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Database was last updated on:
May 11, 2006

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 : Traditional Music Glossary

Top End Traditional Music Glossary

This brief glossary is intended to aid the reader to understand the content of these pages and readily available texts on similar topics. It is not exhaustive, nor is it intended to be - it is merely an aid. Please note that, unlike English and many other languages, Aboriginal languages are owned by their speakers and as such, the Aboriginal words that appear here should not be appropriated by readers for their own or commercial use.

Suggested comments and additions are welcome.

Aeroplane noises - a descriptive term used by traditional people of the Top End to describe the way in which non-traditional Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people play the didjeridu.

A-type accompaniment - a term coined by Australian ethnomusicologist Alice Moyle to describe a didjeridu playing style from western, southern and central Arnhem Land and into the Gulf country and the Kimberley. No overtone is used.

Arnhem Land - a region of the north of the Northern Territory originally named by the Dutch crew of their vessel the 'Arnheim' as a consequence of their visit to the region in 1623.

B-type accompaniment - a term coined by Australian ethnomusicologist Alice Moyle to describe a didjeridu playing style used in eastern, and parts of central, Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt employing characteristic use of the overtone (and some other unique techniques)

Balanda - a light-skinned person, commonly applied to non-Aboriginal people. This Yolngu word has its' origins in macassarese; derived from "hollander", the Makassan word for the Dutch.

Bilma - clapsticks. Bilma is a specific yolngu word. Also a song category in which only sticks are used to accompany vocals (no didjeridu is played).

Bukulup - one type of purification ceremony of central and eastern Arnhem Land (a Yolngu word).

Bunggul (or Bungurl, Bunggal, or Bungle) - a Yolngu word that also refers to music and dancing, particularly of the djatpangarri style.

Clan - A kinship defined (familial) and estate owning group. Such groups speak and own their own langauge and also own knowledge, objects, designs, paintings and songs associated with that clan estate. Clan descent is claimed from a common ancestor (in a similar fashion as the Scots). There are over 40 such clans in eastern Arnhem Land.

The following table lists some of the well known clans in eastern Arnhem Land and the moiety to which they belong:
Dhuwa clan samples Yirritja clan samples

Clan songs

Clapsticks (aka tapsticks, clicksticks) - percussive sticks constructed of hardwood (usually ironwood) used to accompany song in musical performance. They are usually personal possessions and their design is determined by clan affiliation. Now widely known outside of Arnhem Land by the Yolngu word, bilma.

Cult Songs

Dhuwa - one of the the two moieties present in Eastern Arnhem Land to which all life, objects and phenomena, belong. Sometimes found spelt as Dua.

Didjeridu - (previously spelt "didgeridoo") a contemporary hollow tube constructed from a wide variety of materials and usually made by someone outside of the Top End, most commonly a non-Aboriginal and used as a musical instrument. Not an Aboriginal word.

Distal - the end of a didjeridu furthest from the player; often called the "bell" in contemporary didjeridu parlance, cf: proximal

Djarrak - a generic Yolngu word for terns (seabirds superficially similar to gulls).

Djatpangarri - a traditional song style of the bunggul genre from far northeastern Arnhemland first attributed to the Gumatj clansman Dhambidjawa. These popular songs of the far northeast relate to many everyday events (a Yolngu word).

Dreaming - previously called "The Dreamtime" etc. - these terms inadequately describe the way in which traditional Aboriginal people relate to their ancestral past and present. It would take an entire essay, rather than a single word, to convey something of the essence of the complex concepts involved. A good text to start to study this subject, and another.

Emeba - Groote Eylandt clan songs, characteristically sung with "shaky voice" (an Enindilyaugwa word).

Gadayka - one of many species of gum trees; in this case the northern Stringybark, Eucalyptus tetradonta, the live trunks of which are widely used for yidaki construction (a Yolngu word).

Garma - a Yolngu word describing a genre of a series of public ceremonies (includes eg: the public phases of purification, mortuary or initiation ceremonies)

Gudjika - a Yolngu word for a category of songs accompanied solely by boomerangs (as clapsticks).

Ironwood - a tropical hardwood timber, Erythrophleum chlorostachys, highly resonant from which a variety of items are made, in particular, clapsticks.

