A newsletter for the Portland area Didjeridu player...... May 1999 Volume 5 Issue 4
Peter Lister is employed as a Technical Officer (Scientific) with the University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury, Richmond, NSW working in Horticulture within the Faculty of Science and Technology. His duties include providing support to subjects such as Botany & Taxonomy, Plant Biology, Alternative Crops and Advanced Plant Physiology. His duties vary from getting the really weird botanical phone calls, requests to remove large spiders and snakes from the building in summer and to break into cars for folk that have inadvertently locked their keys in their car. He also created and maintains the web pages for the research Centre for Horticulture and Plant Sciences (CHAPS).
He also created and maintains one of the best didjeridu resource pages on the Web. Having played the didjeridu for many years before it became so incredibly popular, Peter took a long break from playing. Through out all that time, however, his respect and admiration for his country's native people remained strong. His interest in the didjeridu, rekindled by contact with members of the Didjeridu Digest list server at Mills has led to not only a return to studying and playing the instrument, but the creation of his wonderful and informative web pages. Peter and I have shared an appreciation and love of traditional music for quite some time. This interview allows me to share some of the dialog we've had for over a year now as well as to ask some questions which Peter is uniquely qualified to answer because of experiences you are about to read about. Peter is quite modest about his own skills on the didjeridu. We've traded tapes and he is really quite good. But, again from first hand experience, he knows the awesome gap between traditional players and us. It teaches humility to be certain, but make no mistake - this man can play as well as most who will read this. Playing the didjeridu is not about how good you are, it's about who you are and where your going. Good playing will take you to an acceptance and understanding of both....
Ed Drury April '99
[Peter] I grew up close to the city of Sydney, about 10 minutes drive from the airport. Myself, sister and parents lived with my mother's mother and mother's, mother's brother (this is sounding anthropological already) in a weatherboard house built by my great grandfather (also on my mothers side). When the house was built in 1898, that country was low-lying sandy ground supporting a forest of Swamp Mahogany (Eucalyptus robusta), that my great-grandfather felled and laid directly upon the sandy soil as foundations. When I was three we stopped using the fuel stove (wood burning) - the technological wonders of gas had made its' mark upon us. The kitchen still had no sink or electricity - and remained that way until the house departed our hands just a few years back. We heated our water for washing dishes and clothing etc., in a 'copper' - a large, copper vat sort-of-thing where we tossed in the garments and stirred them with a long eroded bit of wood, and beat and handwashed them in the adjacent concrete tub. This was also our source of hot water for baths which we carried in a fairly heavy galvanized bucket out to an old bath big enough for olympic training. Seems everyone was stronger in those days. Our family no longer owns the house, but it still stands on its' original foundations.
My father was born in the country - in Leeton, southwestern NSW, and spent most of his youth living and later, working in country towns. He obviously had contact with Aborigines during this time and like all fathers, the usual anecdotes of youth would spill forth every now and then. I recall him telling me about the Aboriginal stockmen in northern Queensland. Dad was a cane-cutter for a while, and these blokes would come into the local pub at the end of the day (seems it wasn't like most country towns where Aborigines were barred from such establishments) dressed in their work gear; a cowboy styled 'uniform' of royal blue with gold coloured edges to the collar and cuffs and a double gold stripe down the outside of each trouser leg. These guys were obviously proud of their work and status as expert cattlemen and horsemen. Dressed to a tee and standing tall and lean, they had the respect of the local white stockmen.
As I mentioned, I grew up in the city, so the first Aborigines I saw
were folk living in Redfern, in the heart of Sydney. This is still an Aboriginal
stronghold with an interesting history.... and that's another story. I had
very little contact with Aboriginal people throughout my youth. I'd see their
settlements outside of country towns when we'd head north on family holidays,
and in my naivete I never questioned why they lived out of town in dilapidated
and impoverished conditions.
So my contact with Aborigines was practically non-existent (entirely
anecdotal until I was in my late teens) -and I'd say that was pretty much
the scenario for any of us growing up in the city. I remember kids doing
school projects on Aborigines when I was 8 or 10. They just visited the library
or the newsagents to buy the 'school project kit' - a sort of folded poster
in a plastic sleeve. The one on Aborigines had these drawings of brown naked
people carrying dishes on their heads or standing in this one-legged pose,
and hunting kangaroos or some poor representations of Aboriginal art. They
were pretty terrible - and certainly not representative of Aboriginal culture,
art and lifestyle. It wasn't until 1981, that it became compulsory to teach
of the existence of Aborigines in the NSW educational curricula!!
