MYTHS ABOUT THE DIDGERIDOO
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
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.
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
The Didgeridoo, From Arnhem Land to Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeldt Back to Index