The Didgeridoo is one of the oldest musical instruments in the known world. It originated in Northern Australia tens of thousands of years ago. There is a wide range of ages put on this instrument, from twenty thousand to eighty thousand years old with the most commonly stated age being ten thousand years (that’s 10,000 years).
Given its great age, the didgeridoo has only recently been recognized through the Western world as a musical instrument. It was only in the mid 1960’s that the didge began to come out of the bush. In the mid 1970’s there were several recognized Western musicians using the didgeridoo in commercial recordings. Only in the mid to late 1980’s did native didgeridoo players begin to be seriously recognized. Here in the late 1990’s we are seeing a greater recognition of the didgeridoo and the properties of the sounds it can create.
This delay in the recognition of the didgeridoo is due in large part to its being a native instrument in a land where native culture was and still is subject to destruction by colonizing Westerners. As part of a culture deemed “inferior” by ignorant, arrogant colonizers, the didgeridoo was not to be taken seriously, rather it was regarded as just another native curiosity like the boomerang.
In its basic function, the didge is a simple aerophone woodwind that uses the lips as the reed, constructed of a large tube of Eucalyptus wood or bamboo. One end rests on the ground, while the player simultaneously blows and sings into the other end of the instrument, producing a deep, buzzing drone and more subtle effects: high partials, rhythmic articulations, and changes of tone color. Circular breathing, a difficult technique of taking in air through the nose while simultaneously blowing air out through the mouth, is required to play the sounds. The didgeridoo is typically played by the Aborigines of northern Australia to accompany dance and song.
HOW IT IS MADE
The didgeridoo begins life as the trunk or branch of a tree. Trees grow outward from the center. New wood grows on the outter diameter of the limb or trunk just under the bark. The old wood closest to the center of the tree dies and turns into what is called heartwook. Termites, also called white ants, bore their way to the heartwood at the center of the tree. The termites use the tree as a source of food as well as shelter from the sun and seasonal floods. As the termites chew through the wood they leave behind a hollow tube filled with compacted material.
A didge maker goes from tree to tree tapping on the trunks with a stick until he finds a hollow one. The didge maker then cuts down the tree to harvest the hollow trunk. As the demand for didgeridoos increased, didge makers would find partly hollowed out trees, cut them down and finish removing the core themselves. Today, due to the even greater increasing demand, many didge makers use hot pokers to burn out the core of many different types of tree trunks and branches. Some didgeridoos are produced by using machines to drill the bore. These mass produced didges generally have poor sound characteristics and are best used as decorative souviners.
When the didge spread from Australia to the rest of the world, people began to experiment with different types of materials and construction techniques. Bamboo was a natural material to try because of its tubular shape. If made correctly, bamboo produces a nice sounding didge, however it does have a tendency to split. Long thin strips of redwood have been used to made a tube, similar to the way a wooden barrel is made.
Plastic pipe is a common beginners material. At least one didge maker uses phenolic, an electrical insulator with good results. Glass, fiberglass, ceramic and metal tubes have also been made with some degree of success.