The Traditional Instrument of the Australian Aboriginal
The didgeridoo (didjeridu or didge) is a wind instrument which was developed by indigenous Australians around 1,500 years ago. Like many so-called 'primitive' instruments, it is capable of quite amazing variations in tone and execution.
There are at least 45 different synonyms used by the different Aboriginal tribes.
While there is no reliable evidence as to the didgeridoo's exact age, the instrument is seen on cave wall paintings that are at least 1,000 years old.
A skilled player can produce multiple harmonic resonances and a wide range of nuances. It may be described as a drone pipe or natural wooden trumpet while, to musicologists it is classified as an aerophone.
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Traditionally, the didgeridoo was used mainly but not solely as an accompaniment to singing and dancing carried out at cultural and spiritual ceremonies. In today's world, most didgeridoo playing is for recreational purposes. It is also traditional that men played the didgeridoo although there seems no specific taboo on women playing the instrument. Aboriginal men have objected to women playing the didgeridoo but only in the last decade or so. It would seem that such prohibitions vary from tribe to tribe. Indigenous groups in south-east Australia seem most averse to having women play (and in some cases even touch) a didgeridoo.
Didgeridoos vary widely in their dimensions and may be anything from 1 to 3 metres long with most being around 1.2 metres. The bore is conical or cylindrical. There are no finger holes. As a general rule, the longer the instrument the lower the pitch of the sound.
Once a tree is found with the right attributes, it is cut down and cleaned out. The bark is removed and the ends tidied up. The exterior is shaped - and the job is finished.
Authentic didgeridoos are made mostly from hardwoods. Various eucalyptus endemic to a region would be used. In the coastal regions of Arnhem land, the stringy bark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and woollybutt (E.miniata) were often selected while nearer Katherine and places further south the River Red gum (E.camaldulensis) was preferred. A native bamboo, perhaps Bambusa arnhemica, may be used or even pandanus.
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Making A Didjeridoo
Special stone axes would be employed to cut the tree or branch. After soaking the length of wood in water for a few days, the softened termite residual would be prised out with a stick or the hollow filled with coals. A machete would be used to strip off the outer bark. By blocking each end with the hands and holding the wood under water for a few minutes, any holes in the 'instrument' would be detected by the presence of bubbles. These holes would then be filled with beeswax. The stick would then be cut to the desired length and beeswax placed around the mouthpiece if desired. Or the end may be simply be sanded down to a comfortable size.
Either the main trunk or a substantial branch is needed. Craftsmen look for live trees with obvious signs of white-ant or termite activity. Termites remove the dead hardwood of a tree but leave the sapwood as it contains a chemical which repels the insects. The resonance of a hollowed branch may be tested by peeling back a portion of bark and tapping on the wood.
An instrument fashioned from wood hollowed by termites usually shows an increase in diameter towards the lower end. This results in resonance occurring at frequencies that are not harmonically spaced and gives no assistance in the production of harmonics by the player. A strong player can create changes in the timbre of the instrument. Variations to the drone can be created by adding vocalisations. The vocal cords are utilised to produce a range of sounds from very high pitches to guttural vibrations. This, together with the simultaneous movement of air through the instrument, results in some very complex and intriguing sounds.
Many instruments are painted and otherwise decorated and a mouthpiece of beeswax may by applied. In Arnhem land a 'sugarbag' mouthpiece may be fitted. This is a black beeswax which has a distinctive odour and comes from wild bees.
Innovations in the production of didgeridoos began in the late 20th century. Non-traditional materials and shapes began to be utilised. Musicians being what they are, non-traditional didgeridoos are now made from PVC piping, fibreglass, metal, clay, carbon fibre or other materials, even the tail-shaft of a land-rover. Non-native hardwoods can also be used. These often have an inside diameter of 1.25 inches at the top expanding to a 2 to 8 inch diameter at the lower end.
The drone is produced by the player causing air in the instrument to vibrate. Rhythms in formal ceremonies are precise and often accompanied by clapsticks.. Overtones add to the complexity and richness of the sound. Circular breathing is a special breathing technique which allows a player to take in air through the noise while continuing to expel air into the instrument through the mouth. This replenishes the air in the lungs without the need for 'taking a breath' through the mouth. With practice, a skilled player can continue to hold a note for 40 minutes or more.
A study detailed in the British Medical Journal in 2008 promoted the benefits of playing the didgeridoo for those who suffered from snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. Practising the didgeridoo, in particular mastering the circular breathing technique, strengthens the muscles in the upper respiratory column and helps prevent their collapse during sleep.
Native players would seek to imitate the sounds of nature, not just bird calls or animal noises but the sound of the wind, flapping of wings or running water.
The method of holding the didgeridoo depends on personal preference. Some players rest the far end on a bailer shell or inside a box or bucket to improve the resonance. The tube may be beaten with a stick or flicked with a finger to create additional rhythmic beats. Others rest the far end on their foot, perhaps resting one elbow on a bent knee.
New innovations include the sliding didgeridoo or didgiphone made from aluminium, plastic or wood and featuring a telescopic mechanism something like the slide of a trombone. The range extends from high G to low B. The end is flared, giving a brighter, louder sound. When extended, the didgiphone reaches 65 inches and 37.5 inches when closed.
For a simple wooden tube, the didgeridoo produces some incredible music. It is perfectly happy as a solo instrument but there is also increasing interest in incorporating it into orchestral groupings.
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