in didjeridu style and playing within
the Top End
As already discussed, there are three main musical
styles/genres in the region. The type of didjeridu used
depends upon the region and the genre of music being performed.
This page provides a general overview of regional variation
amongst Top End didjeridus and the way in which they are played.
It is important
to remember that Top End musical performances are composed
of four elements: voice, sticks, didjeridu and dance. Of these,
only voice is rarely, if ever used solely. Many casual listeners
are quick to criticize traditional didjeridu playing as boring
and repetitive, forgetting or not knowing the context in which
it is meant to be used. To play the didjeridu solely in a
traditional manner seems to leave these listeners cold, yet
it is expected that contemporary didjeridu be played as a
solo instrument at times, or at least to play a rather prominent
role in the music, rather than as an accompaniment as it is
in traditional music.
is the primary sound-producing instrument of the Australian
Styles of Instrument
in Wangga and Kun-borrk
In Wangga and Kun-borrk
music the didjeridu is often chosen so that the pitch of the
instrument matches the pitch of the songman's voice and there
is a noticeable use of vocalised harmonics, in particular
low croaks, by the didjeriduist. 'A-Type'
accompaniments are played, rhythm is deceptively simple and
played over a smooth drone, pieces lasting for up to a few
minutes in length.
Instruments used in these styles of playing are, as a general
rule, shorter, at times quite straight, and with a larger,
free-flowing bore. As such they have low backpressure and
are often highly pitched. These instruments are known by Kunwinjku/Kuninjku
as Mako (or Mago) and by Gundjeihmi as Mole
in Bunggul Music
The pitch of the
instrument appears to be largely unimportant in bunggul
pieces. The didjeriduist employs a variety of techniques above
that used by players outside of this stylistic region. Vocals
(often falsetto) are sometimes used to mimic bird calls, for
example that of the brolga, and also to generate low 'croaks'
and pulsing. 'B-type' playing
is the norm and pieces tend to be short (20-30 seconds is
not uncommon), the rhythm more complex with a faster tempo.
is employed by the Yolngu and their neighbours, the Enindilyaugwa
of Groote Eylandt, the Nunggubuyu of southeastern Arnhem Land
(around Numbulwar - opposite Groote Eylandt) (Moyle,1981),
and those in central Arnhem Land such as the Rembarrnga and
Kune, and the western edge of coastal eastern Arnhem Land,
the Burarra. (Garde,
Instruments used in this style of playing are, as a general
rule, longer, may be quite straight or sinuous but notably
have a narrower, less-tapered bore. The bore maybe slighltly
tapered over much of its' length, or have the upper third
or so fairly parallel then with a reasonable taper all the
way to the distal end. Much variation in backpressure exists
according to the bore shape, and the narrower, more parallel
shape enables the overtone to be played with relative ease.
Amongst Yolngu the didjeridu is commonly known as Yidaki
should be noted that in addition there is much variation in
yidaki morphology in eastern and northeastern Arnhem
Land. Dhuwa and Yirritja instruments are different lengths
and shapes, and within each moiety
there is further variation depending upon clan affiliation.
I'll make brief
mention here about the artwork on instruments. Traditional
pieces used in ceremony are usually very plain. Either painted
all the one colour, or portions of the instrument painted
in a few different colours. The elaborate artwork seen on
many instruments today, although often reflecting the makers'
affiliations with clan/country, are really only there to raise
the aesthetics and value of the instrument. Frankly, most
of the instruments purchased today are bought because of their
appearance - most owners will never play them - they're an
artwork in their own right. To discuss further, the artistic
content, would be to broach cultural ground so I will leave
the discussion at that.
techniques are fundamentally different to contemporary playing
heard on the many commercially available recordings. Traditional
playing technique also varies across the Top End. Use the
links below to get an overview of traditional playing technique.
Have a look at Ed
Drury's western Arnhem Land techniques page. The cheeks
are often used in part to aid the smoothing of the drone.
Here is an example
of me attempting to play an A-Type
Very little cheek, if any, is used. Playing is both strenuous
and exhaustive with short rapid breaths being snatched - often
2 short breaths (within one second) taken in quick succession.
I think this style of playing is better described as circular
panting, rather than "circular breathing". The overtone is
played as both a sustained note of some 2 seconds or so, or
as extremely brief "spat" notes that add to the percussive
structure of the music. The tongue is used forcefully and
rapidly in conjunction with the diaphragm to "pop" the air
column within the bore, forming a characteristic and major
structural component of the playing.
Here is an example
of me attempting a B-Type accompaniment.
