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The Essence of the Didgeridoo

Stephen Kent

By Stephen Kent

Master player and performer based in the USA

The Clarion Music Center, on a backstreet in San Francisco's Chinatown is an Aladdin's cave of musical instruments from all over the world. It is also home to the 'Wicked Sticks Gallery' - featuring many of the finest Yidaki made by Djalu Guruwiwi, the best known Aboriginal Yidaki maker in Arnhemland and a true master craftsmen. In the basement is a tiny little concert hall, seating about 55 people. It is a great place to play, and to hear acoustic music and every Friday night at 8 pm is a concert of world music drawn from San Francisco's large population of world-class musicians.

It doesn't take much to pack this room and last Friday it was packed! People like to see a man blowing down a hollow log. It connects them to the source. After days of rain and dealing with paperwork I hadn't been playing much. Then I ate too much dinner [I had an urge to eat Canneloni that night in North Beach]. After this ill-considered gorging I spaced out on the floor and tried to create physical and psychic space before I had to play. This is a low-pressure gig: no big crowds, no challenging new charts to read [ha ha], no potential sound problems, technically speaking. In short a perfect evening to go deep into the Didjeridu. But I was bummed out about my engorged abdomen. Perhaps I should say that playing the Didge is rooted in fairly extreme diaphragmic energy - challenging after eating.

So the time is now. Time to play. My set-up is simple - maybe deceptively simple: I have several didges, a few items of percussion - shakers, sticks etc. and a conga-like drum [Ngoma] I found in Zambia 15 years ago. I also have a stand to rest the bell end of my Didjeridu on as I play. [I play standing - most people sit while playing. I can't. To play is a dance that takes my whole body, like making love].

I enter the stage and all worries about my gut dissappear. Focus, quiet, I acknowledge the audience, maybe I speak, maybe I mutter to myself about what I'm going to do - the point is I don't know.....exactly. I have not made a decision about which instrument to start with. I am free as a soloist to go .....wherever, in sound, the muse pulls me. A Didjeridu selects me. That feels good. I am quiet, thoughts are getting lost, I lick my lips, I hesitate - clearing my mind, getting psychically naked, conscious yet unconscious, I look down, I am engaged with...what?...[I don't know in my head]..... the 'Other'....Spirit......the air spinning, quiet falling around me, vulnerable. Confident - I know deeply where I am - no words inside or outside - zoning in. The moment takes me - begin - I take a breath, a small breath [maybe] - enough - my body opens - air flows through buzzing lips. Resonant drone fills, fills and keeps filling the room. One note? Yes, but this note is more like a whole orchestra! There is so much color, so much texture, so much space, so much singing, so much rhythm, so much body, so much time, sooo much timeless time........I plug in.

To say I do not play the didjeridu, it plays me sounds cute, but that's how it is. It is the dance, it is trance, it is flow. I tune in. My body responds. I play - perhaps this time for 10/15 minutes - I don't know. Space grows, harmonic tones orchestrate with my breath [circular breathing]. Keep going. I use the percussion as color, texture, rattles, shakes, bones, air, earth, elements of nature, natural, urban, what is now? I am here. My body dances, I am blind, I am sound, I am home - and away......... then the groove starts - does it come from in me? Do I catch it? Do I move it? I don't know. The groove and I we beat together. Voices well up from inside me. Maybe my eyes are open now, maybe I see where I am, maybe I am aware, maybe not. I am not thinking when I am in this place. Maybe I play the shaker, shake the groove, maybe I play the drum, left-handed - always left-handed..... with my right I hold the instrument to my mouth. I swing! You bet your life I swing. Animal cries, Animal, Beat, Rhythm, Primal, Earth, Sophisticated.

I am music, Sound, I am thousands of years ago, I am now, I am something you hold but can never touch, I know nothing, and everything, in this trance. I am not me, I am apart - a part, a whole, a hole... full.

Where to go? I can keep on going up and up and up......but at some point I check -in with "Reality". I say, 'OK did they get enough yet? Shall I end?' I break the spell. Maybe I finish with a flourish - this is Performance, after all.