-family/#respond Fri, 01 Dec 2017 18:49:03 +0000 http://austindidgeridoo.com/?p=318
Djalu Gurruwiwi (left) and Eliot Stone (right) craft a fishing spear while camping on Yolngu lands at Gikal.

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.”

An island in the center of a crescent shaped bay on the Arafura Sea coastline.

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.

The Bauxite mine near Nhullunbuy on the Gove Peninsula.

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.

Termites crawl on devoured chunks of Stringy Bark Eucalyptus after a hollow tree trunk was felled for use as a didgeridoo.

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.

Lena Gurruwiwi cuts through the trunk of a Eucalyptus 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!”

I responded,

“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?”.

Vernon Gurruwiwi (left) tests the sound quality of a hollow Eucalyptus log with Omid Larritjani (right).

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.

Eliot Stone, Omid Larritjani, Tony Lazerine, and Ron Crose (in order from left to right) craft didgeridoos on Djalu Gurruwiwi’s back porch.

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.

Omid Larritjani (left) and Djalu Gurruwiwi (right) listen to the sounds of newly crafted clap sticks.

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).

Djalu Gurruwiwi (left) plays didgeridoo for Ron Crose (right).

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,


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.


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