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The Didgeridoo as a Site of Economic Contestation in Arnhem Land

Galarrwuy Yunipungu

By Aaron Corn

Reprinted from Newsletter of Centre for Studies in Australian Music,
Melbourne University, December 1999

It's a few minutes past midnight on 23 September 1996, and it's my first time in attendance at the Barunga Festival. Barunga lies just southwest of Arnhem Land, and the festival is an annual event that attracts an audience from throughout the NT and beyond. The highlight of this evening's activities, the Battle of the Bands, had started around nine o'clock and bands from numerous Aboriginal communities had availed themselves of the opportunity to perform. Thirsty after some three hours of listening to their music, I wandered the short distance back to camp during a change between bands for some water.

Barunga Festival
Barunga Festival

Back at camp I found a small group of people sitting around a fire. I sat with them as I drank from my tin mug and was interested to hear that two of them were didjeridu enthusiasts. One was a young American man who had come to the festival to participate in the annual Didjeridu Playing Competition which, incidentally, was judged that year by Northern Land Council Chair Galarrwuy Yunpiηu. The other was an older woman from the Netherlands who had decided against entering the competition after she had been informed of a local taboo against women playing the instrument. However, she proceeded to explain that, at home, playing the didjeridu for three to four hours at a stretch constituted part of her daily meditations.

Only a few hundred metres away, Aboriginal people from throughout the NT were assembled in their hundreds as musicians from their home communities, in many cases their relatives, took to the stage and gave their all under the heat of industrial lights. These were people experiencing the reality of their lives unfolding before them, but my fireside companions were engaged in an experience all their own. As their conversation about the didjeridu and its meditative applications unfolded, it occurred to me that here were two individuals who had both travelled long distances to satisfy their enthusiasm for an instrument yet who held little apparent interest in the only people on Earth who can boast a continuous tradition of its use.

Enthusiasm for the didjeridu is a global phenomenon. One has only to do a web search for "didjeridu" to find a staggering number of European, North American and Australian internet sites devoted to the instrument. Many of these sites serve as points-of-sale for businesses wishing to sell their manufactured instruments or studio recordings on the global market and some, as addressed by Garde, attempt to position the didjeridu within universalising frameworks of New Age belief. With few exceptions, such sites contain an alarming lack of accurate information on the didjeridu and the peoples from whose cultures the instrument originates. Within Australia, there are significant didjeridu industries in urban centres such as Sydney, Melbourne, the Gold Coast, Darwin and Alice Springs. These enterprises are primarily supported by tourism, but many are also aligned with the global network of didjeridu enthusiasm and serve as destinations for enthusiasts visiting Australia.

According to Moyle, peoples with continuous traditions of didjeridu use may be found as far west as the Kimberleys (WA), as far as Doomadgee (Qld) just beyond the NT border and as far south as the Katherine region (NT). Across this northern expanse, local peoples also possess quite different traditions of didjeridu use. Indeed, it is debatable whether the didjeridu is a single instrument. For example, in north-eastern Arnhem Land, an area populated predominantly by Yolηu, yidaki are quite long (150 - 200 cm) with narrow bores and flared bells. In the accompaniment of manikay song series, established yidaki patterns generally comprise both the instrument's fundamental pitch and an overblown harmonic or hoot.

However, amongst western Arnhem Land peoples such as the Kunwinjku and Kunibídji, the instruments called mako and ngalidjbinja respectively, tend to be much shorter (90 - 150 cm) with wider bores and employ rhythmic patterns articulated solely on the fundamental pitch in the accompaniment of western song forms such as kunborrk. The differences between variants of the didjeridu in north-eastern and western Arnhem Land are analogous to those between trumpets and flugelhorns. Both instruments are related technomorphically and possess similar sonorous capabilities, yet the specific techniques with which they are played, as well as their repertoires, histories of use and extra-musical associations, are quite distinct.

