The Didgeridoo – Everything You Need to Know
The didgeridoo (or didje as some call it) is an Australian Aboriginal instrument that looks like a long wooden pipe or tube. These instruments are traditionally made from wood by hollowing out the branch of a tree. The hollow tube has an oil finish and is embellished with traditional art.
The Didgeridoo is often spelled didjeridu, which is an aboriginal word, and it is also referred to as a yirdaki or yidaki, mandapul, or mako. The etymology of the word is unknown, but it may be derived from the Irish words dúdaire or dúidire, meaning puffer, hummer, trumpeter, long-necked person, and constant smoker.
Although a didgeridoo is made from hardwoods like eucalyptus species and acts as a ‘drone pipe’, it is classified as a brass instrument because the same techniques are used to play it.
The traditional didgeridoo can vary in shape, size, and finish. There are a lot of popular and modern variations using more durable or cheaper materials as well. Beginners prefer to buy a cheap bamboo or synthetic version because they are lightweight and affordable. However, nowadays, you can find didgeridoos made from fiberglass and other materials from various makers.
- The Didgeridoo – At A Glance
- Didgeridoo construction, tuning, and techniques
- How Do You Play a Didgeridoo?
- Where did the didgeridoo come from?
- What is a didgeridoo used for?
- Is the didgeridoo hard to play?
- Who are the best didgeridoo players in the world?
- How many notes can a didgeridoo play?
- Can non-Aboriginal people play the didgeridoo?
- 5 lesser-known facts about the didgeridoo
- What is the most famous Aboriginal instrument?
The Didgeridoo – At A Glance
- The didgeridoo is a traditional Australian Aboriginal instrument made from hollowed-out wood, with various modern variations available.
- It’s played by vibrating the lips and manipulating air pressure to produce sound.
- The instrument is used in Aboriginal ceremonies and contemporary music, with notable players including David Blanasi, Si Mullumby, and Charlie McMahon.
- Each didgeridoo is tuned to a specific note and can produce a single note, but advanced techniques allow for more complex sounds.
- While there are ethical considerations, non-Aboriginal people often play the didgeridoo, and it’s one of the most famous Aboriginal instruments.
- Other traditional Aboriginal instruments include the bullroarer, gum leaf, and clapsticks.
Didgeridoo construction, tuning, and techniques
One end of the didgeridoo is called the mouthpiece – this is where you place your mouth to play the instrument. The other end has a bell curve to improve the amplification of the sounds you create. The mid-part is called the body. On the mouthpiece end, there is a rim of beeswax. Their length can differ from 1 meter to 3 meters, but most of them are around 1.2 meters.
Each didgeridoo is tuned to a key, and when you blow into the long tube, it creates a deep, resonant sound due to the air pressure. You can find didgeridoos tuned in C, B, F#, G, and even high A, but these are rare.
There are certain techniques you can learn to manipulate the sound and create rhythmic accents using volume and timber. This includes, first and foremost, understanding the basic circular breathing technique. Then, you can implement the lip buzz, hum, or even start using your tongue while producing notes.
How Do You Play a Didgeridoo?
The instrument should be played with a meditative mindset, and it is considered to be a spiritual experience.
- You should find a comfortable posture or use the traditional cross-legged posture with a straight back and shoulders.
- Place the instrument on your bare foot without letting it touch the ground.
- Once in contact with the ground, the sound may sound muddy or distorted.
- Now, establish a basic hand grip by cradling the body in the palm of your primary hand (right hand if you are right-handed) with your index finger pointing away from you.
- The other hand (the left one, in this case) should be placed around the mouthpiece to balance the instrument.
- The basic drone – the first step to playing the didgeridoo – is to learn how to blow air by vibrating your lips. To do this, you must relax all your facial muscles and vibrate your lips as you gently blow.
- Once you can create a sound, you should proceed to place your lips on the instrument and seal them on the mouthpiece. You will be using the didgeridoo as an amplifier for the sounds you create.
- Keep your lips firm but not too tight against the mouthpiece, and try different positions until you are comfortable. Some people align the lips directly, and others prefer to play from the side of the mouth.
- Once you learn to drone, you can alter the tension of your lips to alter the sound of the instrument. For instance, if you tighten your lips, the instrument will sound more high-pitched, and if you release the tension, it will be more guttural.
- More advanced techniques include using the diaphragm, tapping the tongue on the teeth, and various rolls of the tongue to create additional sounds. These advanced techniques need to be practiced and studied in detail until you learn to control your facial muscles.
A few minutes to an hour of practice a day will lead to steady progress, and it can be invaluable if you have an experienced player to guide you through the process.
This video is a good resource for beginners who want to understand the basics of the instrument.
Where did the didgeridoo come from?
The didgeridoo is arguably one of the oldest wind instruments in the world. There is no known date of origin for the didgeridoo, but archaeologists believe that it originated among Aboriginal people of Northern Australia over 1500 years ago.
The exact origin of the instrument is Arnhem Land, in Northern Australia, where the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land lived. There is a rock art in Arnhem Land that was created in the freshwater period 1500 years ago, depicting a man playing a didgeridoo in a ceremony. Also, the Kakadu region in Northern Australia has many rock paintings showing didgeridoo. The study of rock art is one of the main resources for exploring the history of didgeridoo and Aboriginal people.
What is a didgeridoo used for?
Traditionally, a didgeridoo plays an important role in Aboriginal ceremonies and music. It was an instrument that was used to create stories and teach values to the communities through the sounds of nature. It is still used as accompaniment in every cultural ceremony of Aboriginal communities in Australia.
Today, it has become a part of contemporary music, fusion music, and world music in various avatars. Modern didgeridoo players are distinct from traditional players, and they use vastly different instruments to suit the needs of their genre/style. Many of these instruments have a non-traditional shape and use modern materials to improve durability and playability.
Is the didgeridoo hard to play?
As with all instruments, the didgeridoo is easy to learn but hard to master. Some people learn the basics within a day or two, and others can achieve this with an hour’s practice within a few weeks. There are some children as young as 3 or 4 years of age who can play the didgeridoo. In fact, they say that anyone who can fog a mirror with their breath can play the didgeridoo.
Who are the best didgeridoo players in the world?
David Blanasi, an Australian Aborigine, is the man who brought international attention to the didgeridoo. Si Mullumby is one of the best modern didge players in the world today, and he tours with his band Wild Marmalade – a high-energy act that has been performing globally for the past ten years.
Charlie McMahon is another skilled player and is one of the main proponents of contemporary didgeridoo playing. He performed around the world with Midnight Oil and then went on to form his own band called the Gondwanaland Project.
This was the first time the didgeridoo was the centerpiece of an ensemble, and McMahon went on to release 12 albums with his band and performed all over the world.
Other didgeridoo virtuosos include busker-turned-musician Alan Dargin (Australia), Alex Meyer (Austria), Adele Blanchin (France), Ansgar Stein (Germany), and many others.
How many notes can a didgeridoo play?
Each didgeridoo is keyed to a particular note (D note, for example) and can only toot one note because there is only one hole and no way to change, modify, or alter the length of the instrument.
However, different types of sounds and sound waves can be created by lip position, the shape of the mouthpiece, and manipulating the tongue and cheeks. You can also create overtones or use slider didges to play multiple notes, and certain advanced techniques can be applied to create higher notes as you would with a bugle.
Can non-Aboriginal people play the didgeridoo?
There are some ethical conundrums regarding this issue. It is largely considered okay for non-Aboriginal people to play the instrument. However, some people are of the opinion that it is unfitting to appropriate aboriginal culture. But, many non-aboriginal musicians have played the didgeridoo and achieved global success. Certain aboriginal communities have restrictions on women playing or even touching the instrument.
5 lesser-known facts about the didgeridoo
- It’s arguably one of the oldest wind instruments.
- It is often made from eucalyptus tree trunks hollowed out by termites.
- It was used as an accompanying instrument for singers and dancers in religious rituals.
- It is only played by men in certain tribal groups.
- It is the official sound of Australia.
What is the most famous Aboriginal instrument?
The didgeridoo is the most famous Aboriginal instrument. But the Aborigines also played two other instruments called the bullroarer and the gum-leaf. Besides these three instruments, the Aborigines also used clapsticks to maintain rhythm during voice chants.
The bullroarer, also known as a turndun or rhombus, is a thin rectangular slat that is sharp around the edge and attached to a long cord. This cord is given an initial twist and whirled around in circles in the air (like chopper blades) to create a roar. You can watch it in action here.
The gum leaf, as the name suggests, is literally the leaf of the Eucalyptus tree that is played like a hand-held free-reed instrument and sounds like a mouth trumpet. You can watch it in this video.
The didgeridoo may have originated as a ceremonial instrument, but today, it has crossed over into many new and exciting directions. There are many exemplary players who push the boundaries of the instrument and use it in innovative ways.
You can see many of these maestros compete in exciting events like didge-battles that have a huge online following. Once you master the basics, you can explore some nifty techniques like beatboxing through a didgeridoo from these guys.