The heavier accented beats in this rhythm are the "pops" described
above, the overtones occur at the end of the sample.
& 'B-type' accompaniments
(1978) uses the terms "A-type" and "B-type" to distinguish
between western and eastern Arnhem Land playing styles, viz;
"As a rule,
'A-type' didjeridu accompaniments are heard in western Arnhem
Land; 'B-type' didjeridu accompaniments in eastern Arnhem
Land. Though these accompaniments vary according to song types,
the chief difference between them is in the sounding of an
upper or overblown tone, an octave or more (usually a tenth)
above the lower or 'drone' tone, a feature of all eastern
Arnhem Land accompaniments classed as 'B-type' ".
This higher note
(also known as the overtone or overblown note) is achieved
by increasing both lip tension and air flow, more like the
embouchure employed by brass wind instrument players. Although
the overtone can often be produced on western Arnhem Land
instruments, it is not used in the music from that region
as it's difficult to achieve a clear overtone with a smooth
transition back to the fundamental drone.
In central Arnhem
Land (east and south from Maningrida) in an area bounded roughly
by the Mann & Blyth Rivers, there is an overlap in both
the musical styles and instrument types and both A & B-type
accompaniments are employed. People of this region whom perform
music with both A & B type accompaniments include the
Burarra, Rembarrnga and Kune.
3. delineates these major regions and also those areas
in which A-type and B-type playing is used.
Here is an example
of me attempting an A-Type accompaniment.
Here is an example
of me attempting a B-Type accompaniment.
Dr Alice Moyle coined this term. Garde
(1997) describes it well;
didjeridu players start performing in ceremonies as teenagers
and rely on a mnemonic device which I describe as 'rhythm
vocalisation' in order to remember the often complex rhythmic
patterns of individual song accompaniment. The English name
of the instrument itself 'didjeridu' is a simple onamatapoeic
example of this device."
Mouth sounds are
employed as follows;
- as an aid to
learning and practising rhythms,
- used between
songman and didjeriduist to convey the type of rhythmic
accompaniment required for the performance,
- sometimes forms
part of the lyrics. It may form a short intro to the piece
(in a manner similar to the previous point), but more commonly
as an unaccompanied vocal termination (UVT)
- a terminating vocalised end to the song.
See Moyle's Songs
of the Northern Territory, Vol 2, tracks 8 (b), 10 (c,d),
The actual mouth
sounds themselves are not spoken/played into the instrument.
They are a means of representing the didj with the voice -
just like if you were to hum a tune to jog someones memory
- or to indicate what you'd want them to play on the piano,
guitar, drums, whatever. We can't make the equivalent sounds
with our voices, so we use vocal representations of the sound.
There is no standard
vocal sound that represents a particular didj note, although
some mouth sounds such as "dup" are used over a wide area
- in this case it represents a short "spat" overtone. Similarly,
the rolling of the tongue in a mouth sound often represents
a deep vocal growl on the didj.
A few examples
of common mouth sounds to help illustrate the point:
In the "Did-ar-o"
type of mouth sound from western Arnhem Land, the "Did-" is
a a forceful outbreath combined with a forceful tongue push
that strikes the palate just above the teeth; the "-ar" is
a fast retraction of the tongue and an opening of the throat;
the -o", a low vocalised growl.
The "dup" sound
(the 'u' pronounced as in 'put') used in central, eastern,
northeastern AL and Groote Eylandt is not vocalised,
but the same lip and tongue action is used to generate the
brief "spat" overtone.
(1981) suggests a possible connection between the use of the
overtone in B-Type playing and language. Something like 7/8ths
of Australia is dominated by languages of the Pama-Nyungan
'family'. The Top End (the remaining 1/8th), by contrast contains
some twenty different 'families', except for the Yolngu region
in the northeast - which oddly is also Pama-Nyungan. So in
the Top End, Yolngu (Pama-Nyungan type speakers) use the overtone,
while most of western and southern Arnhem Land, whom are non-Pama-Nyungan
speakers, do not. The exception is those regions adjacent
to the Yolngu cultural bloc mentioned previously that may
have adopted the use of the overtone through prolonged contact
with Yolngu (Garde).
technique seems more difficult to learn for those whom do
not speak any Australian languages
(or conversely for those whom are exclusively English speakers).
This may be in part due to the different sounds that exist
in Aboriginal languages that are not used in English (for
example). These sounds require tongue positions that we, as
English speakers, do not use and hence are difficult to learn.
It has also been suggested that our lower, flatter palates
and more restricted sinuses may play a restrictive role.
For more information
on Yolngu languages see: