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Playing the Didgeridoo

Playing the didjeridu can be fun and challenging. You can learn about gender issues and the difference between traditional Aboriginal and non-traditional non-Indigenous playing styles in this section.

Gender issues

The didjeridu is a male-oriented musical instrument in Australian Indigenous society. In the 'Top End' of Australia where the didjeridu is endemic, men play the instrument in ceremonial and recreational contexts, just as men play the clapsticks and sing during ceremonial events (though women also have 'wailing songs' when news of a death is announced). It is not, however, taboo for Aboriginal women to play the didjeridu in this part of Australia, and there are occasions where women role play and take hold of the instrument in comical mimicry of men (for example, in the entertaining phases of circumcision rituals). In rare cases, some Aboriginal women in 'Top End' communities have become proficient at playing the didjeridu, though they never perform in ceremonial contexts.

In other parts of Australia, there are stricter restrictions on Aboriginal women playing the didjeridu with outright prohibition in some areas.

Despite the didjeridu being a male-oriented instrument in Australian Aboriginal culture, non-Indigenous women around the world have begun to explore the musical possibilities of the didjeridu. There is a diversity of opinions relating to this among Aboriginal men, ranging from encouragement and amusement to indifference and downright scorn. Generally, Aboriginal men in 'Top End' communities do not have a problem with non-Indigenous women playing the didjeridu. They reason that the cultural rules and conditions that govern behaviour in Indigenous society do not apply to non-Indigenous women, which are bound by their own set of Western laws and moral codes.

Traditional didjeridu techniques

The most sophisticated and technically refined playing styles have developed among the coastal Aboriginal groups of northern Australia. Indeed, the finest didjeridu players on this planet are to be found on Groote Eylandt, north-east Arnhem Land, and Western Arnhem Land. In these areas, didjeridu compositions are rhythmically complex and multi-dimensional and the techniques that are the cornerstone of these compositions are nothing short of extraordinary. Traditional Aboriginal techniques are based on pulsed accents effected through tongue, throat and diaphragm manipulations.

Playing the didjeridu in the classical styles of Arnhem Land is a source of continued inspiration and challenge for a growing number of didjeridu players throughout the world. Whilst musically diverse and geographically distinct, classical traditional playing styles can be clumped into 2 general categories: overtone-present and overtone-absent.

The overtone-present style is endemic to Groote Eylandt, north-east Arnhem Land, north-central Arnhem Land and south-east Arnhem Land. Only the first overtone note is used in traditional Aboriginal society.

The overtone-absent style in used in other parts of the Northern Territory including Western Arnhem Land and the NW region of the Northern Territory.

Contemporary didjeridu styles

Contemporary styles are basically anything that is not traditional. Some Aboriginal players liken contemporary playing to aeroplane noises! Typically, contemporary playing consists of swirling, bouncing sounds with plenty of vocal effects. More accomplished contemporary players are driven by beat and rhythm.

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