YIDAKI…a brief guide

A brief guide by Phil Drummy

The Yidaki, which outside of Arnhemland is commonly called the didgeridoo, is a musical instrument traditionally played by Yolngu, the indigenous aborigines of north-east Arnhemland. It is usually played in conjunction with the bilma, wooden clapsticks, and one or more singers. During the many a nd varied ceremonies and rituals that characterize traditional tribal life, the Yidaki is played by males to accompany the sacred songs and dances of the clan. Aside from its its sacred role, it is also played for fun and relaxation.

Yolngu history and philosophy has been recorded in an oral tradition and the Yidaki has had an important role in the continuation of this history. Although that it seems true that it is a late musical intrusion into the aboriginal culture, being inserted into a much older tradition of music, dance and art, it remains the most fascinating and unusual instrument belonging to the indigenous australians, no doubt this is due to its unique and inimitable sound.

The Manikay (song-poetry) that is heard during ceremonies, concentrates on song cycles of creation ancestors and animal totems that are related to the clan that is performing the ceremony. The land, trees, animals and their birthplaces are sung. The yidaki has a very important role in this process. Each song has a distinct melody and rhythm. Each clan has its own ancient songs that are directly connected to their land. Paintings on bark and in caves also retell traditional mythology of Yolng culture and are inseparable from the Manikay.

The Yolngu world is divided into two halves, which are called moieties. This could be likened to the eastern concept of Yin and Yang. These two moieties are called Yirritja and Dhuwa. All the creatures of the land, belonging either to animal or mankind, and the land itself, are divided into thes two moieties. During the time of creation, ancestors for both moieties moved around and created both the land and its inhabitants. They gave all things names and left behind all the knowledge necessary for the people. The Yidaki was one of these things. The places where the Yidaki were left are known to the local tribes, and from these places they are collected. Here is one of the Dhuwa creation ancestors' stories.

Back in the creation time, the Djan'kawu ancestor and his two sisters were moving around the coast of east Arnhemland. They came from the south-east, paddling their canoe which was loaded with Dreamings and other sacred objects. As they travelled, they gave names to all the places they saw. They created people and gave them ceremonies, sacred drawings and objects from out of the dilly bag that they were carrying. They first landed at Yalangoara near Port Bradshaw, then moved south towards Baniyala (known as Blue Mud Bay) and then up towards Galliwink (Elcho Island) They then turned and headed west.

The Yidaki of north east Arnhemland are found in the stringybark forests. The trees that have the right shape and size are tapped with an axe to see if they are hollow- eaten out by the termites. The branch is already dead by this stage, and so it is cut off (sometimes the entire trunk is hollow) and the bark stripped off and worked to the makers specifications. Decorations from simple clan colors to complex designs, patterns and symbols are painted on with natural ochres. For a good seal where the instrument is blown at the narrow end, a rim of bees wax may be applied.

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