COME with us to an Aboriginal corroboree in Australia’s Northern Territory, just a few hours’ drive from Darwin, its capital city. Instead of being held as a prelude to tribal warfare, many modern-day corroborees are performed especially for tourists. This is the kind that we are going to attend.
The performers, whose bodies are brightly painted, stand quietly as they wait for the music to give the cue to begin their dance. Suddenly the music begins, and the tranquility of the outback dusk explodes with a powerful, pulsating rhythm. Further accompaniment is provided by clapping sticks—two short sticks of wood hit together in time with the music played on the didgeridoo.
Perhaps few outside of Australia have heard the didgeridoo, a musical instrument unique to the Australian Aborigine. It is usually made from the hollowed out branch of a eucalyptus tree, and the preferred length is from three to five feet [1 to 1.5 m]. The musician sits on the ground to one side of the main performing area, blowing into his didgeridoo—a seemingly simple yet intriguing instrument.
A Unique Sound
Although the didgeridoo produces a relatively constant pitch—it is fittingly described as a “drone trumpet”—it can create complex rhythms and trills. One minute it has the sound of a solo instrument, but the next, it can be rich in power and mood, like a full orchestra.
Before Europeans came to Australia some 200 years ago, the didgeridoo was known only to the Aborigines who roamed the northern parts of the island continent. At corroborees, it provided musical accompaniment to danced reenactments of Aboriginal mythology about creation. At the time, those who played the didgeridoo well were held in high esteem, and even today a skilled player is regarded as a celebrated member of the tribe.
Versatile players often superimpose vocalized imitations of animals and birds on the fundamental notes of the didgeridoo. The laugh of the kookaburra; the howl of the Australian wild dog, or dingo; the soft call of the dove; and a host of other sounds are part of their clever mimicry.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians says of the didgeridoo player: “Among his attributes are accurate and agile tonguing, great breath control, a perfect seal of the lips in the end of the tube and an excellent musical memory. . . . Though he lacks technology and materials, and is unfamiliar with the concept of mouthpiece, reeds, slide or finger-holes, [the Aborigine] has nevertheless made a crude implement into a virtuoso musical instrument through the employment of musical imagination and physical skills of a very high order.”
Undoubtedly the most remarkable aspect of didgeridoo music is its continuous note, or drone. The player gives the impression of having an infinite lung capacity, for there may be no break in the music for up to ten minutes at a time.
Making a Didgeridoo
With a trained eye, a native craftsman scouts the bush for a suitable hardwood tree, preferably a eucalyptus. Though softer timber can be used, hardwoods give a superior tone. The tree needs to be located reasonably close to termite mounds because termites are the engineers of the didgeridoo. They hollow out the branches used for this musical instrument.
After the branch has been selected, it is cut to the desired length. The length chosen determines the pitch of the finished instrument. The bark is then stripped, the external sapwood shaved away to prevent cracking, and the inside cleaned out. If the core has been eaten out sufficiently by the termites, it should be possible to roll a good-size coin down the core. The next step is the decoration, which may be quite attractive. But the didgeridoo is not ready to play just yet.
The skin around the player’s mouth would soon become irritated by the constant rubbing against the wood. So a rim of beeswax is placed around the opening of the didgeridoo, leaving a smooth finish that is kind to the player’s skin. Today, however, many didgeridoos are factory made, often from softwoods. But factory-made didgeridoos usually fall far short of the unique timbre and richness of the natural hardwood product.
So, as the corroboree comes to an end and our tropical evening under the stars draws to a close, we no longer see the didgeridoo as simply a curiosity. Truly, the haunting harmonies of the didgeridoo are a credit to the music-loving indigenous people of the land down under.
Credits: AWAKE 1997 published by JW, CORRESPONDENT IN AUSTRALIA