Yidaki

Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre services the Yolngu artists of northeast Arnhem Land, who use the term yidaki to refer to the didjeridu in general, although there are many more specific names for different types of didjeridu. The yidaki we carry are made by many different artists from different clans and homelands.

Basic Information - What is a Didjeridu/Yidaki?

The didjeridu is a lip-reed aerophone instrument originally used in ceremony by Aboriginal People in northern Australia. Its construction is very simple - a termite-hollowed trunk of a tree that is harvested and finished to varying degrees, sometimes painted, and sometimes with a beeswax mouthpiece attached, which we will discuss in more detail later. Essentially, the didjeridu is a tube which can be played in a low tone with a relaxed buzzing of the lips.

There are many types of didjeridus from different Aboriginal groups, and even much variation within regions, so it is impossible to provide one simple yet complete description. This is further complicated today by the incredible numbers of didjeridus being produced out of many materials by people of many different backgrounds. This website will not give a complete picture of all of these instruments, but will tell you about the didjeridu as it exists among the Yol\u people of far northeast Arnhem Land.

"Didjeridu" is not a word from an Aboriginal language, but a term coined by European settlers. The general word used by Yol\u people for didjeridus is "yidaki." Despite some past written work, the word "yidaki" does not have any accepted meaning other than the name of the instrument. It has been often debated among the worldwide didjeridu scene whether all "didjeridus" are "yidaki" or whether the term "yidaki" should be reserved only for Yol\u-made didjeridus. It has also in fact been debated whether the term "didjeridu" itself should be reserved only for instruments made by Aboriginal Australians. We will hear more about this later, but this site will use our preferred rule -- "didjeridu" refers to all "didjeridu-like instruments," and "yidaki" refers only to Yol\u-made didjeridus from northeast Arnhem Land.

Where does the Didjeridu/Yidaki come from?

Today the didjeridu is known all over the world, and thanks to an American astronaut, a plastic version has even been played in space. But the didjeridu was not originally played all over Australia. Science can not tell us one specific origin, but it is widely accepted that before Europeans arrived, the didjeridu was used only in the Top End of the continent, from northern Western Australia east to the Gulf of Carpenteria including Groote Eylandt, and soon after in Cape York, northern Queensland. Most academics and many Aboriginal People agree that is only in the past two hundred years that it has become known beyond this region. Yol\u do have their own stories of very specific origins of the instrument.

Travel anywhere tourists are likely to be in Australia, and chances are good you will see didjeridus in gift shops and in performances on the street. While a few decades ago it was an oddity in its own country, now it has been adopted as part of the national identity, by black and white alike. Its sound is used in television commercials throughout the world to invoke the spirit of Australia, whether it is for Australian beers or cars with Australia-inspired names.

The Yol\u clans from northeast Arnhem Land are just a few of the many who have used the instrument for thousands of years and consider it their birthright. Yol\u accept that the instrument has spread around the world and do not wish to change that, but feel strongly that these groups should be acknowledged and respected as the traditional owners of the didjeridu.

How is a Yidaki made?

While didjeridus can be made from many materials in many ways, yidaki are usually made from trunks of living eucalyptus trees, although very rarely, a suitable branch may be found. The trees are hollowed out by termites commonly known as "white ants." In Yol\u country, Gadayka, or Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetradonta), is used most of the time, but sometimes Gu\urru', Darwin Woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) or one of two bloodwoods, Badawili (Corymbia ferruginea) and Dhumulu' (Corymbia polycarpa) are also used.

The selection of the right tree is probably the finest art of yidaki making. It is not as easy to find a good yidaki as you might expect. There are many factors involved that only those who have worked on yidaki for many years come to understand. While many people debate the pros and cons of different types of instruments made with different methods around the world, it is sure that there is no didjeridu quite like one provided by nature.

If all is well after the initial tests, the hollow tree is felled and further worked to completion by stripping the bark, carving the wood from the outside and clearing out the inside as necessary. These days modern tools, glues and even tape are also used. Sometimes the log is left in the sun or soaked in water for anywhere from a night to a month to cure the wood before working. On extremely rare occasions, the living hollow tree was filled with rainwater, and thus the wood is already cured!A craftsman will go to a good section of forest, often rocky ground, and walk through the forest following his instincts and using his well-trained eye to identify suitable trees to test. Some craftsmen like Djalu' Gurruwiwi will first listen for the resonance of a hollow tree after hitting it with the blunt end of an axe. Most will peel away a section of the bark and flick the wood with their fingernails to listen for the hollow. If it sounds good down low and up high - hollow but not too hollow - then the craftsman will begin chopping. There will be a few more checks after the chopping begins, to make sure the bottom is as hollow as expected before felling the tree.

