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Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Mago Masterclass: An Introduction to the 'Kunborrk' Didjeridu Playing Style of the Western Arnhem Region of Australia
Darryl Dikarrna with White Cockatoo
Label Information:
White Cockatoo WC01
Media Type:
White Cockatoo (Australia)
Ginger Root Records (USA)
Serious Sticks (Europe)
Milkay Tununggurr - Hard Tongue Didgeridoo

Darryl Dikarrna
Darryl is one of the senior artists and Mago (Didjeridu) master of The White Cockatoo Performing Group. Darryl was born at the Mudginberri outstation near Ubirr rock in what is now the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia. He grew up at the Gochanjinyjirra outstation near the Maningrida community in Western Arnhem Land. The languages Darryl speaks include Mayali and Kuninjku, and his social affiliation or moiety is Yirritja.

Darryl Dikarrna: 'I first started playing the Mago at the age of six. My grandfather (the legendary "Mago master", David Blanasi, the "White Cockatoo") came to Maningrida for business and festivals and I listened to him playing and picked that style. One day my grandfather asked if there were any young boys playing that Mago Buyngaliyn Buyngaliyn way (see Kunborrk, below) and they called my (skin) name. I was seven years old.'

'I was playing Mago beside that old Junggayi (Law Man), David Yirindilli, at the ceremony making young man business (initiation) and all of those elders were sitting down listening including my Grandfather. He was listening and said, "I'm getting old and I want someone to take over so I will hand this one on to you son, you play very well, so one day I will hand this Mago business over to you. You will take over from me."'

'In the year 2000, when we were driving down to Adelaide, he said, "well young man, now I give you permission. So you can take over this Mago business now." I've got his word in my mind.'

In this way David Blanasi, the greatest exponent of the Kunborrk tradition in living memory, appointed Darryl as his successor. As such, Darryl is the latest representative of a line of Mago masters believed by many to span millennia, and is heir to the cultural knowledge and practices of the world's oldest unbroken artistic tradition. Through Darryl's active participation in ceremonies at home, and performance, composition and teaching abroad, the Kunborrk tradition continues to flourish in the present day.

The Mago
This instrument (the didjeridu) is known as Mago in the Mayali language group of Western and Southern Arnhem Land. In Mayali, the word Mago also means night bird, or Owl. Darryl's home, Western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia, is the original birthplace of the Mago.

The Songmen
Despite the prominence of the Mago it is the songmen who own and create the songs and decide what kind of accompaniment the Mago player will provide. The focus on the Mago is purely a Western preoccupation. Within traditional culture the songmen are considered the more important members of any music ensemble.

The Kunborrk (alt. spelling Gunborg) song tradition originates from the Western Arnhem region. This style is characterized by a continual drone of the Mago. The drone is syncopated in time with the songmen who set the tempo by playing Mannbelinj (Mayali) or clap sticks.

Darryl Dikarrna: "There is a big mob different Kunborrk. There is the Yirritja Buyngaliyn Buyngaliyn style. That's a little bit rough." (meaning it is very vigorous. Perhaps the greatest exponent of this 'rough' style was Darryl's virtuoso grandfather 'The Bomb' David Blanasi, "I play straight out! No muckin' around!")

'Other Kunborrk is the Dhuwa Moiety Mimi (Earth Spirit) style from the Maningrida region and the Dhuwa Manngalinj (Sacred Yam) style also from Maningrida. "These ones are not so rough."'

Kunborrk is an enormous classical tradition that musicologists and linguists are just starting to describe. Understanding the Mago accompaniment to particular songs is a complex process of learning from childhood, and this short introductory disc can show Western Mago players only a few of the tradition's fundamental techniques.

Much remains to be learned about the deeper structural processes which govern composition and improvisation in this classical tradition, and until further research is undertaken Westerners cannot presume any more than a superficial acquaintance with the art form. Mastering a few Mago basics can never be a substitute for the kind of understanding that comes from many years of education from within traditional indigenous culture. It is not possible to acquire a deep intuitive appreciation for the aesthetics of good Kunborrk accompaniment simply by amassing more didjeridu playing techniques.

There is no objection to players who "make their own style" but Western practitioners who assimilate a few preliminaries in a particular traditional style and then think they are just as good as traditional indigenous Kunborrk artists, for example, are both deluding themselves and misrepresenting this venerable tradition to the world at large.

