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Making a Yidaki (didgeridoo) in Arnhem Land

Posted: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 in Uncategorized by Posted by

During a recent visit to Arnhem Land (Yirrkala, Nhulunbuy, Ski Beach), we had the privilege of spending time with Djalu Gurruwiwi and his family (Djalu is a senior member of the Galpu skin clan, Yolngu people and an internationally renown didgeridoo maker and player).


During the visit we helped in the collection of didgeridoos, deep in the Arnhem Land bush. We went out on a 32 degree day, 100% humidity and it took 6 of us, 5 hours to collect 5 didgeridoo tree trunks. Quick math tells us that each didgeridoo took 6 man hours in challenging conditions to collect. We now struggle to open our ears to anybody who complains about a $300 dollar didgeridoo price tag being too expensive!

During the collection the family would walk and walk and walk deeper into the rugged bush, peeling back a little bark of suitable diameter trees, then they would flick the trunk, listening for the right hollow sound. It looked pretty easy so I had a go. Sure that I had found the ultimate yidaki (Yolngu name for the didgeridoo) tree I was encouraged to start cutting to see if I was right. Well quite a few minutes of sawing with the world’s bluntest hand saw, it soon became obvious that my tree was untouched by termites and I’m sure partially made of concrete! So I left the tree flicking to the experts. Dopiya, Djalu’s wife was incredibly accurate in her tree selection. She could pick them from a mile away. I know it was a mile because I had to carry the trees she selected back to the 4WD, and in that heat I remember every step of the way!

Before the log gained approval to be made into an instrument, small saplings and sticks were broken off at the cut site and used to poke out the termite residue from within the hollow of the tree. This required a little time and an aggressive poking action, along with banging the log onto another log to dislodge any bits and pieces from within the potential yidaki. Once satisfied that most of the loose bits were gone the log would be played, bark and all, to test the instrumental qualities. I’m about 30 years younger than Djalu and Dopiya but there is no way I could have produced the power they did as they played those logs. I was just (and still am) so in awe of them both!

From the collection area we headed back to Ski Beach and began the making process (day 2). Using a few different size machetes and blades, the outer log was shaped into a yidaki. I guess the initial chunky carving process was at least a few hours per log (very hard sweat producing hours). We ran out of time to actually do the final shaping of the instruments. The logs that were chosen were all a decent size, and the size of the bell is the size of the whole log, so there was a lot of scraping to do to shape up the mouthpiece end in particular. Before the outside shaping there was of course the tuning, this required cutting (with the ever famous blunt hand saw) the end of the didgeridoo down, in 2 to 5 centimeter lots, until the didgeridoo gave the right sound.

So after two days, between 5 of us, we didn’t manage to actually complete one whole yidaki. There is nothing easy about making a didgeridoo. Yet the joy and satisfaction about being a part of the making process was and is a blessing. Thank you.

So if you have a didgeridoo from the far north then you can be sure that a lot of sweat and hard work has gone into it. And if you select a didgeridoo from us you can be sure that you will get a great instrument that has been collected right and made right. We constantly spend time in the Top End of Australia working alongside different makers and artists, learning and appreciating their techniques, to ensure the didgeridoos we select are of the highest quality. You will receive only the best from us.