Academic journal article Women & Music

Yanyuwa Women Play Too: Didjeridu Performance at Borroloola, N.T

Academic journal article Women & Music

Yanyuwa Women Play Too: Didjeridu Performance at Borroloola, N.T

Article excerpt

ORIGINATING IN THE ARNHEM LAND region of the top end of northern Australia, today the didjeridu is variously recognized both as a symbol of Yolngu culture and pan-Aboriginal identity and as a distinctly Australian icon. Measuring approximately 1.3 to 1.5 meters, the instrument is cut from the narrow trunks of stringy bark eucalyptus already hollowed out by termites (Knopoff 1997:39; see fig. 1). The most common playing technique involves buzzing the lips on one end of the instrument to "produce a constant drone through the use of circular breathing" (Knopoff 1997:40). Described by Mandawuy Yunupingu, a Yolngu activist and lead singer of the popular Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, as having a tongue and language of its own (1997:vii), the didjeridu functions musically as a "provider of tone colour, as a rhythm instrument, as a supplier of introductions, interludes and codas to songs, and as an issuer of elaborate coded signals" (Dunbar-Hall 1997:70). (1) Locally in Arnhem Land, Yolngu people refer to this instrument as yidaki. Yunupingu (1997:vii) explains that the yidaki has a deep spiritual existence in Yolngu culture and "holds a special place in the presentation of Yolngu art, music, dance, and history. Its basic role in Yolngu society is to accompany the singers, serving as a percussion instrument as well as setting time for the rhythm of songs." The contexts of didjeridu performance in Yolngu culture range from formal to informal--"it has a serious role to play in men's ceremony, but it is also used as a popular instruments for the enjoyment of women and children" (Yunupingu 1997:viii).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Nationally, the didjeridu has become a symbol of resistance and survival for Aboriginal people, and the unique sounds of this instrument often carry political and poignant overtones to make comment on land rights and issues of social justice for Indigenous Australians. At the same time, the didjeridu has experienced widespread diffusion into non-Aboriginal performance cultures and Australian culture as a whole, and in these contexts it is performed at ANZAC ceremonies, at football grand finals, and on other occasions of national spectacle such as the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Globally, the didjeridu has been swept up in the groundswell of appropriation and commodification of both culture and indigeneity. The journey from "Arnhem Land to Internet and back again," as Hayward and Neuenfeldt (1997:9) put it, has seen the didjeridu enter into the soundscapes of many individuals and groups in Australia and abroad.

Perhaps the most contentious and widely debated issue surrounding Aboriginal performance in both popular and academic circles today concerns the notion that it is taboo for women to play or even touch a didjeridu. Based on conversations with Aboriginal women and men in northern Australia and conversations with other researchers, recent work by Barwick (1997) rebuts the myths surrounding "gender taboos and didjeridus." Barwick's evidence suggests that many Aboriginal women do play didjeridu in traditional communities, and she reports that few restrictions exist on women's playing didjeridu in an informal capacity in Arnhem Land communities, from which the instrument originates. Barwick further suggests that in fact most restrictions about women's playing didjeridu exist in southeastern Australia, where the didjeridu has only recently been introduced (1997:89).

Barwick's comments could and will be read by some as highly controversial; however, her claims are strongly supported by historical and contemporary documentation. While undertaking extensive fieldwork during the 1960s throughout the Northern Territory, the musicologist Alice Moyle visited the township of Borroloola, on the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria. During her short stay there in 1966, Moyle recorded Jemima Wimalu, a Marra women from Roper River, playing didjeridu. According to Moyle (1978:17), Jemima Wimalu was a practiced didjeridu player whose performance incorporated overblown or upper-tone notes and voiced effects, beating stick accompaniment, and mouth sound demonstrations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.