Arnhem Land and the Top End of the Northern Territory is the traditional home of the didjeridu, a rhythmic wind instrument used by Aboriginal people of the region. Its use spread globally in part because the instrument was adopted by world music enthusiasts, and the profile of the instrument reached new heights through Aboriginal rock bands from Arnhem Land, such as Yothu Yindi. It’s an instrument that is now played around the world, in genres ranging from classical to hip hop.
The didjeridu has come to mean many different things to people who have a reason for playing it around the world. In Maningrida it remains primarily an instrument of song accompaniment used in public ceremony. The manner of playing provides an instant recognition to listeners of both language and regional stylistic affiliation. In the wake of the development of new non-Aboriginal ‘world’ styles of playing the instrument, Arnhem Land styles of playing take on new meaning as markers of the cultural and historical origins of the didjeridu.
All of the language groups of the Maningrida region have their own musical genres and song series in which the didjeridu is used as an instrument of accompaniment. Traditionally, it is primarily a secular instrument used in song genres that are performed for two main types of public ceremony: the music of diplomacy (exchange) ceremonies and of funerals and some mortuary rituals. The didjeridu is generally not used as a solo instrument and nor is it used in the most secret and sacred ceremonies still practiced in the western and central Arnhem Land region.
Aboriginal people living today in the rocky escarpment country of western Arnhem Land say that humans were first shown and taught to play the didjeridu by spirit beings who live among the dark caves and crevices of the stone country. These beings are known as mimih and are said to be tall and slender with necks so fragile they are easily snapped by the gentlest of breezes. Because of this, mimih live inside their own worlds within the rock. Mimih are credited with teaching Aboriginal people of the stone country about the foundations of stone country culture, including how to play the didjeridu. Many of the stone country language groups today describe their song and dance genres as mimih.
Researchers of Arnhem Land rock art have identified depictions of the didjeridu as belonging to the most recent phase of rock art, commencing around 1500 years ago.
Maningrida is a highly multilingual community and the linguistic diversity of western Arnhem Land is reflected in the various names used for the didjeridu. Here are the names for the instrument in the languages of the Maningrida region:
- Ndjébbana (the language of the Kunibídji people) – ngalidjbinja
- Kunwinjku, Kune, Kuninjku – mako [mago]
- Rembarrnga – liddung, djalubbu
- Burarra, Gun-nartpa – ngorla
- Dangbon, Dalabon – morlo
- Djinang, Wurlaki – wuyimbarl
- Nakkara – ngunebobanja
- Gurrgoni – mudburuja
- Gundjeihmi (and also Kune) – morle
The didjeridu-maker looks through bushland for a tree of the right species with the right diameter trunk. Most didjeridus in the Maningrida region are made from young trunks of the stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta) or the Darwin Woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata).
The trunk needs to have been lived in and hollowed out by termites. To listen for hollowness, a tree with potential is stripped of a small patch of bark and the timber is tapped. The sound produced indicates the quality of the instrument the trunk will become. Having selected a good tree, the artist fells it and cleans out the hollow inside of the trunk, usually by ramming out any termite debris with a stick or pole. He strips all the bark off the outside, and smooths both ends. Traditionally, dark wax resin (cerumen or, in Kunwinjku and Rembarrnga languages, birdi) from native bees is applied to the mouthpiece. This substance sets hard but always becomes soft and pliable under pressure, enabling an airtight seal when playing.
In the Maningrida region, didjeridus are made to accompany songs in either of two styles: the bunggurl style of the language groups of eastern Arnhem Land (such as Bararra) or the kun-borrk style of language groups in the west of Arnhem Land (including Kunwinjku). People of central and south-western Arnhem Land whose country borders east and west (Rembarrnga and Kune), perform both styles.
Didjeridus of the region range in length from just under one metre to two metres. A less flared and longer didjeridu (1.5–2m) makes it easier to produce the characteristic hooted overblown tone that is used in bunggurl-style music. Longer didjeridus have a deeper tone than shorter didjeridus, and more resonance. To play them, you vibrate your lips at a lower frequency than you need to for a shorter didjeridu.
The decoration applied to the instrument can indicate its intended use. Rembarrnga artist Bob Burruwal often uses a design called bedjekbedjek. This is the same design used in body painting for the public diplomacy ceremonies of the Rembarrnga (and many other kun-borrk dance performances). Burruwal slaps wet white ochre over the surface of the instrument with his hands or with a bunch of leaves dipped in the ochre.