Didgeridoo / didge / yidaki. The oldest Australian music instrument

Didgeridoo is not called didgeridoo. Nor didge.

I mean, that’s what we – the Westerners – call it. But it’s definitely not its original name.

It’s yidaki (pronounced yee-dah-key).


Actually, that’s only partially true as well.

Yidaki has been the most popular term for this traditional Aboriginal instrument in recent years, and it has probably the most claim to fame. It comes from Arnhem Land in Northern Territory (NT) in Australia, where it is believed the instrument originated from a long, long time ago.

However, there are hundreds of native Indigenous languages in Australia and many villages/communities know didgeridoo. That’s why there are also 45 other names for the instrument in circulation. And they’re quite difficult to pronounce as well, for instance: artawirr in Katherine, garnbak in Kakadu, ngaribi in the Kimberleys, ilpirra in Alice Springs or ngarrriralkpwina (good luck with this one) in Groote Eylandt.

They all sound very different from one another, right? But they do have one thing in common: none of them resembles the Western name even remotely. But because didgeridoo sounds pretty exotic, the term was quickly adopted in the Western world as coming directly from Australia’s Indigenous community.

(On a side note, Aboriginal people must have had a really good laugh when they found out what name Balanda – the White Folks – gave to the instrument on their first encounter with it. Apparently, the deep “di-dge-ri-doo” sounds were what the explorers repeatedly heard when it was played. I must be tone-deaf in that case, because that’s not what I hear when anyone plays it.)

Aboriginal culture is the longest continuous one in the world. That’s why the didgeridoo is also one of the oldest instruments known to humanity.

It’s classified as a wind instrument (for obvious reasons) and a brass (lip-vibrated) instrument. My favourite denomination for yidaki, though, is drone pipe. But no, it doesn’t mean that you can steer it remotely and spy on the world from above using it. It rather refers to the effect of playing it which “can be achieved through a sustained sound or through repetition of a note”.

The cool part about the didgeridoo is that it’s purely natural, on many levels.

It’s made of wood (mostly tree trunks) hollowed out by termites (half the job done, really). This irregular tube is then cleared out from the termite residue and smoothed on the outside. At the same time, any possible holes in the wood are sealed with bees’ wax. Then, it’s “tuned” or cut to obtain the right pitch, and the mouthpiece is formed. The last step is adorning it with traditional Aboriginal designs that the Western world is so impressed with. And voilà.

This seemingly simple job is, in fact, true craft, believe me. It requires finding the right sort of wood, a skilled maker, a creative artist and heaps of patience. The time invested in making it and the artwork adorning it are the main decisive factors when it comes to the instrument’s value. That’s why yidaki prices range from a hundred to thousands of Australian dollars.

Playing the instrument is also pretty authentic. No sticks, picks, amplifiers or electricity. Just you and the air in your lungs.

But it’s no easy task. No, sir. When I was in Alice Springs a few years ago, I went to a short demonstration and tried it myself: #epicfail (and you’d think that blowing into a tube is a piece of cake).

Firstly, it’s pretty heavy and long, so you need to know how to position yourself correctly. And secondly, the trick is also being able to use the circular breathing technique (breathing in through the nose whilst blowing into the tube through the mouth at the same time).

The things professional didge players can do with the instrument musically are A-MA-ZING. They can play long musical pieces and entire gigs, with varying styles, pitches, rhythms and tones. And to prove it, watch this video I filmed at the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets in Darwin some years ago. The folks playing are called eMDee.

Unsurprisingly, most of the legendary players are Aboriginal, like Djalu Gurruwiwi – an internationally acclaimed artist and musician.

The didgeridoo sound is also frequently used in commercial Aussie releases that gained popularity in the last few years. Check out Xavier Rudd or Baker Boy to see how they incorporate yidaki in their tracks. Mitch Tambo – an actor, presenter and versatile performer – can be hired for events where he showcases traditional Aboriginal dancing, body art and didgeridoo playing craft.

You can see more and more didge playing buskers on the streets as well. It seems that mastering yidaki has become quite a trend in recent years. 

Lastly, here are a few surprising facts about the instrument:

  • Women don’t play it officially (i.e. in Aboriginal ceremonies). And it has nothing to do with the lack of gender equality in Indigenous communities. It comes down to the size and difficulty of playing it.
  • If you’ve got a snoring partner, maybe it’s worth investing a few more bucks in their next Christmas or Birthday gift. Allegedly, playing the didge helps fight snoring. It reportedly strengthens some facial muscles responsible for the respiratory system.
  • Nowadays, other materials (such as glass, metal, carbon fibre or even plastic) are used to make didgeridoos in many places outside of Australia. But the true virtuosos, faithful to the traditional ways of making the instrument, source it  directly from Aboriginal people.
  • You can levitate a very light object (like a piece of paper or feather) whilst playing it, provided that you place that object very close to the end of the tube. Pure magic, isn’t it?!

Above featured image: sourced 


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