The Didge and You

An old wind instrument brings people together.

Posted May 18, 2017

J. Krueger
Eli Brown and his true didje
Source: J. Krueger

Do the Didje! ~ H. O. Meless

Who is to say that a musical instrument is primitive? Who is to say that a musical instrument tells us nothing about psychology and the human experience? The Australian Didgeridoo is the most ancient wind instrument and perhaps the oldest instrument shaped and used by human beings. The culture of the Australian Aborigines has been broken in many ways, and what is left of it is largely unknown or incomprehensible to modern audiences. Yet, the Didgeridoo has been resilient, and in recent years has gained a following of admirers and practitioners. On Youtube and other sites, we can find tutorials for its use and we can enjoy solo performances by masters and performances accompanied by other instruments, even orchestras. The Didgeridoo tells a story of survival and human connection. It is a treasure. It invites love and it certainly demands respect. There is nothing primitive about it.

After I had bought two ‘fake authentic’ didges, one made of bamboo and another made of New England hardwood, Mr. Eli Brown (see more about him at the end of this essay) introduced me to the genuine article. A true didge is a piece of art that even Walter Benjamin would respect. Eli brought his own (see photo) but before letting me sound it, he patiently tutored me in the fine craft of circular breathing [I am breathing circularly as I am writing this; not yet a master, I constantly flirt with hyperventilation, which is a drag; the didge, among many other lessons, teaches patience].

The essay in today’s post is Eli’s reflection on how he came to love the didge and what it taught him about human connection.  

Eli on the didge:

The Didgeridoo is an ancient wind instrument from Northern Australia. In the local languages the Didgeridoo is also referred to as Yadaki or Mago. Since about the 1970s this instrument has become more commonplace in the United States and we use the onomatopoetic term “didgeridoo,” because it captures the rhythmic gurgling sound the instrument makes. The Didge is formed naturally by white ants (termites), which eat and hollow out the insides of eucalyptus trees. The paths that form inside of the didgeridoo are thought to represent the thousands of different pathways that connect the Aborigine Dreamtime (Neuenfeldt, 1997). Without these pathways the Didgeridoo does not create a genuine sound and so it is not authentic.

To the Aboriginal people, Dreamtime is a continuum of the past, the present, and the future. Aboriginals believe that the creators of the Dreamtime vanished from the sight of mere mortals, but continued to live in secret places. “Some lived in the tribe’s territory, in rock crevices, in trees, or in water holes. Others went up into the sky above as heavenly bodies. Others changed into (or perhaps became) natural forces such as wind, rain, thunder and lightning. It is believed that many of the creators continue to live on the land or in the sky above watching over them” (Linklater, 2001, p. 7). The Didgeridoo serves as the Aborigines window into the past and the music it creates gives them a sense of contact with their ancestors.

Stefan Koelsch, who is a Professor of biological psychology and music psychology at the Freie Universität in Berlin, states that music “involves several social functions” (Koelsch, 2014, p. 175), many of which will be portrayed throughout this personal narrative. Koelsch suggests that the making of music brings people together, saying, “Social contact is a basic need of humans, and social isolation is a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality” (p. 175).

When I first encountered the Didgeridoo, my parents and I were attending a “happening” at the Bath House Cultural Center, near the neighborhood lake, in Dallas, Texas. An ethno-musicologist would describe this sort of happening as a way in which modern society uses aspects of the tribal ritualistic experience to bring people together. There were all sorts of artists, musicians, dancers, jugglers, and observers gathered there, all engaging in collaborative art and music. There was an open drum circle inviting children to participate. Everybody shared this space and used it as a canvas to express themselves with objects and movement. Yet, there wasn’t a complete sense of unity or a central focal point within the group, until, that is, two young men (whom we could fairly describe as hipsters) walked up with their Didgeridoos. As they began pushing pockets of air into their instruments, people began to gather round to attend to this powerful imitation of nature. Suddenly, the event’s canvas, initially consisting of clusters of different individuals, merged into one complete scene. The dancers danced to the sounds of the Didgeridoo, supported by the accompanying rhythm of the drums. The observers began to focus on the whole composition, rather than just the individual parts of it, and with that, the attendees of a happening were transformed into a community.