Mmmm, didjeridu. I have this mental black & white image of a TV show hosted by Rolf Harris, and broken bits of images of David Blanasi and David Gulpilil whom made the occasional appearance. Both would play didjeridu or dance. Gulpilill progressed to the big screen. Rolf used to play the didj too. Rolf Harris was involved in a couple of programmes, one which was pretty much studio-based, the other was a sort of natural history, travelling experience. Harry Butler and Vincent Serventy (both naturalists) and Harris travelled the outback encountering weird and wonderful wildlife and spectacular scenery, and often visiting Aboriginal communities. Butler grew up in a community with Aboriginal playmates. I recall them visiting the Top End - wild country, crocs and Aborigines dancing in the firelight to the sound of the didj.
During my very early years, my father used to buy and regularly play records. We had a TV, but didn't watch it during the day, and so used to listen to music if it was wet outside. The Aboriginal part of that came with the soft, gospel-style music of Jimmy Little - a koori from southern NSW - Yorta Yorta country. My father (although not a spiritual man) loved Jimmy Little's voice, and we've got quite a collection of his records. It's only now, that Little sings of his people and his mothers' country - still with a silken voice.
I had this book too, can't remember the title but I'm sure it had the
word 'walkabout' in it, but it had these couple of Aboriginal figures (depicted
like dolls) that lived in central Australia - it was terrible book when I
think about it - a mishmash of all different (mostly inaccurate)aspects of
Aboriginal cultures. But it was probably a combination of the book, the music,
the Rolf Harris shows etc., that later made me raid the neighbours' yard
where they were building a new house, for a piece of PVC electrical conduit
with which I made a didj. I was ten. I 'sanded' down the outside with a rock
to remove the printing, ground other rock up to use as 'paint', and with
a combination of my own 'paint' and a little set of watercolours, I painted
the outside. I didn't copy Aboriginal designs, I did realistically-styled
paintings of a kangaroo, a blue-tongued lizard and Uluru (Ayers Rock). I
still have it.
Approaching 1980, big changes started to take place in Sydney. There
had been all sorts of Land Rights things happening in the Northern Territory
during the '70's. Clashes over traditional lands with mining (such as at
Yirrkala) and Aboriginal stockmen walking off the job (at Wave Hill) demanding
equal pay and conditions. This slowly filtered through to the cities and
by 1980 it was possible to view a performance by traditional people from
the Top End. Things were changing!. During the '80's, with the changed school
curriculum, Aborigines visited schools and taught children about various
aspects of culture. It was at these Yolngu dance performances that I had
my first real contact, both with traditional people and the didjeridu, and
I guess it changed me forever. I started to frequent these performances and
local dances and gatherings and got to know many Aborigines from all over
- traditional people and those of mixed cultural backgrounds - kooris. I
also started working with Aborigines as part of my work with the NSW National
Parks & Wildlife Service. But the greatest influence came from my contact
with a clan leader from NE Arnhem Land.....
[Ed] I understand that recently, you had a life long dream come true. That was to visit an Aboriginal Community in the North. I also know that we share an acute interest in "traditional" music from that part of Australia and listen to every recording we can get our grubby hands on. When did you start listening to field recordings of Aboriginal musicians? I know that you have recordings going back to the days when vinyl was state of the art....
[Peter] I don't quite know what it was that originally spawned
my interest in Aboriginal cultures - but I became interested in all sorts
of things Aboriginal, not just the music. As I said, there was obviously
a combination of factors at work. It wasn't until it was suggested to me
by a traditional performer that I visit Arnhem Land, that I even contemplated
seeing that country. I was twenty then (1980) and my teenage years had become
partly filled with this obsession with things Aboriginal. I was reading
anthropological texts (and bought a couple too) and I started collecting
artifacts and recordings. The very first 'commercial' studio recording of
didjeridu was released (1977) as an EP which I bought and I purchased my
first didjeridu (1978). It was that record and that player that became (and
still is) my greatest inspiration to play. The didjeridu was the only one
I'd seen for sale and held a centrepiece position in the window of the Bush
Church Aid Society shop in Bathurst St in the city. It was from Mornington
Island. It took me months to save for it and I finally got it. Trying to
get an acceptable sound from it after playing on a tiny bit of plastic was
a real challenge!.