Yothu Yindi in Concert
Yothu Yindi in Concert

International interest in the didjeridu comes as a mixed blessing for those north Australians from whose cultures the instrument originates. It affords opportunities for artisans living in remote communities such as Maningrida, Galiwin'ku and Yirrkala to gain wider recognition by selling their instruments through local arts centres to international buyers. The fact that these north Australian makers may lay sole claim to authenticity in the instruments that they produce is of great appeal to devotees. Through the agency of the well-known Yolηu band Yothu Yindi, from the Gove Peninsula in the vicinity of Yirrkala, yidaki in particular have become so sought after that, presently, demand threatens to outstrip supply. Yidaki feature prominently in Yothu Yindi's music and produce a big sound that lends itself to the extended techniques and flamboyant styles favoured by self-taught enthusiasts.

From the 12-17 July 1999, I was fortunate to attend the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture at a Gumatj clan estate called Gulkula on the Gove Peninsula. This is the place where the ancestral hero, Ganbulabula, initially introduced yidaki to the Gumatj. Until 1982, it was the site of a residential school called Dhupuma College attended by local youths, and is now the proposed site of the Yolηu-administered Garma Cultural Studies Institute. The Garma Festival was organised by the Yothu Yindi Foundation and included the official opening of the Yirηa Music Development Centre (incorporating the Ian Potter Foundation Studio) at the nearby Gunyanηara outstation.

During the week of the festival, over 200 invited guests participated with local people in a variety of cultural activities, and each evening, all attended performances of a hollow log garma ceremony by Yolηu members of the Gumatj, Wangurri, Dhalwanηu and Ritharrηu clans as well as members of the Rembarrnga-speaking Balngarra clan. The intention behind this was to draw peoples from vastly different cultural backgrounds together so that they could move forward from the festival in unity. Guests also attended a series of seminars chaired by Professor Marcia Langton in her role as Director of the NTU's Centre for Indigenous Natural and cultural Resource Management (CINCRM).

Djalu Gurruwiwi
Djalu Gurruwiwi

Also present at the Garma Festival was a smaller contingent of dedicated didjeridu enthusiasts who had each paid significant sums to learn yidaki from the renowned Gälpu maker and player Djälu Gurruwiwi, and all had been strongly encouraged to attend a CINCRM forum on the yidaki (14 July). The main speakers at this forum were Djälu Gurruwiwi, Yothu Yindi's Gumatj lead singer and composer Mandawuy Yunupiηu, and the Warumpi Band's Gumatj lead singer and composer Djilayηa Burarrwaηa. As they spoke, the complex tensions that have arisen through Yolηu attempts to commercialise the instrument became apparent.

Djilayηa was the first to speak and gave an account of how, when he was a child some three decades ago, yidaki were only ever given to neighbouring groups through ceremonial exchange. He said that his father would exchange yidaki for esoteric knowledge, other gifts or rights in marriage, and that in general he views current pressures to exchange cultural goods for money as undignified and exploitative corruption of this ceremonial practice. Even though Methodist missions were established in Arnhem Land's northeast in the earlier half of the twentieth century before ceding their administrative powers to more representative local governments in the 1970s, their effect on local values and the continuance of ceremonial activities was limited. As such, Yolηu of Djilayηa's generation were raised in what is still essentially a subsistence-exchange society yet, within their lifetimes, have witnessed quite radical changes with Arnhem Land's increased exposure to the global market economy and its inherent cultural values.

Djälu spoke in Yolηu-Matha with Mandawuy interpreting for him. It is Djälu's instruments that are primarily played by Yothu Yindi, and he addressed the pressures that he has experienced personally as a result of his increased international profile as the band's primary yidaki maker. Djälu sees yidaki, and his skills and knowledge as a maker and player of the instrument as given by ancestors. It is this metaphysical relationship between himself and the instruments he makes that Djälu values above all else. Because Djälu's instruments have become so highly-prized amongst didjeridu enthusiasts, many are now fetching sums of well over $1000. However, he stated that, idealistically, no price whether it be $500 or $5000 can be placed on yidaki or the spiritual covenant with ancestors that they represent.

There are obvious advantages to be gained by Yolηu from the international sale of yidaki not least of which are financial. Since the 1960s, the owners of clan estates on the Gove Peninsula in particular have endured the social and environmental effects of an unwelcome bauxite-mining operation based in Nhulunbuy, and the musical activities of Yothu Yindi as well as international sales of yidaki have been instrumental in raising a wider awareness of their plight. If there is going to be a trade in didjeridus at all, it only stands to reason that those north Australian peoples from whose cultures the instrument originates should benefit from such enterprise.

However, Yolηu and other peoples of northern Australia with longstanding traditions of didjeridu use already compete with an array of other Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal makers in the free market for instrument sales. This not only limits their access to a broader consumer base, but also compromises their ability to affect wider-spread knowledge and recognition of their histories and cultures. Although the didjeridu's sound and image has come to symbolise the solidarity of Aboriginal peoples throughout Australia, it could be argued that the distinct localised identities of north Australian peoples have, to an extent, been subsumed by recent appropriations of the instrument by other Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups seeking to promote their own specific cultural, political and commercial agendas. There is already concern amongst local elders such as Djälu that the didjeridu's growing use by self-taught enthusiasts, a significant number of whom sell commercial recordings of their own music, threatens to debase the instrument's role in accompanying liturgical songs.

Sue Bunting, who for eight years worked as a solicitor in the field of intellectual property law, says that there is no provision for north Australian peoples with long-standing and continuous traditions of didjeridu use to protect their instruments through copyright or patenting. Moreover, copyright and patenting now serve as international bureaucratic superstructures that supposedly protect the potential interests of all, but do not recognise or accommodate pre-existing localised systems of ownership through inheritance or ritual exchange such as those still active in northern Australia. Copyright and patenting are designed to protect the intellectual property of individuals but do not, for instance, recognise the ownership rights of a clan in perpetuity through patrilineal descent, nor more specific laws that regulate who has the right to teach and learn liturgical songs and their didjeridu accompaniments as well as associated dances and designs in north Australian societies.

When Mandawuy spoke at the CINCRM forum, he emphasised the positive role that the yidaki plays in fostering mutual respect and recognition between Yolηu and other peoples. It was clear that, for those didjeridu enthusiasts in attendance, the Garma Festival was intended to be more than an opportunity to hone their technique. As expressed in the "Garma Festival Yidaki Statement" drafted directly after the forum, its organisers had also hoped to instil in them a sense of mutual exchange, responsibility and obligation to Yolηu elders. However, with no safeguards under Australian law for those northern peoples who own the didjeridu through birthright or ritual exchange against its appropriation and sale by others, the responsibility lies with all those who hold external interests in the instrument, whether they be makers, players, sellers, tourists, scholars or educators, to recognise its traditional owners and strive for a more accurate understanding and representation of its cultural origins.

Nevertheless, even for those enthusiasts who attended Djälu's yidaki masterclasses, the majority of whom had had prior Yolηu contact, attitudes were slow to change. For some, their pursuit of the instrument was all about "the sound" or personal betterment through "playing good stick". Some saw no reason, despite repeated explanations of the yidaki's spiritual significance, why didjeridus should not be bought and sold like any other instrument. Others, however, came with a well-established understanding and respect for Yolηu concerns, and an awareness of their ethical responsibilities, in the spirit of cultural exchange, to effect wider recognition of Yolηu through their own involvement with the instrument.

There was a high level of technical proficiency amongst the members of Djälu class and I admired their skills. However, as an ethnomusicologist, I would hope that there could be a wider appreciation of the north Australian song genres that the didjeridu accompanies and a better understanding of how specific natural processes serve as blueprints for their musical syntax. The vast majority of didjeridu enthusiasts are self-taught and play in individualised styles that north Australians find incomprehensible.

This does not mean, however, that there is no interest amongst didjeridu enthusiasts in the music-cultures of the instrument's origin. One German maker and player who attended Djälu's masterclasses told me that he had experienced many difficulties in locating commercial recordings of song series from the region, but that he and others had much interest in learning more about them.

There is, of course, the potential for serious problems to arise if enthusiasts begin to learn traditional song accompaniments from commercial recordings. This would, once again, circumvent the spirit of respect and cultural exchange that the Garma Festival was intended to instil, and flaunt local laws that regulate who is authorised to teach and learn particular songs. However, as the Garma Institute for Cultural Studies initiates its teaching program in coming years with appropriate educational mechanisms in place, perhaps there may be a negotiated role that those with a dedicated interest in the didjeridu and north Australian cultures can play in promoting a wider appreciation of local forms of musical expression.