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Good vibes with didjeridus, the voice of Aboriginal Australia

by Diana Streak

Don’t miss this extraordinary immersive exhibition at the NMA in Canberra on the final leg of its international tour.


I stand, eyes closed, surrounded by the sonorous sound of multiple didjeridus. My body resonates with the vibrations emanating from the “thunder board” I am standing on.

I am wandering through a shadowy virtual stringybark forest, the setting for the immersive exhibition Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia, developed in collaboration with the cultural custodians, the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land under the guidance of Djalu Gurruwiwi, a universally recognised authority on the musical and spiritual traditions of yidaki (didjeridu).


In 1986 the Yothu Yindi band was established with didjeridus made by Djalu and launched this extraordinary instrument onto the world music stage, but this exhibition captures the essence of what is an iconic symbol of Aboriginal Australia.

As Djalu’s son Larry, also a renowned musician, says, “Yidaki is a symbol of our culture, but it is more than that, they’re also our spirit. Yidaki is our breath, our voice.”

What’s in a name?

It may be surprising to some that the word didjeridu is not an Aboriginal one. It was apparently coined in the 1920s by anthropologist Herbert Basedow, who likened the word to the sound of it being played. Or as one wag says “garbled English attempts to onomatopoeically capture the instrument’s unique resonances”.

Yidaki is the Yolngu matha (Yolngu language) name for it, Lardil-speaking people on Mornington Island refer to it as the djibolu, and Djinang-speaking people at Millingimbi call it Rirtakki.

Originally made from bamboo, the didjeridu is now made from a variety of eucalyptus species in which logs are hollowed out by fire or termites and a mouthpiece of wax or resin is moulded to one end.

Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia exhibition. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Sensory overload  

A quietly spoken but passionate man, fond of bright shirts and mirrored sunglasses, Djalu has spent his life trying to share a profound and reconciliatory worldview that starts and end with his instrument.

Djalu and his family guide visitors through the exhibition using innovative film and audio installations, a departure from traditional museum exhibitions. Through music, story, moving images and treasured objects, this immersive exhibition marks the first major exploration of didjeridu (yidaki) whose distinctive sounds are complemented by clapsticks and human voices.

The objects displayed in a stringybark forest setting explore the meaning, power, and cultural significance of the didjeridu. The Yidaki exhibition also offers an unusual sensory experience. By standing on innovative musical platforms called thunderboards, visitors can feel the vibrations of the yidaki through their feet as they watch them being played. As you walk under various speakers the movement triggers different didjeridu recordings which range from a booming baritone to a softer musical melody.

As I leave the stringybark forest and its sensory overload, I have a flashback to when I first heard the exquisite voice of the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, also from north-east Arnhem Land, on his eponymous album Gurrumul, which transported me to places I would love one day to visit.

Remembering his melancholy song  I was born blind, I sense he would have felt at home in the dark forest with all the nuances of sounds and vibrations that I can only dream of truly appreciating. TTW

Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia is on at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until 26 September 2021. Entry is free. To participate in events and learn more about NIADOC Week (July 4-11, 2021), visit naidoc.org.au

See also

Preserving the world’s oldest living culture
The secrets of the trees, seen through Raymond Timbery’s eyes
Feeling Australia’s ancient heartbeat
Getting in touch with Australia’s First People
Bush tucker hits the high streets of Orange NSW

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