Many didjeridus in Australia and around the world have yellow beeswax added to form a mouthpiece, usually because the mouthpiece end of the instrument is too large or uncomfortable to play. Yol\u prefer trees with a natural conical bore provided by the termites, so that the mouthpiece can be shaped from the wood rather than beeswax. The Top End of Australia doesn't even have bees that make yellow wax. Native bees here make a black or brown gummy substance called gunydju which Yol\u use as a fixative. Sometimes this is used to shape mouthpieces a bit, but is only extremely rarely used for large built-up mouthpieces as you will see done with yellow beeswax elsewhere.

Older yidaki made from Gunga (Pandanus yirrkalaensis) and bamboo are also known. Milkay\u Munu\gurr called the pandanus instrument the ideal yidaki because of its extreme light weight and full sound. It however is not naturally hollow, so can be labour intensive to craft, and due to the softness of the wood, must be kept very wet while playing to maintain its solidity and full sound. These instruments are not made anymore, but the knowledge remains.

Playing the Dijeridu

It has been said that the didjeridu is not an instrument at all. When you learn to play most musical instruments, like the guitar, piano, or clarinet, you spend a lot of time learning to work the moving parts of the instrument. The didjeridu has no moving parts. All the movement is within the player's body. The didjeridu provides a musical sound directly from the breath and lips of the player.

As such, the didjeridu can be played in many ways. These pages are not comprehensive, but introduce the fundamentals and discuss how Yol\u yidaki playing differs from most of the didjeridu music you may have heard. While there are many traditional and modern styles in Australia and around the world, they all have a few basics in common.

The Drone

The first thing is to seal your lips inside the mouthpiece and buzz your lips in a fairly relaxed fashion to create the fundamental note, often called the drone. Many people around the world like to just play this basic note, and change the sound by emphasizing different harmonics with the shape of the mouth and movements of the tongue, like, “weeeooooaaaaaow.”

While Yol\u use the shape of their mouths to affect the tone in subtle ways while playing, they do not spend their time playing these slow sounds and experimenting with these swirling high harmonics. It is all about the rhythm. But they do tend to start the yidaki with short notes, as if warming it up, then play a short drone before the rhythm begins. Keep in mind there would normally be singing too, not just yidaki.

Many people around the world play the didjeridu to the side of their mouths rather than playing straight on. A very few older Yol\u who adopt certain softer styles of playing have been known to do this, but almost all will always play straight on, as it is much more appropriate for their style, which involves strong use of the tongue to aggressively push air straight out the mouth. 

Any movement of the tongue can be used to manipulate the sound of the didjeridu tonally or rhythmically. Many non-Yol\u players use what is called double or triple tonguing in brass instrument terminology for flashy rhythms. This can be expressed in print as “taka taka” or “takata takata.” Yol\u yidaki playing relies on a very strong and agile tongue trained in motions and positions that are used in Yol\u languages, but will be foreign to most readers of this website. You can begin to understand the very basics of Yol\u yidaki with only two of these tongue positions, and the motion in between them. Below are images and excerpts from the CDHard Tongue Didgeridoo as examples.

The first position is called the “retroflexed” position, which means the tongue is curled back so that the bottom of the tip is pushing against the gum ridge. The second, “interdental,” position involves the tongue thrusting forward so that the tip of the tongue is touching the tips of the top and bottom teeth, perhaps edging on the backs a bit, and the blade of the tongue is pushing against the gum ridge. 

The first basic motion is taught by Yol\u as “dith-dhu” or sometimes, as you will hear on Djalu's teaching CD's, just "dith," leaving the second bit implied. For the “dith,” you start from the retroflexed position and thrust your tongue, uncurling it, to the interdental position. The tongue whips from curled back to hitting the back of the tips of the teeth. This is accompanied by a pulse of air from the belly. With the right pressure in the lips, mouth and throat, this technique also produces a very brief hint at the trumpeted note we will discuss later. After arriving at the teeth, the tongue pushes back away from the teeth to a neutral position on the “dhu.”