I'm not sure when I started listening to field recordings - it must
have been sometime around 1975-6. I have recordings that I bought new around
that time - my first would have been the three volumes of Prof. AP Elkin's
recordings from Arnhem Land and an album recorded in Bamyili. Elkins recordings
are amazing - or rather their CONTENT is amazing. They're pretty scratchy
sounding as they were originally done in the late '50's on a wire recorder
- but the music is phenomenal. In those days, traditional people performed
and danced every night, so some of the old recordings demonstrate a precision
that is now almost entirely limited to "professional" performers. Everybody
danced, or sang, or played. Nowadays, everybody is still involved, but such
performances are tied to ceremony - they're not a daily (nightly) activity
as they were in the past. I also bought recordings made by Alice Moyle and
Sandra Le Brun Holmes, some of which are now unavailable, so I now have a
small collection of traditional music from the Kimberley across Arnhem Land
to Cape York.
My desire to visit Arnhem Land grew, and to cut a long story short, things didn't go quite the way I planned. I got sick and spent 7 months on and off in hospital enduring chemotherapy - during which time the clan leader whom had been so much inspiration to me (during the times I met him and via the recording he'd made) died.
I also had had the opportunity to take up a job with an Aboriginal community in the desert - but my personal life at the time changed that too. While I was a student I had been working part time with the National Parks and Wildlife Service of NSW and the NSW Education Department doing interpretive/educational things, sometimes with Aboriginal folk, and I'd been involved in re-recording archaeological sites (imperial to metric map stuff) and doing voluntary archaeological work around Sydney. I also had a close koori mate from western NSW whom was one of the last of the 'stolen generation' in his country whom used to say "How come you're the whitefella, but you know more than I do about my own culture?" He got out of some trouble and went on to do wonderful cultural things for his people and I'd like to think that I helped him find a way to find himself.
So yes, my desire to visit Arnhem Land was something that became a
"lifelong dream" because other things got in the way. I received another
invite to visit (via a member of Yothu Yindi) a few years back, was unable
to go then, so when, last year(1998) it finally became possible, I couldn't
believe it. It was dream come true - 18 years of waiting. I was spoilt with
that invite - it was more than I expected. I was adopted into a family, and
among other things, I was invited on several occasions to sit within the
circle of performers during a ceremony. I found it very hard to leave.
I'll be going back again, and again....
[Ed] When you say you were 'adopted', does that mean that you have a defined relationship with this family? And with that relationship similar responsibilities to that of any other member of the family? I don't know to what level you can get into it, but it is a curious concept, that of a grown man being adopted not only into a family, but a different cultural context where "family" - I would guess - has perhaps several meanings which are more expansive than say in America where we have a saying, "you can choose your friends, but not your family..." This sounds like a case where you literally can choose your family...and they picked you! Quite an honor, I'd venture to guess...
[Peter] Yes, it was something I didn't expect at all. It's usual for people such as anthropologists and other researchers to be "adopted" by a family if they are in a position where they will have a lot of contact with individuals over a relatively long period of time. In my case, it happened after just a few days - I was very surprised and I'm quite honoured. There are quite a few folk that have been "adopted" by Yolngu, and yes it definitely involves familial responsibility. When someone is working in a community, it establishes protocols for relations between individuals and the outsider which allows the lines of communication to flow in a 'normal' sense. Everyone in a community is related in a 'classificatory' sense - they are all family, either directly or indirectly.
