Women Playing Didgeridoo

Women and the Didgeridoo... Taboo?
Facts dissolve the myth about women playing the didgeridoo

women playing didgeridooA book to be published by HarperCollins has a chapter on how to play the didgeridoo. It's an activity book for girls. That's cool, unless you're name is Mark Rose, an Australian academic, and you are bent on perpetuating a myth that girls or women should not play the instrument.

Furthermore, Rose got himself so worked up while being interviewed by a reporter that he reversed the outcome of the more familiar hex. The popular conception was that if an aboriginal woman touched or played a didgeridoo she'd become pregnant. Rose advises that women would become infertile. That's a new one! And not just aboriginal women, but all women everywhere that dare to defy the phony taboo. After the story was published, Rose conceded that his remarks were "ill-considered". But the damage and perpetuation of this myth had been done.

So where and when did this interpolated rumor start? Having witnessed it myself I feel qualified to answer that... By the early 90s the didgeridoo was becoming popular at souvenir shops in Sydney and Melbourne. Inner city, mixed race "aborigines" would taunt female tourists with the myth to deter sales (because many art gallery and souvenir shop owners were non-aboriginal, seen profiting from aboriginal crafts). Far from didgeridoo country, these embittered men cultivated their own legend about the instrument based entirely on misinformation. In fact, didgeridoo master and lawman David Blanasi (Beswick) told me in 1999 that the whole "woman have too many baby" story was a "joke" based on the didgeridoo's size and shape. Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land never intended for the joke to be taken seriously.

A customer of mine was told by a half-caste fella in Melbourne not to play the didgeridoo because it was a phallic symbol. She quickly retorted, "I didn't realize it would be more acceptable for men to be playing phallic symbols with their mouths." That shut the perverted person up immediately. Another woman was hit in the face by a man in Western Australia for playing the didgeridoo. Yes, physical assault on a woman by a half-caste fella based on a rumor that began as a joke! You never hear stories like this coming from Arnhem Land (in red on the map below) which is the only place in Australia where the didgeridoo is used in traditional ceremony.

arnhem land didgeridoo mapThe recent revelations of this truth has been forged over many years of communication with didgeridoo lawkeepers and embedded cultural authorities. There are myriad articles and statements by aboriginal men and women of high degree that contradict the myth, but none that back it up. I am disappointed that an educated adult man and a newspaper reporter consider such voodoo newsworthy in the 21st century.

That said, many legends begin with some hint at truth. Within traditional ceremony the didgeridoo is only played by men. The sound is used to accompany song and dance, and that's where the context of "men's business" regarding the instrument begins and ends. The myth in question was created and spread by (mostly) self-professed "cultural authorities" living far from Arnhem Land where the instrument has its roots and, more importantly, its lawkeepers. What began as misinformation evolved into a "curse" which fed the Western ideals of noble savages and their magic.


It's unjustifiable for any person, aboriginal or not
(like Rose) to literally invent a story about the didgeridoo
that does not come from its place of origin.


Pushing all the contention aside, one only needs to visit Buku Larrngay Mulka, an aboriginal art center in the heart of didgeridoo country. Many of the finest didgeridoos (called yidaki up there) are decorated by Yolngu women. I've been to Arnhem Land and I've put the question of this taboo to aboriginal didgeridoo masters like David Blanasi and Djalu Gurruwiwi, both lawmen of high degree. According to these absolute authorities there is no law forbidding women to play the didgeridoo. The crafting, painting, and distribution of didgeridoos is a gift from the oldest living culture on the planet for everyone to enjoy, regardless of gender.

Worst of all is how so many men and women from Australia's south and west still tell others that women are not allowed to play. And then there's the absolute ridiculousness of saying a woman will get pregnant or barren by touching one. None of that has any cultural relevance at all in didgeridoo country. It's a tall tale founded upon misinformation, not a rule. So, all you didgeridoo sisters, play to your heart's content with joy, and help share the truth.

Barry Martin

Articles and quotes from
aboriginal sources in Arnhem Land

From Aboriginal Lawkeepers!

For genuine and easily accessible information about women playing the didgeridoo (or yidaki), including several video testimonials by aboriginal lawkeepers, visit this link to an aboriginal owned website in Arnhem Land: Yirrkala.com

Excerpt from the book:

The Didgeridoo, from Arnhem Land to Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeld

This aims to clarify some misunderstandings of the role of didjeridoo in traditional Aboriginal culture, in particular the popular conception that it is taboo for women to play or even touch a didgeridoo.