The other motion is pulling the tongue back from the interdental position to the retroflexed position, flicking the gum ridge along the way, which would be spelled as 'rr' in Yol\u languages. Yol\u indicate this yidaki technique with “dhirrl” or a closely related version, “dhirrk.” This motion is accompanied by a strong pulse of air and often a breath in to refill the lungs.

With this small bit of information, you can begin to understand Yol\u yidaki playing much better. Below is a simple three pulse rhythm using just these techniques - one forward tongue thrust and release followed by drawing it back twice - first performed as "mouth sounds" which are used to teach rhythms, and then played on a yidaki.

This rhythm can be complicated by improvising on the two techniques or adding the horn tone (described later), as shown in these sound clips.

With this simple introduction, hopefully you can see how Yol\u yidaki playing is constructed. There are more techniques and subtle variations, but just understanding these simple building blocks will get you a long way.

Pulses of air from the stomach

The drone of the instrument can also be punctuated by strong pulses of air from the stomach like saying "ha." Many players around the world have practiced a style of playing using quick “hahahaha” effects from the belly to create rhythms.

Yol\u players will use a subtle version of this to add colour to slower notes within rhythms or the introductory drone of a song. Listen for the subtle flutter in some of the long tones of this short sample by Djalu'.

For rhythms, Yol\u only use single pulses, simultaneously with the tongue movements we've already covered, for aggressive accents. Listen to the surge of power on the "dith" in the "dith-dhu" sample below. This would also accompany the "dhirrl" and trumpeted notes.

The trumpeted note

By playing with the lips tighter than the relaxed low note, it is possible to play higher notes, like those of a trumpet. While it is possible on many yidaki to play a bugle-like series of these notes, each higher than the last, Yol\u only use the first of these trumpeted notes, or horn tones, in their playing. In some cases it is sustained as an introduction to a song and cue for dancers that the song is about to start. But again, only the first trumpet note. Playing any higher notes may result in the giggling of Yol\u children!

The trumpeted note is used in almost all Yol\u songs, often in quick alternation with the lower note, to cue changes or endings of songs. Yol\u yidaki players are reknowned among the didjeridu world for their ability to quickly utilize these trumpeted notes in their playing. The quick horn tone is often played sort of like saying, “doop,” although more correctly in Yol\u language, it's “dup.” The use of the tongue to push the air, along with a pulse of air from the lungs, creates the additional air needed for the higher sound, and moving the lips to the “p” shape tightens them for the additional air pressure required. Listen to this example of Djalu' using quick alternation of drone and horn tone.

Sometimes the syllable “pu” is used after the “dup” to transition from the trumpeted note back to the drone.

Adding the voice

Voice can also be added to make many different effects. Yol\u do not just play the basic note and play with vocal sounds. There is always rhythm, even if it is slow. Yol\u do not play around with singing harmonious melodies along with the drone, but they do add a growly quality to the tone with subtle use of voice along with the rhythm. Listen carefully to the samples below of a simple rhythm with and without subtle use of the voice, almost like grunting along with the "dhirrl."

Yol\u do not spend their time imitating animal noises on the yidaki for fun or education. Animal noises such as bird calls are used as parts of the traditional songs which also imitate the movements of animals in the rhythms. These are not yidaki solos, but accompaniment to song and dance. Listen as Larry Winiwini Gurruwiwi plays the yidaki accompaniment. You will hear sounds of the Brolga's voice and the rhythm of its dance.

Throat Muscles

The use of the throat muscles is perhaps the hardest thing for Yol\u to explain and teach, and may just need to be developed over time. The air flow of the tongue motions is increased, and the sound is deepened by support from the throat. Muscles of the throat control pockets of air and provide extra pressure and a sort of extra “wobble” to the sound which compliments the "dhirrl" motion. Yol\u do not teach this as they do tongue motions, but merely hear it and know it is part of the desired sound that is achieved through practice of the proper style

Breathing

What has been conspicuously missing so far is discussion of how and when to breathe. Most non-Yol\u didjeridu players learn “circular breathing,” the process of maintaining the drone with an alternation of normal blowing and stored air pressure in the mouth, by strongly using the cheeks as a bellows. In this way, you can play for a while, take a big breath, and then play for a while again, or with more development, these cheek squeezes can be smoothly integrated into rhythms. Yol\u do not do this the same way. The aim of most Yol\u players is to keep the cheeks in as much as possible, and avoid long cheek breaths. Instead the goal is lots of small breaths supported with and initiated by bursts of air from the belly. Pressure must be maintained in the cheeks to keep the drone going, but it is not a big, sudden cheek squeeze.