Everybody knows each other by a kinship term. Some can only address others by a particular term rather than a personal name, and that applies to anyone that's been 'adopted' as well. This doesn't mean to suggest that this is an unfavorable or a sinister relationship - there's a lot of respect, tact and politics that make up these relationships. So there are individuals whom I address (in their terms) as brother, sister etc.. It's a very extended system and Yolngu families are also large, so there are many individuals that I would call 'sister' for example, not just those within the family in which I was adopted. This means too that there are other levels of relations involved. To be 'adopted' into a family means you are then placed within a system that encompasses a moiety, a subsection (or 'skin') and also a clan, so relationships extend well beyond the bounds we would describe as 'family'. I don't yet know how I am related to each and every person in the community - that's something that will only come with several visits. Part of my obligation means that when Yolngu come down this way, I'm expected to ensure they have everything they need - transport, accommodation, finances etc. - whatever help they may need, just as I have when I visit them. It also means that if someone in the community that I have a close relationship with calls me and requests that I locate a particular item for them, that I'm expected to do this too.
I'd like to say too that this 'family' I now have is like nothing I ever experienced as 'family' during my youth. I feel a lot closer to individuals, and they seem to understand me more than my own family (parents and sibling) ever has. They never hesitated in helping me in any way and seemed truely honest in the desire for me to return soon - which I will.
[Ed] I would venture to guess who the player on that EP was, but I would also guess that your not naming him in a public forum because of the importance of not speaking the name of a deceased? Do you feel that it is important to the study and appreciation of the didjeridu as an instrument to study and appreciate the Aboriginal peoples and their cultures as well? And what specifically, can we as didjeridu players learn from listening to and trying to emulate Aboriginal players?
[Peter] Yeah Ed, that's correct. He died back in late 1987, and although
funeral rites are now complete, and the speaking of his name has been allowed
again in the last eighteen months or so, I still feel a bit uncomfortable
I'm sure there are didj players that have absolutely no interest in,
or appreciation of, any aspects of Aboriginal cultures and I'm not about
to suggest that that should change. But I also think that there is a stage
that many didj players go through that initiates an interest in such things,
so it's something that comes about as a sort of natural progression with
the instrument. It would be nice if everybody, didj player or not, gained
a greater appreciation and understanding of at least the conspicuous aspects
of Aboriginal cultures. I'm talking here about art in particular and as copyright
laws change, I hope such an awareness and understanding of the context of
Aboriginal art in culture results.
There are limits too, - how much cultural information should be
disseminated?. Once you start to release information you need to be careful
to control the way in which it may be used (or abused), yet retain sufficient
material in order to retain cultural identity. Education and awareness is
a great thing - but cultural dilution and commodification is an incredibly
destructive, modern evil.
When I was last at Uluru (Ayers Rock) I noticed what a great learning
system they've established there. The traditional owners recognise the need
for visitors to be educated as to the cultural (especially mythical) aspects
of the features of Uluru and surrounding country. Yet at the same time, their
mastery of the English language and the possibility of crossing into potentially
dangerous cultural content prevents them from personally providing the
information that many visitors want. This is overcome by employing non-Aboriginal
Rangers to disseminate selected information. Such staff can inform the visitor
in a manner that conveys the information precisely in a language with which
many are familiar, yet at the same time there is no risk of them unintentionally
allowing sensitive information to be conveyed as their knowledge base is
restricted. It's a great thing. The visitor is informed, and hopefully leaves
with a greater respect and understanding for this country; the traditional
owners are satisfied that sensitive (secret/sacred) issues have been avoided
and at the same time they've not had to deal with (what is for them) an
uncomfortable situation. This is one of the paths to reconciliation. Black
and white working together for the mutual benefit of both.
For some individuals the didjeridu has become an instrument to aid in meditation and healing. Some of these individuals believe the way in which they use the instrument is a reflection of it's traditional use and I've read and heard of accounts where such people have stated that they do this precisely because this is what Aborigines do. I have a problem with this because if indeed someone traditionally used the didj in this fashion, that doesn't apply to all Aboriginal cultures - why be such a cultural parasite?. I don't see why these individuals have to try and relate their use of the instrument with traditional use. If they find the didj useful for their own particular purpose, then fine, but I don't believe they should bend their own beliefs to fit into their perception of anothers culture and pass of what they do as being an inherent part of anothers culture. Some Aboriginal people must be quite offended by this. This is one area where I feel a greater understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal cultures would benefit they way in which the instrument is used.
