It is believed that the Australian Aborigines have been using the traditionally crafted and decorated didgeridoo for over 40,000 years. The cave and rock paintings are the oldest available records of aborigines playing the didgeridoo. In the western countries, the didgeridoo has gained popularity only in the last 10-15 years, as its beautiful rich harmonics and quality of tone have only recently been discovered over there.
Place of Origin: Archaeological research suggests that the didgeridoo, also known as a didjeridu or didge, is only about 2000 years old. It is a wind instrument designed and developed by the indigenous Australians of northern Australia. Yidaki is the specific type of didgeridoo made and used by the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land, while Mago is the name given to the instrument used by aboriginals from the west Arnhem Land.
The art of making the instrument gradually spread to most parts of Australia, with the introduction of roads and infrastructure. It was played mainly in and around Darwin and Arnhem Land, as well as in Kimberley in Western Australia and in the Gulf Country in Queensland. It was traditionally played by only the men, during ceremonial dances known as Corroborees.
Making It: To make a didgeridoo, just a hollow piece of timber is required. For instance, when termites eat through the center of the branch or trunk of Eucalyptus, a didgeridoo can be made out of it. The instruments vary in length and width, as the natural pieces of timber are available in different sizes. When the bark and the termites are removed, the remainder is ready to be played. Naturally available beeswax is applied over the rim of the instrument in order to soften the mouthpiece. It is attractively painted in aboriginal artwork, with a variety of natural dyes.
In Arnhem Land, a majority of Yolngu made Yidaki from stringybark. However, sometimes woolybutt or bloodwood were also used. An aboriginal yidaki maker had to cultivate an innate sense for choosing the appropriate tree. He used to test the tree by removing a small piece of bark and hitting the tree with his finger. With these simple tools he could assess the hollowness of the branch. An experienced Yolngu could judge the hollowness of the tree from that sound, and tell where to make the cuts so as to make a good yidaki. If they found that the tree was not sufficiently hollowed, they marked the tree and remembered the location, and left the tree for another time.
In modern times, however, it's not always possible to make didgeridoos with such intricate procedures. They are now made by different types of people using various types of material, like hemp, bamboo, cactus, plastic, glass, clay, metal, etc. While this has allowed it to flourish in the Western world, it has diluted the tradition.
Playing It: Playing one of these instruments is not easy; it is a very complex instrument to play. You need to learn the technique of creating various sounds by changing the shape of your mouth. The most important thing is that you need to learn the technique of 'circular breathing', which enables you to blow continuously while breathing in more air. You should be able to breathe in through your nose while breathing out from your mouth at the same time.
You may be surprised that this age-old aboriginal woodwind instrument imparts quite a lot of important health benefits to people who play it. According to the study reports published in The British Medical Journal in 2005, playing the didge helped reduce snoring as well as daytime sleepiness. It also helps in ameliorating or even stopping sleep apnea (a condition where the airway closes up in sleep, which can have much worse consequences than just waking up the sufferer). It strengthens the airways, improving lung capacity and enhancing the overall functioning of the respiratory system.
In spite of the destructive actions taken for removing indigenous aborigines from their land, a rich cultural heritage of the human past still lives in Arnhem Land, which is a priceless heirloom that we must protect.