From that day forward, this energetic, unifying experience has inspired my attraction and curiosity toward the various cultures that had given rise to the Didgeridoo and shaped its modern-day use. This initial engagement led me to a deeper search for the essential qualities behind the didgeridoo and I began collecting authentic folk instruments with my father. With the acquisition of an authentic Didgeridoo, made by Mickey Hall, I was introduced to a world of ancient culture, ravaged by colonialism, a fragmented and besieged culture trying to preserve its sacred traditions.

The engagement I experienced is reflected in Koelsch’s (2014) description of one of the core social functions of music. Koelsch suggests that engaging with music can lead to “co-pathy,” where individuals performing music together are empathically affected in such a way that inter-individual emotional states become homogeneous and shared. Co-pathy thus refers to the social function of empathy, including a reduction of conflicts and the promotion of greater group cohesion. “Co-pathy can increase the well-being of individuals during music-making and during listening, and it is an important means for the emotional identification of individuals with particular lifestyles, subcultures, ethnic groups, or social classes” (Koelsch, 2014, p. 175).

Deepening my relationship with the Didgeridoo has allowed me to engage with the world in a richer and more reflective manner. The didgeridoo, in a modern sense, has given me entry into the circles where people are living on the fringe, be they homeless street kids in Seattle and Tampa, or burning man rainbow tribe anarchists encamped along the hard-packed pavements of the Nevada desert. Using these experiences and interactions involving the Didgeridoo, I discovered a link with ancient tribal origins we all share. My reflections consider the idea that we all hunger for connections that take us beyond ourselves, and yet, most of us live in a state of alienation most of the time, cut off and isolated from the wider community rather than immersed fully within it. I visualize the Didgeridoo as a container holding an accumulated cultural residue of stories, history and breath.

As Appadurai (1986) and Koelsch (2014) suggest, use of the Didgeridoo is capable of solidifying social relationships. The Didgeridoo should be understood as a time capsule for the ancient traditions of the Aborigines. Over time, these traditions have been ravaged by colonialism and Westernization, oppressive systems that failed to understand the sophistication and depth of the Aborigines’ nuanced use of cultural materials and spirituality. The Aborigines did not build cathedrals or high-walled castles, but they were intelligent and they lived simply, in the “bush,” mindful of their relationships with their land and spiritual universe. The Didgeridoo was their primary tool to forge these connections.

In 1770, the explorer Captain Cook encountered the Aboriginal people and claimed their whole territory for England (Heiss, 2013). He didn’t attempt to appreciate the majesty of their Songlines, dances, and Dreamtime rituals; his goal was conquest and glory. In the aftermath of this encounter, Aborigine society was driven to collapse, the Aborigines as a culture lost control over many of their traditions (Neuenfeldt, 1998). Today, many Aborigines feel trapped and confused by the world they live in; they have trouble making sense of the things going on around them. Some of them get confused as to why the invaders and occupiers of their land have more resources than they do. Many Aborigines have so little that they must constantly struggle to survive in the modern world. If the Aborigines had not been robbed of their traditions they could still enjoy those deeper connections, especially ones made through music and dance.

The Aborigines and their use of the didgeridoo can teach us that music leads to increased social cohesion within the group. Humans have ‘a need to belong' — that is, a need to feel attached to a group — and they have a strong motivation to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments. Meeting this need enhances health and life expectancy. Social cohesion also strengthens the confidence and reliability around reciprocal care, and it provides opportunities for engagement with others in bonds that are likely to endure in future generations. The social cohesion of the Aborigines experienced through song and dance demonstrates an aesthetic beauty that informs the various ways social engagement can lead to 'aesthetic emotions' such as transcendence and spirituality (Koelsch, 2014, p. 175).

The life of an Aborigines longing for the motherland shows similarities with the many homeless communities in the U.S. that I have visited. In Seattle and Florida, many homeless people sleep and socialize in public areas like parks. With a hierarchical government in place, issues may arise regarding how these individuals are permitted to make use of this public space. Soliciting and loitering are two activities that homeless individuals tend to rely on to survive, for example: when asking for money and when finding a place to sleep. With this, they regularly experience difficulties because these activities are labeled as illegal acts in many public spaces. The enforcement of these laws forces homeless individuals on the move making it difficult to settle in any location.

