of Authenticity: When is a didjeridu not a yirdaki?
Issues of authenticity, commodification and control of an
Australian Aboriginal artifact in the global economy.
2000 Guan Y. Lim
Note: This page appears here as
the result of the author offering it for inclusion on this
of the predominantly Aboriginal rock band, Yothu
Yindi, on the world stage not only caused stirs within
the musical industry - the hugely popular ‘Treaty’, with its
groovy hypnotic rhythms, catchy pop tunes, and pulsating tribal
undercurrent, sent chills up the spine of nightclubbers from
New York to Khartoum in Sudan. But whilst feet were tapping,
something else was happening. In the consciousness of music
listeners in the farthest reaches of the globe, a seed of
awareness - a message - was planted.
are easy words are cheap, much cheaper than our priceless
land, but promises can disappear, just like writing in the
sand. Treaty yeah...!” ('Treaty', Yothu Yindi, 1992)
intervening years since ‘Treaty’, a cult following for the
band - and especially for the culture and tradition, as well
as the ‘middle ground’, that the music represents - has seen
music listeners transformed into home-grown students of anthropology
and interested activists. It is fair to say that it was the
‘yirdaki’ that crystallised this transformation in
many. That this cult following is beginning to take the shape
of the Western world’s sympathy and support for the plight
of the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama, demonstrates, on the one
hand, the despairing socio-economic situation in Arnhem Land,
and the depth of vision and leadership of the Yolngu elders
on the other.
establishment of the Garma Cultural Studies Institute, and
already a strong force in Australia's cultural and political
scene, the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land are at a crossroads
- the path to cultural survival, political autonomy, and economic
self-sufficiency lies somewhere ahead but which road to follow?
are the Yolngu and what is a ‘yirdaki’?
are a people, or peoples, who are closely related to each
other through shared social, cultural and linguistic identities.
Comprising of dozens of patrilineal clans, the Yolngu as a
group occupy the north-east portion of Arnhem Land, and under
Australian law, are recognised land-owners for their own tribal
lands. Fortunate compared to most other Australian Aboriginal
groups, primarily due to isolation and history, the Yolngu
have to a large degree maintained their languages,
traditions and cultures. They exert a degree of autonomy not
seen in other parts of Aboriginal Australia.
whilst the above descriptives may paint a picture of social
stability and cultural prosperity, the reality is in fact
more complex and less pleasant. Education standards, employment
levels and health indices for Yolngu contrast distressingly
with that of the average Australian. Yolngu continue to grapple,
even struggle, with an intransigent and overbearing political
system, one that continues to deny the facts of history, and
which refuses to make amends for past wrongs. Living conditions
in some communities resemble scenes from Third World countries.
I heard it on the radio, and I saw it on the television, back
in 1988, all those talking politicians... now two rivers run
their course, separated for so long, I’m dreaming of a brighter
day, when the waters will be one... Treaty yeah!” ('Treaty',
Yothu Yindi, 1992)
Yindi band has used and continues to use the yirdaki
as a rhythm instrument in its music, and one may perhaps suggest
that the instrument has been used strategically to give voice
to the cultural and political aspirations of the Yolngu. That
non-Aboriginal aficionados of the instrument from Stuttgart
to San Francisco greet each other in Yolngu kinship terms,
and are becoming increasingly steeped in the linguistics,
religious and cultural lives of the Yolngu, is a global phenomenon
of unparalleled precedence, with the exception of the world-wide
interest in Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, and Eastern mysticism
and philosophies in general. Aficionados even traverse the
globe on their pilgrimage to the Mecca of the yirdaki,
north-east Arnhem Land, mostly to meet with one of its most
popular and Messianic figures, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi.
exactly is a yirdaki? Increasingly, the term has been
misused, and much debate surrounds its definition. Rather
than attempting to define it here in black and white terms,
because that is surely impossible at this stage, I shall endeavour
to place the yirdaki in the wider context of what is
known about the didjeridu and other wooden drone pipes of
wooden drone pipes
throughout the world possess wooden or other pipes that are
formally similar to the Australian didjeridu. That is, in
structural terms, they resemble the didjeridu, but functionally,
they are differentiated from the didjeridu.
there are several categories of wooden pipe that are structurally
and functionally distinguished from each other, though there
are overlaps in certain categories.
north are the didjeridu and didjeridu-like forms. In the Central
Australia region are much shorter, and functionally distinct,
forms to the didjeridu.
is merely a type of didjeridu, a form that is used by the
Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land. The yirdaki
is quite different to other types of didjeridu because of
its particular acoustic properties, though this in itself
shows variance according to regional preferences and prescribed
law among Yolngu clan groups.
