The Didgeridoo


The didgeridoo is a traditional instrument of the Aboriginal people of Australia. It is found rather than constructed, though the wood or bamboo that is chosen does need to go through some finishing after being removed from it's source. The most commonly known didgeridoo is the eucalyptus didge. It consists of a hollowed piece of wood, the hollowing performed by termites that eat the interior part of the trunk but not the outer harder part. Cleaning the termites out of their home and removing obstructions from the interior we have a didgeridoo. Finally the outside is stripped of bark, cleaned to a smooth surface and usually some traditional designs are applied using ochre or other types of paint.

The sound of the didgeridoo is produced in a manner similar to that used for brass instruments. The lips are buzzed while being held against the mouthpiece. Most similarities end here (though many avant garde brass musicians, especially those playing such instruments as trombone and tuba, also use a variety of non-standard techniques similar to those used for the didge). The didgeridoo produces a basic drone that can be modulated by use of tongue, lips, cheeks, diaphragm, voice, vocal cavity and by squeezing on various muscles that usually do not get used much. Other notes higher than the drone can be produced and are used as embellishments that decorate the basic drone.

The use of these techniques by avant-garde musicians playing brass instruments at the low end of the sound spectrum (for instance in the playing of the tuba or trombone) largely reflects the malleability of lower tones when produced by instruments with larger mouthpieces (ones that you can really get your mouth into). The mouthpiece on the didgeridoo is quite large even compared to that of a big C or B flat tuba and thus the musician has even greater flexibility in the sound variety available. It is this flexibility that replaces the keys and holes of many instruments and it is the control of this flexibility that determines the mastery a player has of this unique instrument.

The other feature of the didgeridoo which adds great depth to its music is the breathing technique employed while playing. This technique is variously known as circular breathing or continuous breathing. It involves primarily the use of facial muscles and the respiratory muscles to maintain a continuous flow of air through the instrument. The didgeridoo played properly is thus capable of producing an uninterrupted sound that can continue for hours. A side effect of this technique is the heightened awareness of breathing and breath control that is experienced and which undoubtedly has important physical benefits for the didgeridoo player.

The didgeridoo has now well and truly entered the world of international music, carrying also with it a message to those who listen of the depth of the cultural heritage behind it. For me this message is most resoundingly the fact that if one concentrates on the simplest things that one can find, one can discover within them the deepest of meanings. Something that in the pace and materialism of our western culture need to reflect upon.