Darryl Dikarrna: '"I do my own style. I am a traditional Kunborrk player but I don't pinch my Grandfather's style, I play my own way, no animal calls. 'You mob listening to this CD, do your own style too. You have to find your own way. You can't be one of us, you have to find your own way."'

Track Number Track Title Track Time Notes
Introduction 0:01:53 By Mago master Darryl Dikarrna Brown (spoken in Mayali and then in English)
Darryl talks about his famous grandfather, "The Bomb", David Blanasi 0:01:32  
Darryl talks about the Mago 0:01:17  
Mimi made that Mago 0:02:26 David Yirindilli tells the story of how the Mimi spirits first made the Mago. Mimi spirits are earth spirits who live in rocks.
Di 0:01:11 The droning sound of the Mago has been transcribed here as "Di Ta Mor." This English transliteration is approximate only, as the phonology of the indigenous languages spoken in Arnhem Land differs considerably from that of Indo-European languages. When playing Darryl does not use his vocal chords to augment the drone. The Di Ta Mor is not actually spoken or vocalized. Also when describing tongue positions we must be careful not to assume automatically those positions familiar to speakers of European languages. Darryl: "When you start playing Mago, start with Di. The first sound with my tongue and my belly... Di" The Di sound is accompanied by pushing up hard with the diaphragm to expel the air very forcibly. "I push up, really hard (with my belly), that way I make a good sound." Di: tongue goes forward - straight.
Di Ta 0:00:27 Ta: tongue goes up
Di Ta Mor (breathe through nose) 0:02:34 Di Ta Mor (Breath) Di Ta Mor (Breath) Di Ta Mor (Breath): continue using circular breathing. "Di Ta Mor" is the first basic building block of Kunborrk playing, and is also referred to below as the single breath. Darryl: "Your belly goes up and down... you push with your belly... push in." (diaphragm) Tongue Positions when playing Di Ta Mor- Darryl's notes: Your tongue goes out and in and up. Di: tongue goes forward - straight. Ta: up. Mor: down and forward.
The single breath 0:01:14 Darryl takes a single quick breath as he is playing the Di Ta Mor drone. Darryl: "You make that breath the same time as you say Mor." (or at the end of Mor) Di Ta Mor (Breathe through nose once): This is described as the single breath. In this track a microphone has been placed close to Darryl's nose so we can hear when he takes this single quick breath.
Song #1 Gudek The Goanna 0:02:45 Darryl: "I am going to play single breath Kunborrk style."
Play along with Gudek 0:02:36 The same song, this time without the Mago. Darryl: "I want to listen to you play with just my boys and I'm not there. I want you to play along. I want to listen to Di Ta Mor. Follow that stick."
Di Ta Mor, varying tempi 0:02:11 Darryl demonstrates the Di Ta Mor played slow and then played a little bit faster. Then the Di Ta Mor is played with the tempi mixed, first faster and then slow and then a bit faster again.
Song #2 Manngalinj (Mayali) The Yam or bush potato 0:02:03 This is the second example of a song in which Darryl plays using the single breath "Di Ta Mor" Kunborrk technique.
Play along with Manngalinj 0:01:54 The same song, this time without the Mago. Darryl: "You play so I can listen... single breath Di Ta Mor."
David and Darryl discuss the single breath. Song #3 Mimi Spirit 0:03:23 Note David Yirindilli's pronunciation/interpretation of the Di Ta Mor sound during their discussion. David: "There's two kind of tunes (meaning single breath and double breath)... (sings) Di Ta Mor... that straight that one (sings) Di Ta Mor... he's down... that one he still not gets up yet." Darryl: "It's not double breath but just the one way." Song #3 Mimi Spirit. David: "This song... you got a short leg Mimi." This is the third example of single breath "Di Ta Mor" Kunborrk playing. Note that in this third example the single breath is played very fast! Here, as David Yirindilli might put it, the single breath is really starting to "get up!"
Di Ta Mor-Debor 0:01:24 Di Ta Mor-Debor is the second basic Kunborrk rhythm and is referred to here as the double breath. Here two very short breaths are taken whilst playing the drone. Play Di Ta Mor (quick breath through the nose) Debor (quick breath through the nose) Di Ta Mor (breath)-Debor (breath) Di Ta Mor (breath)-Debor (breath) Di Ta Mor (breath)-Debor (breath) continue circular breathing. In this track a microphone has been placed close to Darryl's nose so we can hear when he takes these two very quick breaths whilst playing.
The double breath 0:00:58 Playing technique demonstrated at a slow tempo. Darryl's notes for the tongue position when playing "double breath": Di - tongue goes forward-straight, Ta - up, Mor - down and forward, Debor - straight.
