FOLLOWING THE SOUND TO THE SOURCE, An Interview with Guan Lim - by Ed Drury


The past several months, I've been interviewing various didjeridu players, teachers and makers all around the world via the magic of the Internet and email. In this issue, we'll get to know Guan Lim. - Ed

[ED] Guan, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became involved with the Didjeridu.

[GL] My interest in the didjeridu started several years ago, when Midnight Oil and Yothu Yindi toured the USA. As a fan of the Oils, I was curious of this other band that tagged along with them.

I went out and bought Homeland Movement, Yothu Yindi's first album, and enjoyed the first side of the cassette, which featured modern pop songs. The second side was comprised of traditional songs of the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clan which I couldn't understand...each song sounded the same, and I thought the didjeridu was monotonous and lacked the variety of non-aboriginal didjeridu compositions.

But then I decided to listen more closely to the words and the didjeridu patterning on the second side. I wanted to know how an aboriginal language sounded like, and I also tried replicating the didjeridu rhythm and technique of the traditional songs. I found this impossible, unlike other didjeridu tapes which I could easily master after a few minutes.

Thus, the commencement in my interest in traditional aboriginal didjeridu technique.

Today, I am a Ph.D student studying the contemporary aboriginal land use and management of the Arafura Swamp in north-east Arnhem Land. I met two traditional dancers and singers from the region in 1993 who invited me to their community. In 1994, I made my first visit to Ramingining and have been going back every year since for 6 month stretches. I am currently half-way through a 12 month stay in the community.

[ED] A number of authors document regional variations in playing style amongst Aboriginal groups. Can you account for possible reasons why such differences arose between didjeridu players in the various geographic regions of the Northern Territories?

[GL] I suppose that variation rather than uniformity is the norm in the physical universe we live in. So, perhaps the original question could be turned around to "Why shouldn't there be different styles of playing the didjeridu amongst the aboriginal groups of the NT?". It would be worthy to note that in pre-colonial times (some say pre-invasion) there was not so much admixture of tribes as there now is with modern transport and other conveniences. Thus, in the old days family groups would have been more isolated from each other, and from this (geographic and social) isolation would have arisen particular 'developments' and 'evolutions' that are possibly independent of those occurring in other family groups, especially those more distant. I don't know what they call this in the social sciences but in biology the word 'speciation' is used.

In effect, a reasonable answer to this question would not dwell heavily on the didjeridu at all, but would focus more on social interactions and relationships, whether through trade or marriage, of the family, clan and tribal groups that inhabited the northern portions of Australia centuries or millennia ago.

Therefore, it could be suggested that there are a number of distinct didjeridu styles in the Top End because the aboriginal people themselves are not uniform across this region. They are different, sometimes in a profound way, sometimes more subtly, in language, genetics, and culture. It is probable that this variation is not only due to stochastic processes within social groups in northern Australia but that Australia was colonized by successive waves of immigrants from lands beyond. It would be reasonable to assume that these immigrants had not a common recent ancestry and that they brought with them cultures that were distinct.

We could perhaps ask here "Did different immigrants bring with them different styles of playing the didjeridu?". An interesting question but one that is only of entertainment value since we have little hope of providing a solid answer with our current knowledge base.

Also of entertainment value is "Did the didjeridu evolve within Australia or did the immigrants bring it with them?"

Bringing in a 'cultural aspect' to the original question...I have little doubt that aboriginal people would stress that their particular didjeridu style was always that way. It is part of the culture as determined and laid down by the peak Ancestral Beings, who vested the people with land, religious property, language, songs, paintings, and of course didjeridu style. Not that didjeridu styles are inflexible...there is some scope for an individual's flair and creativity to show through, but there are basic musical structures that should be adhered to.

I do not think non-aboriginal people understand exactly what constitutes the basic musical structure. My experience, however, in north-east Arnhem Land, or the Yolngu cultural bloc as is described in the anthropological literature, seems to suggest that the overtones can be considered as aural landmarks that I think remain fairly constant from performance to performance of the same song within the clan group. That is, the patterning of the overtones of a specific song verse appears to be independent of performer. Other constant features include any accents or rhythmic patterns, effected by the tongue or the vocal cords, although there is some degree of flexibility that is allowable, as determined by the elders of the clan or senior singermen.

The 'ancestral law' is given as the reason, interestingly, for the lack of any didjeridu accompaniment to the songs of a particular clan in north-east Arnhem Land which I shall anonymously call the Crab clan. The songs of this particular clan are solely accompanied by clap sticks, which is unique, I believe, in the Yolngu bloc of Arnhem Land. This does not mean to say that members of the Crab clan do not know how to play the didjeridu; the accomplished players are required to play during their mother's ceremonies.

Didjeridu style, it should be noted, is not divorced from the songs that they accompany. The two are related and dependent on each other (with the exception of the aforementioned clan) as they are with the clap stick patterns. As a rhythm instrument, the didjeridu is important in marking time, and because the musical structure of clan songs is so varied across the Top End, the didjeridu patterns and styles accordingly vary.

Didjeridu technique and style is also dependent on the physical nature of the instrument. In northeast Arnhem Land, the instruments are slim with flared ends, and as such are great for rhythmic playing. Slight tongue movements with these instruments produce large variations in timbre, so the technique from this region relies heavily upon tongue inflections to create rhythm.

In contrast, the didjeridues used in the western regions of Arnhem Land are chunkier, shorter and wide-bored. It is difficult to play overtones on these instruments, perhaps explaining the absence of this sound in the traditional clan songs of the region. Instead, the richness in harmonics of these instruments is notable, which is used to great effect in the accompaniment to the clan songs.

It could be theorized that since the vegetation of the Top End is non-uniform, different tree species are used in different parts of the region for didjeridu production. Thus, it may be that ecology plays a major role in influencing didjeridu style across the Top End.

Termite species are numerous and each probably chews through timber in different ways, producing bores that are distinct from those of other species. Therefore, the ecology of termites may also be a determinant in the physical variation of the didjeridu across geographic zones.

It may be handy to think of didjeridu playing styles in terms of micro- and macro-variations. The macro ones may be influenced by large scale phenomenon, namely ecological and geological ones. Micro-variations, evident amongst clan groups that share social space, may be expressions of the uniqueness of the clan, of identity that was established by the powers that created the social and natural landscape.

It may also be noted in closing that didjeridu styles are not all that distinctive amongst aboriginal groups of northern Australia. There are 3 or 4 basic styles that I am familiar with, each with their own number of variants. These styles correspond roughly with geographic and cultural zones.

Most of the variation that one detects within these zones are more compositional variations than stylistic ones.

[ED] What have been the influences, if any, has 'Western' music had on the didjeridu playing styles of Aboriginal players?

[GL] There sure have been influences. For starter, Yolngu are using a lot more vocalizations then before...even Yothu Yindi are doing this. Some Yolngu also play from the side of their mouth, which I believe is a Western influence.

Most other aboriginal players outside of the Yolngu bloc play pretty much like Westerners, probably because of their immersion in this dominant culture.


Copyright 1997 Ed Drury and Guan Lim (gengl1@LURE.LATROBE.EDU.AU)

The information provided here by Guan Lim is printed in good faith and for education purposes. He volunteered to be interviewed and stands to make no monetary gains from this publication. All reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the information is correct. Guan makes no claims to representing the aboriginal voice, so it is advised that the reader consults the original makers and users of the instrument, the aboriginal people of northern Australia, where ambiguity in the text exists.

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