While it is true that in the traditional didgeridoo accompanied genres of Northern Australia, (e.g. Wangga and Bunggurl) women do not play in public ceremony, in these areas there appears to be few restrictions on women playing in an informal capacity. The area in which there are the strictest restrictions on women playing and touching the didgeridoo appears to be in the south east of Australia, where in fact didgeridoo has only recently been introduced.

aboriginal woman playing the didgeridooMy understanding of Aboriginal culture in Australia has been formed as an academic ethnomusicologist, through acquaintance with the ethnomusicological and anthropological literature as well as through personal contact, during classes and fieldwork, with the Aboriginal people in a number of communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

It is true that traditionally women have not played the didgeridoo in ceremony. However let us review the evidence for Aboriginal women playing didgeridoo in informal situations. In discussions with women in the Belyuen community near Darwin in 1995. I was told that there was no prohibition on women playing and in fact several of the older women mentioned a women in the Daly River area who used to play the didgeridoo.

In a discussion with men from Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar and Gunbalanya it was agreed that there was no explicit Dreaming Law that women should not play didgeridoo, it was more that women did not know how to. From Yirrkala, there are reports that while both boys and girls as young children play with toy instruments, within a few years, girls stop playing the instrument in public. There are reports that women engage in preparation of didgeridoos for sale to tourists also playing instruments to test their usability. Reports of women playing the didgeridoo are especially common in the Kimberley and Gulf regions the Westerly and Easterly extremes of it's distribution in traditional music. The didgeridoo has only begun to be played in these areas this century where it accompanies genres originally deriving from Arnhem Land (Bunggurl) or the Daly region (Wangga, Lirrga and Gunborrg).

The clamour of conflicting voices about the use of didgeridoo by women and by outsiders has drawn attention to the potential for international exploitation and appropriation of traditional music and other Aboriginal cultural property. In addition, the debate has drawn to international attention the fact that there are levels of the sacred and the secret in traditional Aboriginal beliefs, many of them restricted according to gender. Perhaps the didgeridoo in this case is functioning as a false front, standing in for other truly sacred and restricted according to Aboriginal ceremonial life that it can not be named in public. In this way, the spiritualising of the didgeridoo not only panders to the commercial New Age niche, but also serves as a means of warning non-Aboriginal people to be wary of inquiring too closely into sacred matters.

Excerpt from the book:
Didjeridu Dreaming by Adrian Parker

One commonly held misnomer is that non-Aboriginal women should not play the didgeridoo – that it is taboo to all women. The inhabitants of the Kakadu and Western Arnhem Land, the region where the instrument originated, maintain that it is perfectly O.K. for Western women to play. “It's a Culture thing. Balanda daluk (white women) are not Binninj (Aboriginal). They can play. Different culture.”

From am interview with Alex Nganjmirra in 1996.

Excerpt from the book:
The Didjeridu, from Arnhem Land To The Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeld

Reports of (Aboriginal) women playing didgeridoo are especially common in the Kimberleys and the Gulf regions, the westerly and easterly extremes of it's distribution in traditional music. The didgeridoo has only begun to be played in these areas this (20th) century (Alice Moyle, 1974), where it accompanies genres originally derived from Arnhem Land (bunggurl) or the Daly region (wangga, lirrga and gunborrg).

For the gulf area, Alice Moyle's recording Aboriginal Sound Instruments (1978), contains a track, recorded at Borroloola in the eastern Northern Territory in 1966, of Jemima Wimalu, a Mara woman from Roper River, playing very accomplished didgeridoo (track 1b side 2 – see notes and transcription in Moyle, 1978: 17 – 18, 48). Elizabeth Mackinlay, an ethnomusicologist working with women from the neighbouring Yantuwa group, reports women playing didgeridoo, adopted recently from Mara people, in both informal and public performances (personal communication, 1996).


In Conclusion

As the didgeridoo continues to gain popularity around the world it's important that the cultural information we share with others about it are based on fact, not fiction. For instance, it's a fact that the didgeridoo can be dated as far back as 1,500 to 2,000 years. But how many times have you heard or read that the instrument is the oldest in the world dating back 40,000 years or more? Humbug. The aboriginal people have been in Australia that long, but their culture (including artefacts like the didgeridoo) have evolved over millennia. A whitefella "history" of the didgeridoo is being spun on the back of CD covers by individuals and record companies looking to sell you on the "ancient mystique of the noble savage". Let's not disseminate cultural information from the back of a CD.

I would say that Wikipedia's content is much closer to reality. And getting the info as true as possible is one way we can all "pay forward" justice to the aboriginal culture in Australia that is sharing this wonderful instrument with us.

Barry Martin