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May 11, 2006

Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Didjeridu & Traditional Music of the Top End
The content of this page was originally created by Peter Lister

Didjeridu Home : About the Author : Peter Lister's Didjeridu Background

Warning: Some of these pages may contain referrence to, and images of Aboriginal people that are now deceased. Please be careful to avoid causing distress to traditional people whom may be offended or hurt by viewing these pages by forewarning them of their content. Thankyou.

My Didjeridu Background

I started trying to make sounds on a piece of plastic electrical conduit from a neighbour's building site back in 1970. I may have been inspired by Rolf Harris and David Blanasi at the time - it's all too far back and misty. Harris had a TV programme that showcased the 'outback', and with his naturalist friends, Vincent Serventy and Harry Butler, they travelled the country, visiting Aboriginal communities along the way. Harris often had Blanasi on the show and there was regular didj playing segments.

Womadelaide 2001 David Blanasi and myself at Womadelaide (WOMAD Festival, Adelaide, SA) 2001

I had a hard time learning to play - I was in Sydney - far removed from the Top End, the traditional home of the didjeridu and I was only 10. My patience was limited. I'd come home from school and make droning noises on my bit of plastic, but I couldn't work out how to breathe in and out at the same time. Eight years later, I'd figured it out.......I decided I had to store air in my cheeks and expel it while I took a breath in through my nose. I did it!! Much to my disappointment, I couldn't get the same sounds out of my 'instrument' as what I was hearing on the old recordings I had from Arnhem Land.

So I went and purchased the only instrument I'd seen in Sydney outside of the Museum. It was in the window of the Bush Church Aid Society shop in Bathurst St. in the heart of the city. I had no idea what it would sound like - all I knew was that it was a real didjeridu, and it was from Mornington Island, and that's all that mattered. It seemed a longer than usual trip home on the bus and I received some strange looks, standing in the bus aisle with a long brown paper parcel. I was eager to hear how it sounded. About a mile's walk from the bus stop to home, and I finally was able to unwrap it and give it a go. It took so much air!!!! I couldn't believe it. How was I ever going to be able to breathe with this thing?. It seemed a big jump from 3/4" conduit to the genuine thing. Well I finally managed it and I just couldn't stop playing that thing. My diaphragm ached and I split my lip. That was 1978. I still have that stick, it's the one on the right in the image below. I was still unhappy with the sound though - it just wasn't the same as in the recordings I had. I decided it must have been the instrument, but with experience I found that was not the only difference. It was obvious that there were set rhythms for songs and that particular notes alterred with the taking of a breath (when I did it). The sound changed dramatically when I took a breath because I was using my cheeks and if I tried to play a traditional piece, I couldn't get it right, because my breathing was wrong. There had to be a way of taking a breath without using my cheeks. I worked on this until I found I could breathe without using my cheeks as a reservoir, but it was so tiring that I ultimately returned to playing with my cheeks.

Around that same time the Aboriginal Arts Board of Australia Council and various other groups like the Aboriginal Artists Agency started bringing traditional people down from the Top End to perform in Sydney. One of the very first recordings I'd bought was a solo didjeridu recording - the first of its' kind, by a renowned clan leader and artist of northeastern Arnhem Land, the late, renowned Wandjuk Marika. I was fortunate in being able to meet him and various performers from Elcho Island on several occasions.

Laperouse, Sydney
Wandjuk Marika and myself, 1980

In 1980 I purchased another instrument. I was in Alice Springs at the time and made my selection from about fifty others in the Aboriginal Arts & Crafts Pty Ltd shop, now the Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre. It had been made in Arnhem Land, but had no documentation with it. It's the one second from the left in the image.

In those days, didjeridu's were ONLY made in the Top End, now they're made all over the country and from a wider variety of eucalypt species. I have since aquired a few more traditional pieces, from various other parts of Arnhem Land such as Yirrkala, Dhalinbuy, Ramingining.

I found some old photos of me - always good for a laugh !!
At Uluru, May 1980
Around a campfire at Uluru (Ayer's Rock) NT, May 1980. Playing someone elses instrument.

Playing on our highest peak, Mt Kosciusko, southern highlands, NSW, late in 1980 I think. This was my first instrument mentioned above - from Mornington Island.
Atop Mt Kosciusko, NSW, late 1980.
With Aboriginal boys, Maroota, NSW 1981.

....with some Aboriginal boys, Maroota, NSW 1981.

....and a press photo from when I was working for the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, Hartley Historic Site, Blue Mountains, NSW, August 1981. The instrument in both black & white photos is the one purchased in the Alice in 1980.

I saw something of a commodification of the instrument during the late 1980's, and suddenly everyone was playing. I guess the main thing that turned me off playing was other peoples' interpretation of why I played. I didn't carry the instrument about as if I were advertising my skill (in fact, if I took it somewhere it was in a soft cloth case and most folk thought I was going fishing)- but people who found through others that I could play would ask me to play for them. I was young and naive and never said no to anyone. So I would play for them. Before I knew it, there was a barage of ridiculous questions about how I'd learnt. "Was I part aboriginal ?" or "Had I been initiated ?".....I couldn't believe it, and so after a while I grew away from playing. Unfortunately, Australians are still this ignorant of the didjeridu and Aboriginal cultures generally.

For a more detailed run down on my background, you can also checkout an interview I did with Ed Drury in the States for his Portland Area Didjeridu Player Newsletter.



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