The Didjeridu
From Arnhem Land

to Internet
Edited by
Karl Neuenfeldt

The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet is the first comprehensive study of the Australian Aboriginal instrument, the didjeridu, from a range of musical, cultural and sociological viewpoints. Written in an informed but accessible style, individual chapters analyze traditional uses of the instrument; its use in contemporary Aboriginal rock; the perspective of various accomplished players (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal); and aspects of the instrument's global diffusion in the 1990's.

The book includes a foreword from Mandawuy Yunupingu, cultural activist and lead singer with the internationally renowned Aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi. Other contributors include noted Aboriginal musicians such as Kev Carmody, David Hudson and Mick Davison; and leading writers and academics in the field of contemporary music studies from Australia, North America and the United Kingdom.

Dr. Karl Neuenfeldt lectures in Media and Communications at Central Queensland University (Rockmhampton Campus). He has published widely in a variety of journals and has also worked as a professional musician in North and Central America and Australia.)

ISBN 1 86462-004-8


This Book Review is published in its entirety from the Yearbook for Traditional Music 29/97 by Michael Webb.

The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet edited by Karl Neuenfeldt Sydney, John Libby and Perfect Beat, 1997 viii, 184 pp., photographs. available from Wicked Sticks Gallery.

This book length anthology explores musical, political, social, and other cultural facets of that Australian Aboriginal aerophone, the didjeridu , the sound of which has had a great vogue in world music in the 1990's. The Didjeridu replaces volume 3 (1) of Perfect Beat- The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture.

A mythology has grown up around the didjeridu which among other things centers on the seemingly paradoxical relationship between the instrument's simplicity of means and yet complexity of sound possibilities, its associations with an essentialist spirituality and naturalness, and its symbolic potential. Neuenfeldt's volume expounds (and in places expands) aspects of this didjeridu mythology as well as supplements the published record with much new and needed work on the instrument and its cultural significance. Its stated objective is to encourage readers to understand the didjeridu on several interconnected levels including: distinctive instrument, icon, and sound; as a nexus of social relationships; as a way of engaging wider theoretical issues such as appropriation, globalisation and commodification; as a local and global product and process that will continue to develop in soundscapes and humanscapes of individuals and groups. (p.9)

The book approaches this "one instrument with many voices" through a "multi-vocal survey" (p.6). That is, it juxtaposes the framed and edited voices of performer-composers, music educators, alternative lifestylers, entrepreneurial retailers, recording engineers, and producers (all of these contributions are made by way of interview transcripts) ,with transcripts of Internet discussions between aficionados as well as the sociological, cultural, and musical analyses of scholars. The result is a fascinating and detailed range of opinions, viewpoints, claims, beliefs, reflections, images, interpretations, and insights.

Stylistically the anthology is quite accessible. Academic contributions are generally of an even quality. However, there are several weak spots. For the sake of readability, the text of one paper -- an otherwise thoughtful examination of the didjeridu as artifact and icon in Alice Springs, central Australia (where the instrument was not part of traditional culture) -could have been more lucid. Another paper while offering valuable data comparing traditional Yolngu didjeridu styles and uses with those of contemporary British and Irish musicians, is in places disappointingly noncommittal. Promising at the outset a "consideration of the didjeridu as a vehicle of global unity in world music's" (p.162) - it is not clear to me what this means), the paper rather flatly concludes, " Now that the didjeridu has overcome its long -held curiosity status , it remains to be seen whether its application in varying contexts is merely a passing phase" (p.180).

The placement between Chapters 5 and 6 of eight pages of color plates of didjeridu is curious, since no framing explanation or justification for their inclusion is provided. Captions identify instrument makers and briefly note what the designs on the instruments represent. A more extended iconography of didjeridu markings would have been valuable.

The anthology does offer much to provoke thought and discussion , however. Particularly, I would like to draw attention to two of these for the insights they afford--the interview with Aboriginal musician David Hudson and the article on Charlie McMahon, an Anglo-Australian. According to interviewer Fred Tietjen, Hudson , a virtuoso solo recording artist who has extended the techniques and possibilities of the didjeridu," has been one of the key figures in the Aboriginal cultural renaissance of the last decade" (p.33) Charlie McMahon, Shane Homan's article claims, was "one of the first to realize the potential of the didjeridu outside the boundaries of Aboriginal ritual performance" (p.132) and " the first non-Aboriginal musician to introduce the didjeridu drone within a rock context " (p.125).

