Australia // Northern Territory //

Buying and playing a didgeridoo

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The eerie sound of a didgeridoo instantly evokes the mysteries of Aboriginal Australia, and these simple wood instruments have become phenomenally popular souvenirs, even a New Age musical cult. Authentic didges are created from termite-hollowed branches of stringybark, woollybark and bloodwood trees that are indigenous from the Gulf to the Kimberley. Most commonly they are associated with Arnhem Land, where they were introduced around 2000 years ago and are properly called yidaka or molo by the Yolngu people of that region. “Didgeridoo” is an Anglicized name relating to the sound produced.

Tiny bamboo and even painted pocket didges have found their way onto the market, but a real didge is a natural tube of wood with a rough interior. Painted versions haven’t necessarily got any symbolic meaning; plain ones can look less tacky and are less expensive. Branches being what they are, every didge is different, but if you’re considering playing it rather than hanging it over the fireplace, aim for one around 1.3m in length with a 30–40mm diameter mouthpiece. The bend doesn’t affect the sound, but the length, tapering and wall thickness (ideally around 10mm) do. Avoid cumbersome, thick-walled items that get in the way of your face and sound flat.

The key to making the right sound is to hum while letting your pressed lips flap, or vibrate, with the right pressure behind them – it’s easier using the side of your mouth. The tricky bit – beyond the ability of most beginners – is to master circular breathing; this entails refilling your lungs through your nose while maintaining the sound from your lips with air squeezed from your cheeks. A good way to get your head round this concept is to blow or “squirt” bubbles into a glass of water with a straw, while simultaneously inhaling through the nose. Most shops that sell didges also sell tapes and CDs and inexpensive “how to” booklets that offer hints on the mysteries of circular breathing and how to emit advanced sounds using your vocal cords.

Many Aboriginal communities forbid women to play the didge – as actress Nicole Kidman found out after she played one on German television to promote the film Australia. Besides being criticized for cultural insensitivity, Kidman was later informed that many Aboriginal groups believe that playing it makes women infertile.

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