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Origins of the Didgeridoo

28th Oct 2014

The indigenous peoples of Australia have one of the oldest, continuous cultures in the world. Their culture is believed to be over 40,000 years old and lays claim to one fascinating musical instrument: the didgeridoo. The didgeridoo is a long, wind instrument that can measure anywhere from three to ten feet in length. The most common length for a didgeridoo, though, is four feet and the instrument can be found all around the world.

Indigenous Australians say that the didgeridoo comes from the gods. In the time before time, when gods still interacted heavily with life on planet Earth, three gods in particular would get together to sing, dance, and play the didgeridoo. As they did so, they would create and name all the things in the world. After this, the gods taught human beings the songs and dances they had used and gave them the didgeridoo. As such, the didgeridoo is a sacred instrument that is used for both spiritual and mundane purposes.

In the history of the didgeridoo, we also learn how the instrument was created prior to mass production. Traditionally, didgeridoos are made from trees that have been hollowed out by termites. The Aboriginal didgeridoo maker knows how to tell when a tree is ready to be made into the instrument and where to cut the tree when a tree is ready. When made in this way, the didgeridoo is said to have a spirit. The tree is still living when it is used to form the instrument; therefore, the instrument that results is also living. However, most didgeridoos for sale are not made in this traditional manner, making them unsuitable for Aboriginal ceremonial use.

The first written account of the didgeridoo in European history came in 1835; about fifty (50) years after Europeans began colonizing Australia. Europeans first saw the didgeridoo as a type of trumpet. The name “didgeridoo” results from attempts to describe the sound of the instrument. Amongst the indigenous peoples of Australia, the instrument has various names. Some of these are yidaki, ngaribi, djibolu, and artawiir. In the history of the didgeridoo, it was only played by males. Over the years, there have been more instances of indigenous women playing the instrument, but only men play for ceremonial purposes.

Although we can now find didgeridoos made from a variety of materials and sold all over the world, traditional didgeridoos are still made using termite-hollowed trees and painted in cultural decorations. The didgeridoo has gained popularity through the years and can sometimes be heard on "modern" pop songs. Its history is fascinating and playing the didgeridoo is one more way modern musicians can transport themselves to another time and space.