Restoring Australia's DidgeridooS

The beloved aboriginal didgeridoo of Australia attracts new generations in modern materials.
27 July, 2017
It's hard to mistake the haunting, pulsing sound of the didgeridoo, a musical instrument known to the indigenous peoples of Australia.
The long, hollow wood pipes – they're technically aerophones, in the musical family of wind instruments – have been a cultural symbol of aboriginal tribes for at least centuries. Rock paintings at Kakadu National Park, in the country's coastal north, tell the story of a didgeridoo that's been in use for hundreds if not thousands of years, though science isn't yet sure.

The most authentic of the instruments is widely considered to be those made by the Yolngu people, known as the yadiki, although "authentic" may be a misnomer. Different aboriginal tribes have a range of names and styles for their instruments; none of them really think of it as a didgeridoo. In the most natural craftsmanship, termites hollow out the incident of a wood trunk or tube, usually eucalyptus, until it is ready for etching, finishing and painting with natural dyes. Newly restored instruments at the South Australian Museum are some 140 years old, and were displayed through July 16 in a breathtaking exhibit on the cultural significance that was co-curated with Djalu Gurruwiwi, the world's leading expert.
Even though the instrument has become more popular the world over, few people still really know how one works and what it's for in aboriginal ritual and custom – a task that the museum took on as a near-sacred undertaking, and turned into a living experience told by Gurruwiwi and the Yolngu themselves. Nor does renewed interest in the didgeridoo mean traditional instruments are available to everyone.

Fortunately, there are iterations and adaptations of the didgeridoo made using modern materials, and aluminium is high on the list. So are carbons and polyresins, along with fiberglass. Some are even sold for medical reasons, after a 2006 study found that sleep apnea patients showed a statistically significant improvement in their breathing and snoring when they began training on the didgeridoo. That's because playing one requires respiratory discipline and exercise that strengthens the user's control over muscles. Similar results were found in an Australian study of asthma patients drawn from the aboriginal tribes.
Some modern didgeridoos combine materials, and that's especially helpful for musicians who travel. The Agave Travel Didge was first made for Nik Conti of Tribali, a world music band that's played in Australia and across Europe for a decade. The agave travel version weighs less than 3 kilograms and is less than 100 centimeters long when the two pieces are disconnected – a feature that doesn't affect the sound.

The similar Agave Slide fits an aluminium tube inside the natural agave wood, in custom-made models that preserve the traditional didgeridoo sound while adding the ability to precision-tune the instrument. That's important when a player isn't acting alone, but trying to play in harmony with other musicians.
In the United States, craftsman Bill Hanes makes aluminium and fiberglass didgeridoos, in a diverse range of synthetic products. They all achieve the same tonal-dronal sound, one that Australian acoustic and physics expert John Smith of University of New South Wales describes as similar to the process of playing a trombone. The difference is that the didgeridoo also allows for the player's vocal intonation, so the music is actually a combination of the instrument's tone and an amplification of the player – making the possibilities endless in the future for one of the world's most cherished instruments from the past.
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