Innovations and Future Directions in Didgeridoo Production, Performance, and Exhibition

Posted by Austin Didgeridoo on December 6, 2017 in Uncategorized


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.

Craft

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.

Exhibition

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.

Performance

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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