History of the didjeridoo / Gunbarrk / yidaki
The Gunbarrk or Didjeridoo is most probably the oldest wood wind instrument in the world. From a European perspective, it is at least 6,000 years old; as this is the time images of men playing the instrument were painted in rock art of Arnhem land, Northern Territory, Australia.
Traditionally it was found amongst the “Top End” tribes of the Northern Territory, most notably Arnhem land people. However, it did find its way into the Kimberley Region, W.A. and to Mornington Island, Gulf of Carpentaria. This was mainly via the trade and ceremonial routes which exist in Aboriginal Australia.
Today the Didjeridoo is used by Aboriginal people, Australia wide. The instrument is seen as being part of the world wide view of Aboriginal identity.
Whilst the origin of the Didjeridoo varies from one tribal group to another, it is generally associated with the Rainbow Serpent. In the Jawoyn Language the Didjeridoo is referred to as Gunbarrk.
The traditional process of selecting, seasoning, shaping and decorating an individual instrument requires time, skill and patience. The true beauty of a traditional Didjeridoo is in its natural, individual diversity.
Termites, or Lillirr(Jawoyn Language), eat the inner tissue of living tree trunks and branches. The tree can remain alive while being completely hollow. Each one is eaten differently. Lillirr gives each natural Didjeridoo, its unique and individual sound, unlike produced instruments which are drilled, chiseled, or bamboo and plastic pipe pieces.
The Traditional Instrument
The traditional instrument is usually a natural hollow section from a variety of eucalypt species. However, Pandanus or native bamboo was also used, being hollowed by burning the centre with hot coals from a fire.
A Didjeridoo would then be tuned until the required pitch was found. Selection criteria and style of Didjeridoo vary from one area to another, and requires some expertise.
Western Arnhemland, such as the Gunbarrk of the Jawoyn People, see a somewhat short instrument being favored. The tear drop, with flared bottom is a sought after shape.
This instrument is suited to the playing styles of this region, as can be found in Wongga and Boginy-Boginy Corroborees. There is a strong vocalization of composition, which produces 'Harmonic Overtones' an example from this area: Didjermorro Didjermorro Didjermorro compositions tend to be more regimented, however, flexible enough for the player to demonstrate individual technique.
North Eastern and central Arnhemland generally refer to the Didjeridoo as Yidaki. Yidaki tend to have a small mouth end tapering out to a flared bottomed end. They tend to be 4ft to 6 ft. This style of instrument is suited to the fast rhythms of this region. There is plenty of calling 'mimicking' calls of birds or animals as well as extensive use of the overtone or 'poop' horn sound.
An example of a rhythm from this area: Diddle Dirrup Dirrup Diddle Dirrup Dirrup.
Selection of the Instrument
The first thing in playing a Didjeridoo is to have one! When selecting a Didjeridoo to have and use as a musical instrument there are a few things to keep in mind.
The most important thing to ensure is that the Didjeridoo is completely hollow. The fact that there appears to be a hollow at either end is not evidence enough. You should be able to see light clearly as you hold one end to an eye. No matter how chiseled out the end may be, if the centre isn't hollow it will not play.
Today many instruments are drilled to enlarge the hollow and shaped into bells, be wary! Too much red timber may mean too much wood has been removed and may tend to split or crack. Regardless of what has been used to seal the instrument. A drilled instrument is inferior to the naturally hollowed Didjeridoo. The inner hardwood surrounding the hollow is what contains the sound from the player’s body to the end of the Didjeridoo. When this hardwood is damaged or missing, the sound tends to be absorbed by the instrument, rather than traveling clear and sharp from the mouth to the end of the Didjeridoo.
Holes and cracks in the body of the didjeridoo are also worth looking for. As the didjeridoo is a living thing, it will expand and contract with climatic changes. Small cracks in the surface are not generally a problem. Any cracks can be checked by placing the lips over the crack and sucking. If air comes through it needs sealing. In the interest of having long usage of your instrument do not leave it in extreme heat, for example in direct sun or in cars all day. Regardless of how well cured the Didjeridoo is, it will crack if left exposed to these elements.
Acrylic paintings tend to seal the Didjeridoo and sound whereas the life expectancy of an Ochre painting on a Didjeridoo is controlled by the amount of fixative used and the amount of wear and tear it is exposed to.
Size is more an individual choice. The total inside diameter is what determines the quality of sound produced. Thus the bigger diameter in the hollow usually indicates a deeper, fuller resonance.
Another thing to look out for is that the mouth piece seals the mouth. Playing the instrument to the front or to the side of the mouth is an individual decision. The important thing is to have the mouth sealed, so it is air tight. A wax mouthpiece aides in this and makes it more comfortable for playing over long periods.
Traditionally the mouth piece was obtained from the wax of native bees or 'Sugar bag' as it is generally referred to. Wum (as used in the Jawoyn Language group) mouth pieces are much more comfortable to play with. As it is quite pliable it can be reshaped to the individuals comfort. It is certainly a bonus to have your instrument capped by this wax.