Kun-borrk (often spelt Gunborg, esp. in older texts)

Madayin' - a Yolngu word meaning sacred, secret (of words, songs, ceremonies, objects or places). Often found spelt "maraian" (or similar variations of).

Malgarri - a style of public ceremony performed west of the Blyth River in central Arnhem Land; the name for the didjeridu used in same (a Yolngu word).

Makassan (macassan) - People of the southwestern region of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Specifically from Macassar, also known as Ujungpandang, whom travelled to Australia to trade with Aboriginal people of the Top End for several centuries.

Manikay - (a Yolngu word) - songs, in particular, public clan songs accompanied by clapsticks and didjeridu. Often spelt "manigai" in older texts.

Marradjirri - a central and eastern Arnhem Land public exchange (& diplomacy) ceremony (a Yolngu word).

Moiety - an anthropology term that literally means 'half'. Moiety describes the belief that all things in the cosmos belong to each of two complimentary social and religious halves (this is not anything like the notions of Yin and Yang or similar dichotomies). All people, clans, ancestral figures, songs (including rhythms and clapstick beat patterns), designs, objects, phenomena, flora and fauna belong to one of each of the two moieties. These are also intermarrying units. In eastern Arnhem Land these moieties are named Dhuwa and Yirritja - in other regions, as per the table below.

Eastern Arnhem Land
Dhuwa Yirritja
Western + Central Arnhem Land
Central Arnhem Land
SE Arnhem Land
Groote Eylandt
East Wind Side (Mamarika)
West Wind Side (Barra)

Mouth Sounds - a term coined by ethnomusicologist Alice Moyle to describe a vocal technique used by a songman  to convey a desired rhythm to the didjeriduist; also used by a didjeriduist to remember particular rhythms or instruct student players in learning rhythms. Mouth sounds are not played through the instrument.

Ngaara - a yolngu ceremony focussing upon clan identity and law (a Yolngu word).

Overtone (aka overblow, toot, hoot) - the trumpet-like note produced by tighter lip tension and characteristic of B-type accompaniments

Proximal - the end of the didjeridu closest to the player, usually called the "mouthpiece", cf: distal

Puller - Aboriginal English (from the Top End) used in the past to refer to a didjeridu player

Songline - a term popularised by the writer Bruce Chatwin to describe a set of songs that recount the actions of ancestral beings as they journeyed across the landscape in the ancestral past. Often referred to in the past by anthropologists as 'song cycles' but now exploited and exaggerated by the New Age movement (and even professional social ecology types) to create a fallacious notion that these "dreaming tracks" are continuous lines crossing the entire continent (possibly confused with past Aboriginal trade routes). This somewhat disrespectful idea does not take into account diversity amongst Aboriginal cultures within Australia and their need to retain and assert individual identity.

Sticks - see clapsticks

Top End - usually refers to the top third of the Northern Territory. Sometimes this term is used in reference to the tropical regions of the Kimberley and Queensland (the Gulf and Cape York).

Totem - in Australia, (a somewhat inadequate term) used to refer to the connection between people, ancestral beings and the landscape (their clan estate) and includes the fauna and flora associated with it (often called "totemic species").

UVT (Unaccompanied Vocal Termination) - a final recitative (sung or spoken) performed by the songman after the didjeridu and sticks have finished playing in a bunggul performance

Wangga (often spelt Wongga, esp. in older texts)

Wan'tjurr - one type of purification ceremony of central and eastern Arnhem Land (a Yolngu word).

Yidaki (also yirdaki) - a specific type of didjeridu traditionally made by the Yolngu of eastern Arnhem Land. Much morphological variation exists with regional styles of instruments. Such instruments are known also by several other names such as Djalupiny, Mandupul and Dhambilpil (all Yolngu words).

Yirritja - one of the the two moieties present in Eastern Arnhem Land to which all life, objects and phenomena, belong.

Yolngu - traditional Aboriginal people of eastern Anhemland. The word means literally, 'people' and describes both the people of a common cultural bloc and the languages spoken by them (a Yolngu word).

Yuta - a Yolngu word meaning "new".


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