Didjeridu History

A Version of Didjeridu History

by Ed Drury

djalu guruwiwi crafting didjeridu
tom kelly yidaki craftsman
yolgnu boys playing yidaki
arnhemland countryside
Djalu Gurruwiwi
yidaki craftsman
Tom Kelly painting
a mago (didgeridoo)
Yolngu boys at Yirrkala,
N.E. Arnhem Land
The beach at Nhulinbuy,
N.E. Arnhemland


efore I can begin to talk about the didjeridu, I have to introduce some words that you may or may not already be familiar with. The first is Yolngu (pronounced Yol´nu). Yolngu is a group of languages spoken throughout Northeastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territories, Australia. The word literally means "people". It is the word which the indigenous people from that part of the land use to describe themselves collectively. These people, the Yolngu people, are the custodians of their land, art, songs and music. They are the "traditional" keepers of knowledge about these things and the traditional owners of whom I speak in reference to the didjeridu. Their word
for the didjeridu is Yirdaki (pronounced Yi´dakee). When they speak of "Balanda", they are referring to people like myself who are not Yolngu, but rather of European heritage either culturally or genetically. That word comes from their earliest visitors, the Makassans. It is derived from the world "Hollander" - a more recent visitor to their lands, the Dutch explorers.

When I talk about the history of the didjeridu, I'm talking about the awareness of non-Aboriginal people of an instrument. The greater history is really only known by a relatively small number of people - the traditional owners. The traditional owners history is far older and can not be told by outsiders. It perhaps can be told to outsiders, but not by them. This is because the culture the didjeridu comes from has its own way of keeping history and of passing on information. Our way is different, and in that different way I can only speak of what has been reported about the instrument since knowledge of it spread beyond the safe keeping of the traditional owners.

I can speak of what is written in text books and taught in schools. This is the way my culture reckons history and passes on information. I don't believe for a minute that our way is better. It is, in fact , proven to be fallible and inaccurate. The Aboriginal way is proven over thousands of years, while our way has repeatedly found itself filled with contradictions, misunderstandings and political agenda.

Information about the didjeridu came to the world in stages or "waves." These waves were: discovery, anthropological studies, appropriation by contemporary musicians, instrument sales and finally, internet discussion lists and web pages. With each wave came different aspects or "spins" on the information which has taken on a life of its own.

The Yothu Yindi Foundation, in a 1999 newsletter, eloquently expressed an Aboriginal perspective on the issue of appropriation of the instrument. "...Yet Yolngu people are
concerned that the emergence of a global culture and the commercialization of the Yidaki has the potential to separate the Yidaki from its origins in the sacred stories which are at the heart of the songs. Ritual leaders of northeast Arnhem Land are calling for a new relationship with Balanda which recognizes the centrality of the Yidaki to the Aboriginal groups who by right and tradition have the Yidaki as one of the instruments of cultural expression." (Yothu Yindi Foundation Newsletter 1999)

The first wave: Discovery

Non-aboriginal people first documented encountering the didjeridu when an explorer named T.B. Wilson described an aboriginal man playing an instrument called the eboro in Raffles Bay on the Coburg Peninsula in 1835. He described the instrument as being made of bamboo and about three feet in length. The earliest references to the instrument all occur in the later part of the last century. In the century that followed, the instrument was observed by anthropologists on mainland Arnhem Land. The hard wood instruments particular to Arnhem Land (yirdakis) were usually crafted from eucalyptus species like "stringy bark" and "woolybutt" in the North, and Red River Gum further south near Katherine. There is also documentation of didjeridus made of palm even further south. By the time anthropologist Alice Moyle was publishing her field work in the mid 1970s, aboriginal groups where using found pipes such as land rover tailpipes and water pipes as didjeridus.

