Didgeridoo Meets Yirdaki: I "Dhid" It

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Please indulge me. I have a passion for this. Here I am (the one with the hat), on Saturday, in Palm Springs, at an all-day didgeridoo workshop. 



    More precisely, a yirdaki workshop. Didgeridoo is a white man’s word that is applicable to anyone blowing through a hollow tube. Yirdaki describes an instrument made by the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land at the top of Australia. The yirdaki is made from the trunk of certain types of eucalyptus that have been hollowed out by termites. A master craftsman will finish what nature started. The result is an instrument suitable to a certain style of playing known as hard-tonguing.

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    Hard-tonguing is an insanely difficult technique based on using diaphragm, vocal chords, and lips-tongue-and-cheeks to produce intricate rhythms and effects. In this sense, the instrument comes across as a sort of vocal drum. And to keep the drumming analogy going, one is integrating kick drum with snare and high hat to produce a mind-boggling array of some of the coolest sounds in the universe.


    Below is a clip of Elijah Gunydjurruwuy. I rest my case.



    Elijah is “free-styling,” basically jamming on his instrument. More formal playing is employed in the ceremonial life of the Yolngu. The white man cannot presume to imitate what is sacred to the Yolngu. But there is room for incorporating “free-style” into our own music. Various non-Yolngu have learned at the feet of the masters, and have obtained their blessing to teach the building blocks. These building blocks typically become integrated with western traditions into an array of highly inventive and idiosyncratic styles.


    Jeremy Cloake (to my right in the blue shirt) is a New Zealand Maori who has lived and worked among the Yolngu.  About 18 months ago, I purchased his instructional CD, and practiced-practiced-practiced. I have a long way to go, but - my - how far I’ve come.  He has led workshops in Japan and Europe, but this was his first workshop in the States, just two-and-a-bit hours from where I live. You know I wasn’t going to miss this for the world.


    There were 11 of us, and two are masters of their own individualized styles that are taking the instrument in new directions. This is always humbling to me - we are never too good to learn from others. Below is a clip of Will Thoren and his band, Gorangutang.



    Yes, that’s George Clinton, grandfather of funk, in the video. I’ve met Will on two other occasions and I’m the proud owner of a “stick” that he made. His sticks are built for the “multi-drone/drop octave" style that he pioneered. I also have a yirdaki crafted by the legendary Djalu Gurruwiwi. Plus I own sticks made from local materials by local craftsmen. 


    By now, perhaps, you are gaining an appreciation of two cultures: The Yolngu who developed the high art of the yirdaki, and the wider world of those who have embraced the didgeridoo, which has taken on a life of its own. But at a certain nexus, didgeridoo meets yirdaki. Indeed, there would be no didgeridoo without yirdaki.


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    In the afternoon, Jeremy gives us individual assignments. We are all given the same phrase: “Dah-hirl dhid hirl-lo dhid-a-hid dah-ro.” We are given 20 or 30 minutes to work with it, to choose our rhythms, our emphasis. I decide to accent the first “dhid.” What comes out has a distinctively funk flavor. It’s what I intended. By the same token, I also can’t help it. Funk is part of who I am. It’s all good. Yolngu meets funk, yirdaki meets didgeridoo.


    I could go on and on. As I said, I’m passionate about this.




    Doing what you love is essential to healing and recovery. Please feel free to share your passions. Comments below ... 

Published On: February 26, 2013