Song #4 Two Days' Sleep 0:02:22 This is the first example of a song that features Darryl's double breath "Di Ta Mor-debor" Kunborrk playing. At the start of the song Darryl plays single breath, and then goes into the double just after the sticks start. Now Darryl plays double breath quite fast. As you will appreciate the level of difficulty is increasing. Playing at this speed requires a high level of competence.
Play along with Two Days' Sleep 0:02:22 The same song, this time without the Mago. Darryl: "So it's double breath ("Di Ta Mor-Debor"). Two Days' Sleep and I'm not there, I want you to play.
Song #5 Muk Muk The Owl 0:02:07 Darryl: "Muk Muk makes same sound like Mago." This is the second example of double breath "Di Ta Mor-Debor" Kunborrk playing. At the start of the song, once again Darryl plays single breath and then goes into the double, this time a fast double breath, just before the sticks start. Also in this song, (and in many other songs as well) we can hear some single breath technique mixed in with the double breath. This occurs where the sticks slow down in the middle of the song and at the very end. Tracks 23, 24, 25 and 26 explore Darryl's free use of both the single and double breath techniques, as he follows the changing tempo of the rhythm sticks.
Play along with Muk Muk 0:01:46 The same song, this time without the Mago. Darryl: "Now that Muk Muk song, it's double breath and my boys playing and I'm not there, so you play." (Fast double breath)
Double breath, varying tempi 0:00:43 Double breath played at first quite slow, then a bit faster, then slow and then faster again.
Single breath and double breath mixed 0:01:02 Single breath followed by double, then single again, followed by double, then single again.
Following Mannbelinj, the rhythm sticks 0:00:39 Darryl: "You follow that rhythm stick and the rhythm stick will follow you. Where I see that rhythm stick stop... then I stop... same time... we stop together. This sshort section is from the end of song #1, Gudek. It is an example of a cadential (ending) device that is frequently used in this particular kind of Kunborrk. Here Darryl freely uses both the single and double breath techniques together as he follows the changing tempo of the rhythm sticks. We may now begin to understand how these basic techniques can be woven into a complex pattern where all or any part of an element can be used.
Di Ta Mor and Di Ta Mor-Debor, Sung 0:00:56 The same final section of Gudek with Darryl singing a version of the rhythm part without the Mago or Mannbelinj. Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor, Di Ta Mor-Debor- Di Ta Mor-Debor-Debor- Di-Di Ta Mor-Di, Di Ta Mor-Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor-Debor- Di Ta Mor-Di
Single breath and double breath interwoven 0:00:25 The same section of Gudek once again, this time with Mago and Mannbelinj.
The Mago part sung and then played 0:00:34 The same section of Gudek with Darryl singing a slightly different variation of the Mago part. Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor, Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor-Debor- Di Ta Mor-Debor-Debor- Di-Di Ta Mor-Di, Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor- Di Ta Mor-Debor- Di Ta Mor-Di
You go to listen to that Devil 0:02:42 David Yirindilli tells us how some people find songs and their respective Mago accompaniments. "People had a dreaming... the spirit... for that (taps Mago) what I told before... the spirit... when you have your new body. 'Take that man and... bury him up. You got think that man like old black fella... to follow in that funeral... by yourself... and stay there with him... night time... no light... no moon... you've got to stay there in the dark and you've got to listen there to that man where he is buried... for this didjeridu... for this singing... you've got to listen which song you're going to get from him... he'll get up that man... from that hole... and you've got to listen to that man now... and you can't look... like blackfella walking... It's a spirit... you know all those spirits?... that's a devil... That's where our people... they get from there... you've got listen to that man... follow bamboo (Mago)... that devil... and then you'll know where that song has got to go for him... and you've got to pick that song, bamboo (Mago) and put it here in your head, mind... and you can't sing straight away, you've got to sing next year.'"
Darryl talks about where the first Mago came from 0:02:18 A place with special water that makes you "clever" (bestows powers or abilities). Darryl: "Big mob dreaming there."


Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister