Tuesday, June 25, 2013

When You Gonna Learn?

I had my first didjeridu class last night and I'm still excited about it.  I figured while I was here I should get to know how to play an indigenous instrument.  I think one of the best ways to truly get to know a culture is to learn about their art and music.  For having such a strong history of Aboriginal culture here it seems like most modern day Australians are playing catch up in acknowledging and learning about it.  But they are trying.

The class is held at the Tali Gallery in Rozelle through the Sydney Community College.  I've just gotten used to getting on a bus that I'm not quite sure where will end up.  Last night, I got on a new bus to a place I'd never been, in the dark, by myself, headed to a class where I feared I might be the only female.  It was rather exhilarating.  Super scary though but I'm pretty good at just jumping into something and seeing what happens.  What's the worst that could happen, right?

I got there the same time as one of my fellow students so we became friends right away.  He is a backpacker from Estonia with a thick accent.  That caused quite a laugh when our instructor thought he said "bagpiper" instead of backpacker.  It took a while to get that sorted out and it ended with Charlie, our teacher, making a joke at his expense about the community college offering English classes too.  Ah mate, good on ya, that means he likes you already!

Our class is taught by the didjeridu legend, Charlie McMahon.  You can check out his website at www.charliemcmahon.com.  It's amazing and so exciting for me.  I'm learning the didjeridu from the world's foremost authority on the didjeridu.  Outside of original Arnhem Land musicians, Charlie is your man.

Charlie grew up in the Blue Mts. and still lives there today.  He catches the train in and out of town, almost an 1.5 hour commute.  Now that's someone dedicated to teaching about the didj.  He has no Aboriginal ancestry but became fascinated with the culture after seeing the movie Jedda when he was was a little boy. As a teen he blew off his right hand experimenting with rockets in his backyard.  So he has a type of grappling hook for a right hand. I'll take pictures of everyone next week to update you on my progress.  To be honest, I was too busy trying to find my bearings and get a solid tone to be taking pictures.

Charlie went through a little about his history and the history of the didj.  Some of you may have seen Charlie perform and not even know it.  He played with the Midnight Oil during their heyday and toured around the world with them. He's recorded with the Oils as well as Jane's Addiction, Keith Urban, The Angels and many others as well as his own bands.  I love that he downplayed this when he was explaining his story.  He worked out in the bush water boring which is basically like an oil rigger that is looking for water.  He casually shows some pictures of him with the Oils (that's what the cool kids call them) and says, "Yeah, it was fun.  I played with the Oils a bit in between water boring."  Awesome.  He toured with one of Australia's most famous bands and he's like, whatever, it was fun.

Charlie and his collection of Didjeridus
(courtesy of charliemcmahon.com)

I think Charlie is more interested in being appreciated by his Aboriginal contemporaries rather than any of us.  Yet, at the same time, he has taken the instrument into contemporary music and done things with it that many never imagined could happen.  For example,  I am practicing on what he calls a Didjeribone.  It's an instrument that he invented.  Bascially, it's a hybrid of a didj and a trombone.  This allows you to change keys and create different "horn" notes that can actually harmonize.  

But hold on, I'm getting ahead of myself.  First a quick introduction to the didjeridu.  I will try to add more history and theory as the weeks go on.  I'm sure you will all be either thoroughly engaged or bored but I'm going for extremes here!

First of all, you may notice that I am spelling the instrument, "didjeridu" and not "didgeridoo".  I don't think it's that big of a deal especially when you realize that each culture had a different name for the instrument.  But, didjeridu is more accurate and is what Charlie and other Aboriginals use so therefore I will use it.  When I first thought of learning this instrument I was met with intrepidation.  "What? You're American, and white, and a girl..."  Ah yes, the myths of the didjeridu.  There are a lot of "Didj Dogma" as Charlie likes to call it.  He pointed me to an online article called, That didjeridu has sent them mad, that helps dispel some common myths.  Please feel free to check it out if you like.

So, let's fix some of those incorrect myths right now, shall we?

Didj myth #1:  All Aboriginals played the Didjeridu
Reality:  Nope.  It originated from the Arnhem Land people in the very top of the Northern Territory and has only very recently made its way throughout Australia.

Didj myth #2:  The Didjeridu is a sacred instrument and must only be played by Aboriginal men.
Reality:   Wrong again.  It is an instrument that was primarily played at diplomacy exchanges and funerals.  The sacred instrument is called a Bullroarer. It's like a spinning blade at the end of a rope that they swing above their heads to create a sound unlike anything else.  This was part of the men's secret business and therefore only sacred men played it.  Women had their own secret business too but that's a different story.

Didj myth #3:  The Didjeridu is one of the world's oldest instruments.
Reality:   As exotic and inviting as the thought may be this is false.  The Aboriginals may be one of the oldest living tribes in the world but that does not mean that the didj is that old.  In fact, since it was only played in the very top of the Northern Territory the oldest rock paintings featuring a didj date back only 1,500 to 2,000 years old.  Oh well, that still beats the electric guitar for age.

Didj myth #4:  Aboriginals don't like other people playing the Didjeridu
Reality:   They only care if you are trying to pass yourself off as being an authentic Aboriginal player and you are not.  They don't mind any one playing it as it is just an instrument.  But, if you start telling people and more importantly "selling" people that you are authentic, this is wrong.  I fully believe this in all things people.  Just be who you are, say what you mean, and do what you say you will do.

Didj myth #5:  Authentic Didjeridus are played by themselves and mainly produce a drone sound
Reality:  Arnhem Land musicians used the didjeridu as an accompaniment to a singer.  The emphasis was always on the singer and you would never find someone droning by themselves or with other didj players for that matter.   If you see this and they say they are playing the "authentic" sound of the didjeridu and there is no singer?  Wrong, this is what the Arnhem Land people are talking about.  This doesn't mean that you can't drone and invent things by yourself.

Didj myth #6:  If you find a Didjerdu in an Australian tourist shop and it says "authentic" it is.
Reality:   Well now, we've all heard of buyer beware.  Now that the didjeridu has become a symbol of Australia you can find a didj in almost any shop you wander into.  Technically, the only "authentic" didj would be made by someone from the Arnhem Land and this is very rare.  However, there are good didjeridus being made out there.  Actually, my friend from Estonia brought in one made of bamboo that he bought in India and Charlie said it was quite good.  Just be careful and realize that because of the newfound popularity people are cutting trees in an alarming fashion.  There is the traditional way of finding a tree that is already hollowed out and cutting it to allow new growth.  This is not what most people out for a quick buck are doing and because of it the Gouldian finch is now threatened. So, be careful what you buy!

Adult red-headed male Gouldian Finch
Ok, enough info. for today.  I'll add more in the coming weeks.  Feel free to ask questions or comment!  Now off to practice my circular breathing.

1 comment:

  1. "I fully believe this in all things people. Just be who you are, say what you mean, and do what you say you will do. "

    Imagine if everyone in the world lived by this code?