with, the orthographically correct spelling is ‘yirdaki’
or ‘yidaki’, but not ‘yidaki’. The ‘rd’ or ‘d’
is a phoneme in the Yolngu languages
that is absent in English; it requires retroflexion of the
tongue in order to articulate the phoneme. Most, if not all
non-Yolngu speakers, mispronounce this word, by neglecting
to express the retroflexion of the ‘rd’ or ‘d’. Stress
also falls on the first syllable of the word, rather than
on the second that most non-Yolngu speakers seem to prefer.
of linguistics aside, the yirdaki is an unstopped wooden
pipe - of cylindrical or slightly conical shape, and usually
constructed of certain indigenous termite-hollowed hardwoods,
or more commonly in the past, of bamboo - that is regarded
as the cultural heritage of Yolngu clan groups of northeast
Arnhem Land. A musical instrument, the yirdaki is played
by learned and accomplished members of the clan as accompaniment
to various genres of song. The yirdaki accompanies
the voice and bilma (clapstick) during mortuary, initiation
and cleansing ceremonial rites, and in contemporary times,
also in secular occasions including accompaniment to folk
and gospel songs.
particularly interesting about the yirdaki is the inseparability
of form, on the one hand, and technique, on the other. An
instrument is selected for ceremonial use, or is deemed suitable
or in-tune, because it is amenable to certain techniques and
is in agreement, stylistically, to the musical and cultural
form of the particular ceremony. For instance, an instrument
selected for a Liyagalawumirr ceremony may not necessary
be appropriate to a Wangurri ceremony, whilst both
instruments would share particular acoustic characteristics
that distinguish them as yirdaki and that set them
apart from didjeridus used in the Western Arnhem Land cultural
bloc, where the name ‘yirdaki’ would not be appropriate
to describe the form of didjeridu or didjeridus used there.
an instrument used in a ceremony of the Gunwinggu people
of Western Arnhem Land would be unsuitable to all the Yolngu
clans of north-east Arnhem Land. So, what is it exactly that
distinguishes a yirdaki used by the Wangurri
as opposed to one favoured by the Liyagalawumirr, Gupapuyngu,
Marrangu or Djambarrpuyngu clans? And how is
a mago - a form of didjeridu used in Western Arnhem
Land - distinct to the ‘average’ yirdaki of north-east
Arnhem Land? Therein lies the question...
from wine connoisseurs: quality, authenticity and snobbery
of yirdaki and other forms of didjeridu is akin to
the passion wine connoisseurs have for their favourite past-time.
However, whilst the wine industry has been in existence for
millennia, and with it has seen the development and efflorescence
of a language to describe all the subtleties, complexities
and idiosyncrasies of its products, the level of understanding,
appreciation, and description of the attributes and ‘flavours’
of yirdaki and other forms of didjeridu is still in
its infancy in non-Aboriginal society.
many levels, wine and didjeridu are similar. There is good
wine and bad wine. There is cheap and expensive wine. There
are wines past their used-by-date, and more frighteningly,
there are fakes on the connoisseur market. Some wines are
under-valued whilst others are over-priced and over-rated.
Wines are known under many different names depending on the
type of grape used in its manufacture, the manner of production,
and the locality from which the product emanates. Vintage
is also important in assessing the quality of a wine, as is
how its was matured and the degree of technology used in the
processing. Some wines are better suited to particular types
of meals, occasions, and moods. They should be served appropriately,
at the right temperature and in suitable glasses. Whilst there
is a certain degree of etiquette and technicality involved
in the full wine experience, a hint of snobbery, no doubt,
exists - a mark of ‘civilised’ society and of ‘sophisticated’
a wine is full-bodied, fruity, crisp, bright, aromatic, sweet,
nutty and/or acidic requires a certain expertise on the part
of the ‘taster’. And to become knowledgeable, not only does
one need to be well-read and to have similar-minded persons
to share opinions and tasting experiences with, but it would
be a prerequisite for any self-respecting connoisseur to have
‘tasted’ many dozens, if not thousands, of different wines.