You specifically asked about listening to traditional players and trying to emulate them. I think we can learn a lot about the instrument and traditional players skills by doing this, but frankly I think that most players don't like the traditional playing styles and what each of us gets from listening to traditional didj playing would probably be different. I'd also suggest that very few players can emulate traditional players. Some may be able to play something of the style of a traditional rhythm, but few can play with the degree of technical precision and power demanded of traditional playing nor obtain the SOUND. I don't now of any recordings by popular players, and that includes koori (non-traditional Aboriginal) players, that emulate traditional playing (with the exception of Yothu Yindi band members of course).
As you know from first hand experience with a traditional player, even
the simplest of traditional rhythms are difficult to learn to play. Even
if you can reproduce each of the sounds correctly, combining them into the
same rhythm with the precision of a traditional player is extremely
difficult.Listening to traditional players has taught me that I'm just a
beginner - I honestly don't think I could even class myself as a 'player'.
I can make a few sounds, but I doubt I'll ever be able to make those sounds
with the skill of a traditional player.
They are masters - masters of control.
[Ed] What was your reaction to the playing in the communities? Did you get a chance to hear much playing during your visit?
[Peter] I was fortunate in hearing some excellent playing.
I heard some young boys that were far better players than I'll ever be, and
I was especially honoured to be asked to sit with didj players and songmen
during a ceremony. It was a funeral. At one stage there were three different
groups of didj players and songmen performing. Usually there was 4-6 men
(sometimes as many as nine) in each group. More than one of these individuals
in each group could play didj, but only ever one played at a time whilst
the rest sang and played clapsticks. Two of the groups were about 10 metres
apart, but the other group was about 50 metres away. The two groups closest
to each other alternated, whilst the one at a distance oftimes overlapped
a little with either of the others performance.
Like all live performances, it was remarkable, but what really stood out was the skill of all those involved. Incredibly precise and powerful - moving stuff, especially when I was invited to sit within the circle of the performers. It was more than I'd ever dreamed to experience - so much better than any recording. When each song commenced or when a didj player changed, there was no practice or warm up, they just went straight into it!! Full on, no retakes, and there was song after song after song. The last night I was there (which was the third day of what was to be a ten day ceremony) - it was a full moon - what a night that was... In the early hours after midnight it was so still, hundreds of Yolngu were sleeping - just half a dozen of us sitting in the stillness - the sticks, didj and voices ringing out amongst the stringybarks. A light, slightly cool breeze carrying the music off into the distance. Those clapsticks are incredibly loud they ring right through your body - you can imagine how far the sound carries on a clear night. I am so lucky to have been a part of that.
[Ed] You have assembled a body of information on your web page which includes the works of Alice Moyle, Trevor Jones and A.P. Elkin to name a few. This includes transcripts of music and notes about playing styles. This is very useful information which is quite hard to find. It seems to me that your quite keen to see the association between the didjeridu (which has become enormously popular outside of Australia) and the Australian Aboriginal culture strong. I know that in the USA there are far in a way more people playing and listening to didjeridu music than are aware of the culture it comes from in any real way. I'm wondering how much that is true in Australia today with all the tourism and commodification of all things Australian?
[Peter] Yeah, it is hard to find, and that's essentially why it's there. When I started my pages, I did so only because there were some gaps in the information available. I don't want to repeat stuff that's on other peoples pages - I just link to other useful sites - after all that's what the web is all about.
I'd like to see the link between the didjeridu and its' contemporary use endure. I know it sounds dramatic, but I'd hate to see the instruments' origins obscured with time. I recall hearing about some guy (I think it may have been in a Mills Didj List discussion) telling his audience that the didj originated in Africa and that he had to be initiated into some tribe prior to learning how to play. This sort of misinformation is a danger to the future recognition of the origins of the instrument and unfortunately, such perpetrators often have the unquestioning ear of their gullible audience.
I'd agree with you too about how many players have very little interest
in the cultural history and context of the instrument. Often that changes
as their playing develops, and I suppose that's a natural human curiosity,
but not always, rather they build some kind of mysterious mask about the
instrument and its use.
Like many things, I'd say that Australia is a minor reflection of US trends. The ignorance is the same here, and yes, we have many buskers and players, just on a much smaller scale. Even I busked once - back in about 1982, when I was short of a quid. In those days there weren't many didj players in Sydney. I knew one other player - an Aboriginal fella whom used to play didj and guitar - Johnny Marshal, and he's still at it! The only other player I knew of was Charlie McMahon.