It is possible to breathe in quickly on the end of the "dhirrl" tongue motion with very little or no cheek motion. The technique is called “bounce breathing” by many western didjeridu players as the breath in is a quick response to a breath out supported by the belly. If you push out with your belly, again a “ha” motion, it is almost instinctive to breathe back in immediately - like a bounce. The trick while playing yidaki is to coordinate all the different parts. Push air out with the belly right as you begin to say "dhirrl," and breathe back in through the nose as the tongue motion is completing. Click the play button on the image to the right to watch and listen to an animation which approximates the technique.

In the first written example of a simple yidaki rhythm (dith-dhu dhirrl dhirrl), try to pulse your belly at the beginning of each of the three fragments, and breathe in as a response on the dhirrl motions and bursts of air.

It may be difficult at first, but it is possible. After all, Yol\u have done it for thousands of years! Try to watch and listen to Djalu' and Winiwini's quick breaths. The video compression cut down the high frequencies necessary to hear the sniffing of breath, but they are still audible, particularly on Winiwini's clip. Try listening with headphones

Once a German visitor asked a well known Yol\u player how Yol\u children learn circular breathing, and got the response, “learn what?” The concept is not from Yol\u culture. You simply play yidaki with the right tongue techniques and learn the breathing naturally through practice.

We've archived everything you need to know about yidaki but was afraid to ask:

http://www.yirrkala.com/yidaki/dhawu/index.html

We wholesale to the following retailers:

AUSTRALIA: Didgeridoo Breath

www.didgeridoobreath.com

6 Market St, Fremantle, 6160

Western Australia

Tel. +61894306009

ENGLAND: Aboriginal Arts Ltd

www.aboriginalarts.co.uk

16 Whales Yard, West Ham Lane

London, E15 4PB

Tel. +44(0)7966889676

ENGLAND: Kdidj

www.kdidj.com

Tel. +44(0)1617258070

FRANCE: Didgeridoo Passion

www.didgeridoo-passion.com

3 Rue Schongauer, Colmar, 68000

Tel: 0952925132

GERMANY: Mad Matt´s Didgeridoos

www.mad-matt.de

Aggerstr. 36, 53721 Siegburg

Tel. +49(0)2241590235

GERMANY: WilliWilli-Shop

www.williwilli-shop.de

Thomashardterstrasse 65

73669, Lichtenwald

Tel. +49(0)71536129860

HOLLAND: Dhapirrk Yidaki

www.dhapirrk-yidaki.com

ITALY: Didjeridoos Tradizionali

www.didjeridoos-tradizionali.com

Cesena, Macerone (FC) 47023

Tel. +393338585131

JAPAN: Dinkum Japan

www.dinkum-j.com

#302, 2-17-35 Hayamiya,

Nerima-ku, TOKYO 179-0085

Tel. +817066681410

JAPAN: Earth Tube

www.earthtube.com

7-2-24 Amamigadou

Matsubara, Osaka 580-0026

Tel. +817065514521

JAPAN: Avalon Spiral

www.avalonspiral.com

1-20-19-2f Sangenya, Higashi

Taisho-ku, Osaka city 551-0002

Tel: +819018989899

JAPAN: Koizumi Syo-Ji co. Ltd

www.koizumigakki.com

518 Oike Sagaru

Teramachi, Nakagyo-ku

Kyoto, 604-8091

Tel. +81752313052

SWITZERLAND: Serious Sticks

www.serioussticks.com

Andelfingen and Zurich

Tel. +41764232571

Tel. +41797853129

SWITZERLAND: Matthias Müller

www.didgeridoo-music.ch

Neubadstrasse 159a

CH-4054, Basel

Tel. +41613017500

USA: LA Outback

www.laoutback.com

3602 Avenida Del SOl

Studio City, CA 91604

Tel. (800) 519-1140

Tel. (818) 985-8359

USA: John Groves Music Productions

www.DidgeridooGallery.com

110 2nd Street SW, Suite 100

Auburn, WA 98001

Tel. 18003501265

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