The Second Wave: The Anthropologists

Information about the didjeridu and the music to which it belonged began spreading to the outside world through the published accounts of anthropologists. This was the start of a separation of the use of the instrument from the cultural setting to which it owes its invention. It started in the early part of the last century and continues through present day. But the anthropologists where documenting the music through recordings, transcriptions of music and descriptive prose. In 1974 Prof. AP Elkin would write, "From 1927 on I had seen corroborees with their singing and dancing... but it was not until I made a survey in 1946, almost around Arnhem Land, that I realized the vitality and richness of the singing and dancing of that region. I therefore determined to make permanent records as soon as possible, so that musicians and dancers would be able to hear and see this part of Aboriginal culture, even if only at second hand."

The didjeridu, as recently as 100 years ago, had a restricted distribution in Australia. Earlier researchers such as Elkin (1938) noted that it was "only known in Eastern Kimberley and the northern third of the Northern Territory". Although now played around the globe, traditional playing style and technique is confined to this region.


A tremendous body of documentation resulted from these studies which included descriptive texts, field recordings and musical transcriptions. This work continues today revealing subtle changes in the instrument's distribution, influences from current events and recording technology which has improved dramatically since the early days. Field recordings were made commercially available and drew interest from a broader audience, but a lot of the attention focused on the instrument known as the didjeridu rather than the musical and cultural context in was in. The recordings often featured demonstrations of the sounds and rhythms of the didjeridu rather than its role as an accompaniment. Intended to showcase the instrument's range of harmonics and rhythmic accuracy, often these demonstrations (or solos) where mistaken to be traditional works by listeners. The notion of the didjeridu as an instrument of self expression began forming in western minds.

Traditionally, a typical performance will consist of one or more singers (one of whom is the lead songman), each with a pair of sticks or something else percussive (at times makeshift) and one didjeriduist. Some genres of music do not use didgeridoo, but where used, only one is ever played at a time. If for some reason a didjeriduist is unavailable, the piece can still be performed.

The Third Wave: Musicians

In the mid to late 1960s several musicians started to reference the didjeridu in their lyrics and include them in songs. Clancy Dunn's "Didgeridoo" song remains one of my favorites to this day. Rolf Harris' "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" contained one verse which contained the "new" word, "Didjeridu", and that song did as much for the word didjeridu as what Men at Work would later do for Vegemite™ in terms of introducing it to global usage. What could, to the rest of the world, be more Australian than Vegemite™ and the didjeridu?

Western music has an aspect to it which is commercial. It's quite common today to hear musical works referred to as "product" and rated according to "commercial viability". Use of instruments from older indigenous cultures became very popular in the closing decades of the last century spawning an entirely new category of commercial music called "World Fusion" or "World Beat" and "New Age". It is in recordings from these genres that most people first heard the instrument. An entire genre exists now in many shops as "Didjeridu Music". Amongst some recording artists the rush to record a CD of "Didjeridu Music" was almost a mission imperative resulting in hundreds if not thousands of CDs becoming available to the consumer almost overnight.

On the streets of cities throughout the world are performers playing didjeridu with various levels of ability. One of the most fascinating acts I've seen is a man named Ted Watkins, who juggles whilst balancing the didjeridu on his lips, eyes looking skyward and playing it!

The didjeridu has also successfully crossed genres into trance (Trance Mission), Celtic (Reconciliation), orchestral (Rencontres) just to name a few. But a few artists have also felt a need to identify their music with Australia and the indigenous population so strongly that they have put misleading statements in their liner notes or titles. Words like "Tribal" and "Traditional" are found on the covers of many CDs which have no traditional content. The sampling of traditional music and using those samples without permission or compensation has been done shamelessly, and for the most part gone without penalties. In the liner notes of many recordings you will find a "history" or story about the didjeridu, so our history of the instrument is constantly being "invented" in yet another area: CD sales.

The Fourth Wave: Instrument Sellers

With the global interest in the didjeridu accelerating, the demand for instruments quickly, albeit briefly, surpassed the supply. The market for instruments which could re-produce the sound heard on CDs, television, radio commercials and movie soundtracks had been established. But the consumer wanted more than just the instrument. They wanted help learning to play it and some kind of understanding of the culture it came from. The new industry was often more anxious to provide such information than it was to verify and authenticate what it said.