Not formally discussed or analyzed in any detail in the anthology is the new Aboriginal "programmatic-soundscape-style" solo music for didjeridu for which Hudson and players such as Mark Atkins, Alan Dargin and Matthew Doyle deserve to become more widely known. There are extended analyses of the didjeridu as used in rock and other popular music contexts (Dunbarr-Hall), as well as traditional genres (Knopoff, Magowan) and various world music fusion's (Magowan). In responding to Tietjen's questions, the articulate Hudson reveals the details of his individual playing style and how his compositions are developed in statements such as " You go on a journey, you play the rhythm of being on walkabout and the rhythms of everyday life," and "I incorporate the sound of the land in my playing" (p.35 ) .
Elsewhere in the same article, Hudson describes how his playing style grows out of the process of composing and vice versa. On drawing inspiration from nature for a solo piece for example, he explains that he might study the way a pelican flies, then "imagine myself doing exactly the same rhythm as what he's doing"...the amount of beats that his heart's beating , {that's} exactly how I imagine my style of didjeridu playing to be. I play like the pelican is flying" (p.35). These remarks effectively complement and illuminate statements in Magowan's article: "In Yolngu songs the gradual increases in the tempo of the didjeridu accompaniment image a change in action of the animal, bird, element, ancestor" (p.173). An authentically Aboriginal didjeridu sound seems to be almost invariably referential of something external --playing the instrument in response to one's surroundings. "To get the earth sounds and to get to the richness of the bush sounds," says Hudson "you've got to go out and hear these things for yourself." (p. 35) and incorporate the experience into one's playing. It is impossible, he implies, to imitate these aspects of the didjeridu sound from another player or from a recording.

In the light of the current Australian political debates on racial reconciliation, Shane Homan's article on Charlie McMahon is particularly timely. In fact, McMahons's music and his progressive approach to the didjeridu constitute a model for intercultural exchange, mutual understanding, and respect between Australia's Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations. McMahon has had first hand experience with Aboriginal Culture from living and working in central Australia, and he is refreshingly unsentimental and direct in his response to indigenous culture. " I didn't really get involved with the ceremonial stuff," he explains , "because it was their beliefs and I didn't believe in the same way ... I've had too much science bunged into me" (p.127).

In touring with Midnight Oil in the mid-to-late 1980's McMahon was involved in the first popular initiative toward racial reconciliation in Australia (see p.127 ). Homan's survey of McMahon's career reveals that over several decades MaMahons's mainstream (white) reception has gradually shifted from apathy, even hostility, to cultural engagement and inquiry. From it we also learn that Aboriginal didjeridu performers and audiences have come to admire McMahon's playing: "I think it's great that the race relations aren't so bad that I can do what I do," McMahon reflects. McMahon succeeds as a broker of Australian culture to Australians ,because as Homan points out, he operates on the basis of "implicit assumptions that some musical and cultural experiences can be shared."

By concentrating on just two articles from the anthology in this review, I hope to infer to potential readers that the book rewardingly and interestingly explores numerous musical and cultural issues, and that it is sure to stimulate much equally rewarding discussion. For these reasons, The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet should be required reading for a whole range of music, media and communications, popular culture, and cultural studies courses both in Australian and overseas universities and colleges. Because Barwick's article, "Gender Taboos and Didjeridu" touches with such clarity on many issues germane to all of these fields, I suggest it as a starting point for such a reading lists.

The attractive presentation of the anthology and its varied approach to its subject recommends it to a more general readership as well (the clear music transcriptions of Dunbarr-Hall's and Knopoff's articles are a bonus from musicologists, but with a small effort could also reward non-readers of music notation. For all its potential users, an annotated list (pointing out what to listen for) of outstanding representative recordings would have been a worthwhile inclusion. In the absence of such a list the discographies at the end of the various articles will have to suffice.

It is to be hoped that this volume and the promised continued inquiry in future issues of Perfect Beat (p.9) will assist in correcting prevailing "erroneous impressions" of the didjeridu (p.93) as well as other aspects of Aboriginal Culture, and serve in the recognition of a vital ancient/modern Australian culture. In conclusion, it is worth reiterating David Hudson's reminder that after all, "There's more to Aboriginal culture that the didjeridu" (p.37).
--Michael Webb- from the Yearbook For Traditional Music