Similarly, many Aborigines spend their time in open areas. Before the Aborigines were subjugated, and when they weren’t hunting, they would often devote considerable time in silent contemplation. This practice helps them understand their world and gain insight into what mechanisms would most effectively work for passing those cultural traditions along and into the future. In the Aboriginal context, the concept of meditation is associated with The Dreamtime or the idea that history lies in the artwork and the many other representations of ancestors that are spread through “invisible” pathways along the historical land belonging to the Aborigines (Neuenfeldt, 1997, p. 46). The Didgeridoo brings along with it the collection of these Songlines and The Dreamtime as a way to represent a society and a lifestyle. Shellberg (1996) found that without this sense of continuation and without having something to work for (hunting, dancing, etc.) the Aborigines have to revert to other ways of spending their time.

All of the people I have interacted with that own an authentic Didgeridoo have a similar sense of spirituality. When we play together we develop a sense of being connected more deeply as a community, and we start to sense how the whole world is unified as one great family of mankind. I have also learned how the communities of homeless are similar and different from those of the Aborigine.

The problems that take over an Aborigine’s life are overwhelming and impossible for an outsider to fully understand. However, when an individual is able to reach deep into his or her own personal and cultural roots, he or she will be able to cherish life with enthusiasm and a sense of meaning. For the Aborigines, the experiences they go through in modern society bring them considerable trouble and strife; the actions of hierarchy, unwarranted in their own beliefs, make it difficult for the Aborigines to make sense of the modern world. In America, the marginalized people who have developed an appreciation for this Aboriginal culture, by honoring those authentic roots and traditions, likewise experience a tragic sense of loss, the feeling of being cast off by the larger society. The belief that the world is out of kilter brings solidarity to these marginalized groups, helps them relate with and connect to the Aboriginals’ similar, yet even more immense, sense of plight and loss.

People seek structure in their lives in order to gain a sense of being in harmony with the world. The modern interpretation of being one with nature and the world is now tilting more towards being one with each other, with the broader community of man. The Didgeridoo is a tool that has connected the ideas and beliefs of many people and is now a vehicle that can help bring about more unity for all. The Songlines and The Dreamtime that are representative of the Didgeridoo have moved across the world in an authentic manner, and the people who play and perform publicly have mastered the basic techniques and are knowledgeable of the heritage and skill behind those ancient traditions. The people who merely buy Didgeridoos as commodities remain ignorant of the richness held just within their grasp. Lacking appreciation for the full depth of the underlying culture, they continue along heartless and helplessly living in a world run by the ideals of other people. Unity is created when everybody is aware and insightful of the good and bad that surrounds them. The Didgeridoo provides a template for someone who wishes to understand what it’s like to go on a spiritual journey and in doing so arrive at opportunities and experiences they will never forget or leave behind. My journey began when my parents took me to that simple gathering by the lake, in Old East Dallas, near the place of my birth.

Appadurai, A. (1986). The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chatwin, Bruce. (1987). The songlines. London: Franklin Press.

Heiss, A. (2013). Barani: First contact. Sydney’s Aboriginal History.   

Koelsch, S. (2014). Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 170-180.

Scott, L. (2001). Aboriginal dreamtime. Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery.

Neuenfeldt, K.. (1997). The didjeridu: from Arnhem Land to Internet. Sydney: J. Libbey/Perfect Beat Publications.

Neuenfeldt, K. (1998). Good vibrations? The "curious" cases of the didjeridu in spectacle and therapy in Australia. The World of Music, 40, 29-51.

Schellberg, D. (1996). Didgeridoo: Ritual Origins and Playing Techniques. Diever, Holland: Binkey Kok Publications.

About Eli Brown

Eli Brown is a senior at Brown University majoring in Psychology. He is a member of the Brown Men’s Crew team and a two-time Head of the Charles Champion. Eli is from Dallas, Texas where he rowed on a club team and played in the public high school marching band. Outside of rowing, Eli volunteers for The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and has performed ethnographic research with homeless communities in Seattle, Washington. Eli is a fan of Australian Aboriginal music and uses the Didgeridoo as a tool to connect with the people that he encounters throughout the journey of his life.