The vast majority of consumers want cultural information in so far as it validates their assumptions about that culture. What started out as an instrument primarily used by only a small group of indigenous people became associated with all Australian Aboriginals. These assumptions have placed the didjeridu in the middle of an imagined spiritual realm.

From the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, the separation of yirdaki from the culture owning its traditions became enormous. The misunderstandings about the culture itself became homogenized in the popular press and media. Ideas about who the traditional owners are and what they are like was forged through assumptions about them rather than direct contact with them. But all that is in the process of changing.

The Last Wave: The Internet

In 1994, my research on the didjeridu led me to start poking around the internet. In those days, the primary resource to start with was the various internet news groups. A small posting to one of the Australian groups grabbed my eye. It was a modest announcement about a mailing list called the didgeridoo Digest. I subscribed and, to my amazement, hadn't missed a lot. I was, in fact one of the first handful of people to participate. In the following years many websites were launched which contained elements of all the previous waves of information (and misinformation) about the didjeridu. There were didjeridu exporters, didjeridu makers, anthropologists, students and musicians - all putting up pages or extensive sites. The Dreamtime Web Server was originally a creation of Sean Borman. It was the first really complete resource on the web and now remains one of the most visible sites under the watch of Toyoji Tomita (founder of the Mills College didjeridu Digest Listserver).

Slowly, sites authored and maintained from within the Aboriginal Culture became available to anyone with web access. Connections are being made via email with people who have first hand knowledge about the music, the instruments and the culture in traditional lands of the didjeridu. As traditional people became involved with the World Wide Web, their immediate reaction was one of shock and dismay over the gap between the instrument and the culture as they knew it to be.

This should only serve to encourage more participation. I find it interesting that today there is more interest in traditional yirdaki than at any other time I can recall. The contemporary techniques of prolonged harmonic glides and wild vocalizations are easy enough to pick up from contemporary recordings, but the rhythmic power of traditional playing which prompted Trevor A. Jones to call the didjeridu a "rhythm instrument par excellence" are much harder to realize, perhaps impossible, without first hand instruction. All of this has the didgeridoo community, if you'll indulge me one pun, abuzz.

In 1999, the Yothu Yindi Foundation launched an event which allows participants to camp on Yolngu land and study yirdaki, matha (language) and crafts in a five day immersion with the Yolngu people. The Garma Festival is truly unique, but I think it will be seminal in creating more opportunities to learn directly from traditional people in much the same way as they have through generations of their own people. This is the future and the history of the didjeridu. Rather than being simply co-opted from the culture and advanced separately, it will surely lead non-aboriginal people closer to understanding its source and its true history. Musicians, instrument providers, educators and web authors who are in communication with the Aboriginal people have everything to gain and nothing to loose from the increasing voice of indigenous people. Those who continue to insist that they are experts, pretend to speak for a culture they are not part of, and make associations with the culture that are fictitious, will become obsolete. There is no reason for those practices. There never has been. Contemporary didgeridoo playing is firmly established and very popular. But the traditions of the Aboriginal people are not going to disappear. They will express their human right to self determination and the expression of their culture, language and knowledge in the generations to follow.

Contemporary musicians, instrument sellers and authors will only benefit from this fact if they are willing to truly be responsive rather than reactionary. Most important they must be prepared to drop the role of de-facto cultural educators at least long enough to become culturally educated.

Ed Drury


Ed Drury is a multi instrumentalist, composer, teacher, instrument maker and author. Classically trained as a trumpeter, Ed traded his trumpet for an electric guitar and was a well known side man and session musician on the west coast for the better part of the 1970's. In 1976, growing tired of road life, Ed returned to school and took an associate degree in Respiratory Care.

For more than ten years, music took a back seat while he branched into various roles in health care. He quit his hospital job in 1989 to pursue his first love, the study of various traditional music forms from around the world. Today he combines his experience with classical music and his love for traditional music forms by composing music inspired by his world travels and training as a healer.