didjeridu scene and industry, there are many parallels with
the wine counterpart. There are good, bad, cheap, expensive,
fake and authentic items on the market. But how exactly one
categorises any particular instrument is becoming increasingly
problematic and confused, principally due to the involvement
of non-Aboriginal people in the manufacture - sometimes from
start to finish - of this commodified article, with its associated
burgeoning industry. A couple of decades ago, such a crisis
would not have been prevalent, as Aboriginal people, mainly
Yolngu and their neighbours, were the sole manufacturers of
this instrument, which was mainly used internally within the
community or otherwise became a commodity which they sold
to the wider Australian community through arts and craft outlets,
or through mission-sponsored avenues. Even earlier than this,
the didjeridu was a trade item as were their corresponding
tribal tunes and rhythms, which were passed from one Aboriginal
group to the next in a network of marriage, economic and religious
one finds poor ‘specimens’ that were never even made in Australia,
let alone ever touched by an Aboriginal person. They come
in ship loads from overseas where labour is cheap. Mostly
they are drilled to form a hollow where termites would have
conventionally eaten through the trunk of a tree to be subsequently
felled by an Aboriginal craftsman, who would then carefully
and almost lovingly coax life into the hollowed timber by
chipping, scrapping, and cutting away until the pre-existing
and inherent form or spiritual essence of the instrument is
freed from surrounding wood.
Australia, exploitation of this Aboriginal cultural icon is
rampant. Some outfits work in organised and well-equipped
teams, wantonly cutting and decimating the Australian bush
with chain-saws, unscrupulously combing the open stringybark
forests and bloodwood stands with off-road dirt bikes, 4WD
vehicles, and large pick-up trucks like jackeroos mustering
cattle. Surprisingly, some of these have the permission of
State or Territory authorities to engage in such activities.
The products of some of these work teams end up in galleries
and overseas markets as Aboriginal-made items, clearly in
contradiction to reality.
are less unscrupulous craftsmen, who, in the tradition of
their Aboriginal counterparts, and sometimes in collaboration
with them, take the time and care in selecting suitable material
to craft, and who regard their trade as a passion and art
form to be honed and developed through time and experience.
Very few, however, operate in this manner.
return to the original question, what is an authentic yirdaki
and how does one assess the quality of an instrument? I am
afraid that no answer is forthcoming in this article, except
that much needs to be discussed before consensus can be reached.
Certainly, in keeping with the tradition of ‘tasting’ wine,
many instruments would have to be handled, played and experienced
before one can form any appreciation and opinion on the matter.
One would need to savour and have access to the ‘best vintage’,
the rarest, oldest and ‘most authentic’ instruments - probably
locked up somewhere in museums - as well as to sample cheap
trashy material plastered with tacky pseudo-Aboriginal motifs
in horrible colour schemes.
therein lies part of the answer... a truly authentic yirdaki
or didjeridu is an Aboriginal artifact. It was made in a traditional
manner with knowledge that spans generations, and is itself
a product of the living cultural and natural environment of
which the original inhabitants of the land were and are a
part. Given this, are authentic yirdaki still being
crafted by Yolngu in remote corners of Arnhem Land? Probably
not if one sees things in black and white. But in reality,
shades of grey, and shifting cultural and traditional practices,
in the old continuity-and-change concern of anthropologists,
the best instruments are still fashioned by Yolngu craftsmen.
I am a collector and connoisseur of old instruments, as they
afford a lens through which I can look back into time, when
culture and tradition were less influenced by outside forces.
But I am also impressed by the innovations of modern-day non-Aboriginal
craftsmen, whose technical expertise allow a re-configuration
of instrument form and acoustic soundscape. However, I am
in disagreement with the ‘snobbery’ of those non-Yolngu players
that ‘bigger is better’. Good wines don’t always come in fancy
bottles. Their delicacy and deliciousness speak for themselves,
just as the exquisite balance of sub-harmonics, back pressure,
resonance, frequency spectrum, brightness, and control marks
an outstanding instrument from a flashy superficial one.
believe that to fully appreciate yirdaki and other
forms of didjeridu, one would need to return to the origins
of the instrument. By combining appropriate instrument form
with suitable traditional technique, the best would be brought
out of the instrument, just as a wine is best at a certain
temperature, maturation phase, and with particular foods and
atmospheres. That is where the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, the
custodians of this unique instrument and guardians of its
secrets, are masters where we are mere imbeciles.
were to respect the origins of the yirdaki, acknowledge
the Aboriginal law that governs and protects its integrity,
and seek Yolngu authority and knowledge with regards to its
use, only then will we begin to understand and treasure the
yirdaki for what it really is, rather than what we
want it to be or what we think it is. This ought to be the
new paradigm with which we embrace the yirdaki as it
makes its entry onto the global market.
a wakening of a rainbow dawn, and the Sun will rise up high,
there’s a whisper in the morning light, saying get up and
meet the day...” ('Tribal Voice', Yothu Yindi, 1992)