By Rajiv Theodore
New Delhi, Nov. 7, 2019: I doubt whether I would have ever come to know of a “Didgeridoo” if a chance encounter one evening with Ron Murray did not take place.
He was on his way from Melbourne to Chennai with a stopover in Delhi. As the long shadows of Humayun’s tomb fell over the well-manicured Mughal gardens which had been painstakingly restored recently Ron was in the midst walking with an extremely strange piece of polished wood, about five feet in length.
We got to chat and what went on was an exhilarating journey which was almost 40,000 years old or as old as the Didgeridoo or the Didge in short if you please. It is possibly the world’s oldest musical instrument.
Ron who was slightly taller than the Didge demonstrated the instrument as he kept the bend portion on the grass and fitted his cherubic face, (to be accurate his mouth) into the other end and blew the air from his lungs in a controlled but powerful bursts. What came out was a deep baritone drone, that could have startled some.
But it quickly became rhythmic and welcoming even to the extent of creating a vibration that had an almost trance like effect. The Didge produces low-pitch, resonant sounds with complex rhythmic patterns and is generally an accompaniment to chants and songs.
Traditionally didgeridoos were made from eucalyptus tree trunks and limbs hollowed out, while still living, by termites, or from bamboo in the far north of Australia. The termite hollowed Didgeridoo was cut to an average length of 130 to 160cm and cleaned out with a stick or sapling. Today didgeridoos are made from a large variety of materials such as Glass, Leather, Hemp Fibre, Ceramic, Plastic, Fibreglass, Carbon Fibre, solid timbers carved out, logs drilled out, dried/hollowed Agave cactus stems, Aluminium and other metals and just about any material which can be formed into a hollow tube!
These days the didgeridoo is heard in almost every style of music, rock, jazz, blues, pop, hip hop, electronic, techno, funk, punk, rap etc. There are truly no limits to the use of this awesome instrument.
Ron himself creates his Didge from the Mallee Tree native to his region and is part of the eucalyptus family. He says he takes about 60 hours to make one and he sells it off for anywhere in the range of A$10,000 to A$50,000 apiece.
Ron tells me that the Didge can create the best known sounds of the Australian bush which is replete with the laughter of the Kookaburra, a handsome bird of the region which at dusk comes alive with its trills, chortles, belly laughs and hoots. He tells me that it is the sounds of Australia. ‘’If the earth had a voice it would sound like the Didgeridoo.’’
Aboriginal art and culture is deeply entrenched in nature as the aborigine would go into the wild and listen intensely to animal sounds, not just voices but also the flapping of wings or the thump of feet on the ground. The Aborigine would also listen to the sounds of wind, thunder, trees creaking, and water running.
The essences of all these sounds were played with as much accuracy as possible within the droning sound of the didge. For the Aborigine nature watching takes almost a different dimension which requires a deep sense of empathy and which also manifests itself into an imitative expression of the very nature itself.
He explains that this is part of the aboriginal music which unites our consciousness with its invisible laws and energy patterns of nature. Ron, I learnt was an aboriginal himself with a tinge of Scottish blood from Central Victoria.
He wears many hats—a cultural educator, story teller, musician, didgeridoo maker, wood sculptor and many more. He has an international reputation as a didgeridoo soloist, having performed widely in Australia, and also in New York, Jordon, Canada and New Zealand. His research thesis looked at how indigenous knowledges can combat racist attitudes in the wider community.
He has been employed by Victoria Police, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and is currently indigenous trainer for Diversity@Work. He also tells me that as a didgeridoo maker and wood sculptor he has made beautiful art pieces for Muhammad Ali, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Sir Bob Geldof, American composer Philip Glass, and Harlem Dance Company, to name a few.
There are many different Aboriginal names for the instrument, primarily because there are so many different language groups amongst the Aboriginal people. In T.B. Wilson’s Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (1835), there is a drawing of an Aboriginal man from Raffles Bay, Coburg Peninsula, playing the instrument.
Observations made at Raffles Bay, describe the instrument as being about 3 feet long and made of bamboo. Names obtained were eboro, ebero and ebroo. Today there are at least 45 different synonyms for the didgeridoo. Some are bambu, bombo, kambu, pampuu, (may reflect didge origins from bamboo), garnbak, illpirra, martba, Jiragi, Yiraki, Yidaki, (seem close dialectically and which means “bamoo” although no longer commonly made from bamboo).
Another interesting facet Ron told me was that the word didgeridoo can be spelt many different ways, none of which are Aboriginal names for the instrument. The word “didgeridoo” was a western word given to the instrument around 100 years ago.
According to newspaper and other articles found in Australia It seems that the word didgeridoo developed from people trying to describe the sound the instrument makes –1919: Smith’s Weekly (Sydney). ‘’The Northern Territory Aborigines have an infernal and allegedly musical instrument, composed of two feet of hollow bamboo. It produces but one sound – ‘didjerry, didjerry’.’’ –1925: M. Terry Across Unknown Australia.
Lastly, Ron tell me of the therapeutic values that playing a Didge could have. He says, according to a study published in a British Medical Journal regular didgeridoo playing reduces snoring and daytime sleepiness. Snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome are common sleep disorders caused by the collapse of the upper airways.
Reports of didgeridoo players experiencing reduced daytime sleepiness and snoring after practicing, led experts in Switzerland to test the theory that training of the upper airways by Didgeridoo playing can improve these disorders. They identified 25 patients with moderate obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome and who complained about snoring.
Patients were randomly allocated to an intervention group (didgeridoo lessons and daily practice at home for four months) or a control group (remained on a waiting list for lessons). Compared with the control group, daytime sleepiness and apnoea scores improved significantly in the didgeridoo group. Partners of patients in the Didgeridoo group also reported much less sleep disturbance.