Didgeridoo Sacred Origins & Use

The didgeridoo is probably the world’s oldest musical instrument, originating in the world’s oldest continuous culture: the indigenous peoples of Australia, whose culture is believed to be at least 40,000 years old.

The didgeridoo has apparently been known to indigenous Australians throughout the entire history of their culture.  Indeed, some Dreamtime stories mention the didgeridoo in a prominent role.  (Dreamtime is the “time before time,” that is, the time before the world and the things in it took on their present-day forms, and when the gods were still actively present in the world.)  One Dreamtime story explains how a particular god carried his didgeridoo by tying it to his back so that it stuck out behind.  When the god later transformed into a bird, the didgeridoo sticking out behind became the bird’s long, narrow tail.

In another Dreamtime story, three gods get together to play didgeridoo, sing, and dance.  In this story the gods also have bird-forms; Giddabush (a bird also known as the “long-tailed fashion”) is the didgeridoo player, the Butcher bird plays clapsticks and sings, and the Piwi bird dances.  As they play, dance, and sing, they name (and hence create) all of the things in the world.  When they have finished their work of naming things, Giddabush, Butcher bird, and Piwi pass on the didgeridoo, clapsticks, songs, and dances to humans, and the indigenous Australians have in turn passed these things down from generation to generation.  (A more complete version of this story, as told by Bill Harney, can be found in the book Didgeridoo: Ritual Origins and Playing Techniques by Dirk Schellburg, Binkey Kok Publications, Diever, Holland; ISBN 90-74597-13-0.)

For more Dreamtime stories, try these links:

  • www.dreamtime.net.au
  • Art of the Dreamtime
  • eJournal Australia ’94-’95
  • Asgard Dreamtime
  • Foote School Dreamtime Stories
  • Crystalink’s Dreamtime

Given that these Dreamtime stories show the didgeridoo as an essential tool in the creation of the world as well as a device invented directly by the gods, it isn’t surprising that the didgeridoo is a sacred instrument.  In indigenous Australian culture, the didgeridoo is used in both open and secret religious ceremony.  Open ceremonies can be seen or heard by anyone; secret ceremonies are restricted to members of the tribe, and sometimes to specific groups within the tribe.

Apart from sacred ceremony, the didgeridoo is also played recreationally as accompaniment to clan songs, entertainment songs, teaching songs and individually-owned songs.  Other traditional forms of recreational didgeridoo playing include story-telling and nature studies.  For story-telling and nature studies, the didgeridoo player uses the unique playing characteristics of the didgeridoo (shrieks, coughs, grunts, and so on) to imitate a specific animal or to aurally relate a story, for example, about a hyena drinking from a water-hole, or about hunting a kangaroo.

Fortunately for us, the indigenous Australians have been willing to share recreational didgeridoo playing techniques with outsiders by teaching the same playing techniques that uninitiated boys of the tribe may be taught.

Didgeridoo music began appearing in a non-traditional context in various Australian bands in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, including genre-setting groups such as Yothu Yindi.  By the late 1980’s and continuing through the 1990’s, the didgeridoo spread to Europe and the Americas with sufficient popularity to support several bands featuring didgeridoo sounds blended with European melody instruments such as guitar, flute, violin, and clarinet in a variety of styles.  (The book Didgeridoo: Ritual Origins and Playing Techniques, cited earlier in this text, contains a more specific history of bands using the didgeridoo from the 1970’s through the early 1990’s.)  For a list of the few didgeridoo CDs that this author knows and likes, click the Discography button in the navigation bar on the left.