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Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Didjeridu & Traditional Music of the Top End
The content of this page was originally created by Peter Lister

Didjeridu Home : Issues of Authenticity

Issues 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
Please Note: This page appears here as the result of the author offering it for inclusion on this site.

The emergence 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.

Words 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)

In the 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.

With the 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?

Who are the Yolngu and what is a ‘yirdaki’?

The Yolngu 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.

However, 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.

Well 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)

The Yothu 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.

But what 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 Australia.

Australian wooden drone pipes

Many cultures 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.

In Australia, there are several categories of wooden pipe that are structurally and functionally distinguished from each other, though there are overlaps in certain categories.

To the north are the didjeridu and didjeridu-like forms. In the Central Australia region are much shorter, and functionally distinct, forms to the didjeridu.

The yirdaki 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.

The yirdaki

To begin 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.

Matters 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.

What is 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.

Likewise, 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...

Lessons from wine connoisseurs: quality, authenticity and snobbery

Appreciation 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.

But on 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’ people.

Whether 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.

In the 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 inter-relations.

But today, 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.

Even in 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.

Then there 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.

So, to 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.

And perhaps 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, rule.

I believe 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.

I further 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.

If we 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.

There’s 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)


Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister