The didgeridoo, typically of wood construction, is an end-blown wind instrument from the northern Australian Aboriginal people. This instrument is also known as a ‘drone pipe’. The term didgeridoo has an ambiguous origin. It’s widely assumed to be a western onomatopoeia spelling (e.g. imitating the sound of the instrument). Another common hypothesis claims that the name comes from a Gaelic word that means “black trumpeter.”
Evidence of how long Aboriginal people have been using this instrument is difficult to come by. Collected and studied oral accounts exist of Aboriginal communities historically using the instrument. Such reports indicate the trading, distribution, or even mythological roots of the didgeridoo from group to group or region to region. However, these narratives don’t refer to a specific time period. Indeed, in northern Australia, some Aboriginal groups state the existence of the didgeridoo since the beginning of their “Dreamtime” heritage. It’s therefore easy to see how its estimated age of 40,000 years comes to be.
Common designs and materials
A didgeridoo is commonly cylindrical or conical in shape. It ranges in length from one to three meters. The majority of them are about 1.2m long. The lower the pitch or key, the longer the design.
Traditional didgeridoos make use of hardwoods, especially the numerous eucalyptus species that are native to northern and central Australia. Manufacturers use and usually harvest the main trunk of a tree. They look for hollow live trees in places where termite activity is evident. A large branch may also be used for this purpose.
Musicologists have identified modern didgeridoo designs as different from the traditional Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo. Creativity in the instrument’s design began in the late twentieth century when non-traditional materials and practices appeared. However, among indigenous practitioners and non-indigenous people, those practices have prompted a lot of controversies, aesthetic, ethical, and even legal.
Execution of the didgeridoo
Circular breathing is a didgeridoo player’s method for producing a sustained sound. They accomplish this by playing uninterrupted sound on the instrument and sometimes breathing through the nose. In addition to the simple drone, a good didgeridoo player can make a number of other sounds to generate rhythms and variations, through different techniques.
Animal sounds or calls are done using the vocal cords. On the other hand, players create the drone vibrating their lips whilst talking, yelling, or screaming into the instrument. Another way to make use of the vocal cords is to enable them to vibrate at a low frequency passively. Instead of high-pitched animal sounds, passively using the vocal cords produces a deep hum. This hum is lower in pitch than the basic drone and adds another layer to the didgeridoo’s overall tone.