Myth 1: Didgeridoos Were Only Found Traditionally in Northern Australia
At an elementary stage in the development of blowing techniques, areophones sounded by vibrating, or 'buzzing' the lips inside a tube, may have been more widely distributed in Australia than at present.
Some evidence for this is to be found in the literature on central Australian groups. Spencer and Gillen (1899) refer to a 'rudimentary trumpet" (60cm. In length) called ilpirra or ulpirra.
This was used by Aboriginal men as a magic charm for obtaining wives. C.Strehlow (1908: 77 and Teil IV,p.15) shows illustrations of the tjurunga ulburu and the karakara, the latter used in an Aranda Itata, or public celebration in which women participated. T.G.H Strehlow (1947: 78-9) writes of a 'low toned wooden ulbura trumpet' used by southern Aranda people on the Finke River. The instrument is pictured representing the neck (rantja) of a venomous snake 'playfully "biting" a novice from another Aranda group' (picture facing p. 89). Eylmann (1908) refers to wooden and bamboo trumpets; and his illustrations include a 'Trompete der Waramunga', that is of a desert group in area C.
Myth 2: Women Should Not Play Didgeridoo
This aims to clarify some misunderstandings of the role of Didjeridoo in traditional Aboriginal culture, in particular the popular conception that it is taboo for women to play or even touch a Didgeridoo.
While it is true that in the traditional didgeridoo accompanied genres of Northern Australia, (e.g. Wangga and Bunggurl) women do not play in public ceremony, in these areas there appears to be few restrictions on women playing in an informal capacity. The area in which there are the strictest restrictions on women playing and touching the Didgeridoo appears to be in the south east of Australia, where in fact Didgeridoo has only recently been introduced. I believe that the international dissemination of the "taboo" results from it's compatibility with the commercial agendas of New Age niche marketing.
My understanding of Aboriginal culture in Australia has been formed as an academic ethnomusicologist, through acquaintance with the ethnomusicological and anthropological literature as well as through personal contact, during classes and fieldwork, with the Aboriginal people in a number of communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.
It is true that traditionally women have not played the Didgeridoo in ceremony. However let us review the evidence for Aboriginal women playing Didgeridoo in informal situations. In discussions with women in the Belyuen community near Darwin in 1995. I was told that there was no prohibition on women playing and in fact several of the older women mentioned a women in the Daly River area who used to play the Didgeridoo.
In a discussion with men from Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar and Gunbalanya it was agreed that there was no explicit Dreaming Law that women should not play Didgeridoo, it was more that women did not know how to. From Yirrkala, there are reports that while both boys and girls as young children play with toy instruments, within a few years, girls stop playing the instrument in public. There are reports that women engage in preparation of Didgeridoos for sale to tourists also playing instruments to test their useability. Reports of women playing the Didgeridoo are especially common in the Kimberley and Gulf regions the Westerly and Easterly extremes of it's distribution in traditional music. The Didgeridoo has only begun to be played in these areas this century where it accompanies genres originally deriving from Arnhem Land (Bunggurl) or the Daly region (Wangga, Lirrga and Gunborrg).
The clamour of conflicting voices about the use of Didgeridoo by women and by outsiders has drawn attention to the potential for international exploitation and appropriation of traditional music and other Aboriginal cultural property. In addition, the debate has drawn to international attention the fact that there are levels of the sacred and the secret in traditional Aboriginal beliefs, many of them restricted according to gender. Perhaps the Didgeridoo in this case is functioning as a false front, standing in for other truly sacred and restricted according to Aboriginal ceremonial life that it can not be named in public. In this way, the spiritualising of the Didgeridoo not only panders to the commercial New Age niche, but also serves as a means of warning non-Aboriginal people to be wary of inquiring too closely into sacred matters.
Written by Linda Barwick
Reference: The Didgeridoo, From Arnhem Land to Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeldt Back to Index