A few things are different though. I know that in both Europe and the US, teaching and healing is a big thing, and I know too that some players make a living out of recording and/or performing. Sure there are a few here - David Hudson, Mark Atkins, Alan Dargin, Charlie McMahon, Andrew Langford and the like, churn out Cd's and do live performances, but there are relatively few such players indulging in this activity by comparison. I'm not up with the didj scene that much here. I get together with a mate or two once in a while, and that's it. I don't know anyone whom plays didj in a band or gives lessons. I believe Alan Dargin teaches but I don't know who else. I've helped a few with their circular breathing, but I'd never call myself a teacher, and I've never charged for my time. I wouldn't have done it if I could direct these beginners to an indigenous player whom could help.
I haven't heard of anyone here using the didj for healing. I don't have a problem with the variety of ways in which the instrument is used these days, but I do have a problem with the misinformation often associated with the contemporary use of the didj in healing and meditation. Suggesting or stating that the way in which these players use the didj is traditional is wrong. I similarly have a problem with didj makers (regardless of cultural background) that make instruments outside of the Top End (in this state for example) and state that the sticks they produce are authentic traditional instruments - even referring to them by traditional names. I also think that the majority of instruments being produced in Oz are made for the tourist market - never to be played, but stood in the corner of the living room. Some of them are appalling instruments, some of them quite good. Many of them have large amounts of wax forming the mouthpiece as the hollow is too large - the seller will tell you that this is for comfort though! You can also buy 'authentic' instruments that have been turned out of solid wood on a lathe or made by passing backpackers in the Kimberley!
I 'd like to comment too that it's quite difficult to get good
traditional instruments in much of this country. I think the majority go
directly from wholesaler/community overseas. In my experience, it's very
difficult to find a seller whom knows something of traditional instruments,
or whom can get them (or rather whom wants to go to the trouble of getting
it for you) from a supplier in the Territory. My impression is that the majority
of sellers are there to make money from tourists - not to supply quality
instruments to players. A few didj/artifact shops I've been in carry CD's
and tapes of didj music, but most of it is not traditional, so there is no
opportunity for the purchaser to experience traditional sound from the outset.
The Sydney scenario: Potential purchaser arrives in the store, hears
didj music playing, is greeted by a non-indigene whom directs them towards
a large, colourful, big-belled didj. Stories of the power and mystique of
the instrument unfold, usually embellished by the music being played or by
an actual demonstration. They leave sometime later with what they believe
to be an authentic traditional instrument with a belief that the harmonious,
meditative sounds they heard are traditional playing.
I feel all these activities devalue traditional instruments and I hope that the tides of change in this country will prevent such instruments being made and sold in this fashion in the future.
[Ed] Why is the traditional style so elusive, even to players who have spent years listening to it?
[Peter] That's an extremely good question, and I don't pretend to
know the answer, especially since I can't play any traditional style stuff
myself, but I'll hazard a few guesses.
Firstly, I think it has a lot to do with growing up and being immersed
in the culture from the start. Traditional players hear traditional style
didjeridu from when they're babies and start making sounds with a didj at
a very early age. For those of us with a passion for that traditional sound,
it's often something that we just happened upon, having heard other didj
playing some time earlier, unaware of the unique sound produced by traditional
players. Maybe it's too late then?
Secondly, I think it has a lot to do with language. Aboriginal languages
have sounds that don't exist in other languages. The ability to produce these
sounds depends on the ability to place your tongue in a variety of positions
unfamiliar to many of us - some of these positions are used in traditional
style didj playing. So I'm sure that knowledge of northern language pronunciation
Thirdly, it may even be physiological. This may sound far fetched,
but I believe it may be a crucial factor. Airflow is obviously a major part
of playing - no doubt about that!. Traditional playing has high volume,
unrestricted airflow. The shape and capacity of airways, particularly the
mouth (as it's the most restrictive part of the pathway) must surely determine
such airflow. The shape of the Aboriginal palette and volume and proportions
of the mouth cavity are very different to non-Aborigines like ourselves.
So Ed, if the third factor is indeed the main reason, there may be
no hope for those of us whom have tried to generate that uniquely powerful
Maybe in a another life?