A newsletter for the Portland area Didjeridu player......February  2000 Volume 6 Issue 2

Regional Variations in Instruments

by Ed Drury

 Differences in traditional didjeridu playing styles have been documented extensively by Moyle, West, Jones and others. Likewise, they have been reported and commented on in articles on the World Wide Web, most eloquently by Peter Lister .These regional differences in playing (often labeled A and B) are sometimes explained linguistically and differentiated by either the presence or absence of the first overtone note. From my experience in trying to learn more about these techniques from the aspect of playing them, I feel the more significant difference is in the area of circular breathing and rhythm. In "type A" or Western Arnhem Land style, the breath is given a definite "place" in the rhythmic cycle, in some cases an entire half note duration. The duration is directly tied to the tempo of the playing, but in all cases, it is a noticeable part of the rhythm and the cheeks perform a powerful "beat" of the phrase along with the heavily accented retroflexed "D" sound which is invariably placed on the first beat of the phrase (eg - Didjama Didj jah Doo, Didjama dooooo from the first track of Arnhem Land Popular Classics collected by LM West).

 Instruments I have played which are reported to come from these areas, tend to be shorter than expected for their resultant pitch, cylindrical in bore and "cleaned out" interiorly such that the inside walls of the tube are relatively smooth. This lends itself to hummed vocal notes and heavily accented pressure increases resulting in a slight rise of pitch but no overtone toot. In fact, they usually require conscious effort to "toot". This article describes some of the best of my personal collection and how I regard the pieces in my learning process.

Western Arnhem Land Didjeridus
 These two didjeridus have been in my collection for several years. Both are quite deep in pitch, although not particularly long. The one on the left is a C# and the one on the right is in the key of Cb (it is in fact a little sharp of being a spot on B or a little flat of being a C natural). The first overtone is easily reached on both, but requires a definite change in lip buzz technique and considerable practice to transition between the fundamental and the first overtone fluently.

 The interior bore is fairly uniform in shape and reasonably smoothed out, lending itself to subtle harmonics and clear transmission of vocals. Back pressure is light and the mouthpiece diameter are approximately 1.5 inches closed down to 1.4 inches with beeswax.

 The walls of this instruments are not particularly thick so they play relatively easy and are actually quite "light" compared to the big heavy sticks attributed to the Yolngu group.

 In contrast, the instruments I have personally played which come from  areas associated with "Type B", the Northeastern Arnhem Land instruments are longer than expected for a given pitch, conical in bore and untouched inside. Sudden increases in pressure caused by a firm cheek expulsion, tongue thrust or "bounced" breath often result in an overtone note being produced without conscious effort. The staccato playing technique associated with this style often does not ascribe a definite place for the breath and it is very difficult to hear where a breath is in the cycle. A breath may occur during a tongued note, an overtone note or a bounced or accented "breath".

Northeastern Arnhem Land Yirdaki
These sticks are quite long considering their fundamental pitches ( from left to right : high G, E, C# and F). The interior walls are completely unworked and very rough. The bore is either frankly conical or narrows at a point of around six to eight inches distal to the mouthpiece. Mouthpiece sizes range from 1 inches to an inch to just slightly larger than an inch and only one of them has a small amount of sugarbag wax on it. The walls of the instruments, while relatively thin at the mouthpiece are quite thick at the trumpet end and they are about twice the weight of the didjs coming from Western Arnhem Land.

Back pressure is much higher and the didjs respond to fluctuations in blowing pressure but also mouth shapes quickly and often with a very short duration overtone note which is almost an "accidental".

 Obviously, some of these differences in instrument playing characteristics have a relationship to the style in which they are played. It is difficult to play Northeastern Arnhem Land style with it's frequent use of the first overtone note on a Western Arnhem Land instrument. It's also difficult to do the prolonged cheek augmented breath on a Northeastern stick without "squeaking" out an overtone note. Also, because of the narrow channel at the mouthpiece end of the NE Arnhem Land stick, hummed vocal notes and prolonged harmonics of the 'Balanda' or non-aboriginal non-rhythmic playing of the contemporary "new age" style are not easily accomplished. For learning some approximation of the North Eastern or Yolngu style of playing, a pipe from that region is probably a necessity. For learning the traditional Western Arnhem Land type A style, a pipe from the region is advantageous, but probably any type of cylindrical thinner walled pipe is adequate for learning purposes. Most players outside of Australia probably are first exposed to playing style which has more in common with the Western Arnhem Land style than any other tradition.

 Contemporary, non-Aboriginal didjeriduists often choose either a Western Arnhem Land didjeridu or a high quality non-traditional instrument such as North American Agave guru Allan Shockley's Agave Dreampipes which are versatile enough for rhythmic or slow trance like playing, have excellent harmonics and are much easier to play than the heavy pipes from the Yolngu. These pipes are suited to contemporary playing and adequate for playing Western Arnhem Land style. I have the fortune to have available yet another style of instrument which combines some of the playing characteristics of both NE and Western Arnhem Land pipes. These pipes made by Jim Wegner are constructed of plastic pipe and Bondo (tm). The shaping of the exterior and physical shape of the bore is similar to NE Arnhem Land didjeridu. However the inside conical bore is smooth walled. Back pressure is obtained by a gentle curvature about 8 to 10 inches distal to the mouthpiece. Unlike the rough interior walls of the yidaki, the smooth walls offer little resistance to the airstream, the gentle bend mentioned previously simulates the narrowing of the bore near the mouthpiece mention in the paragraph on the NE AL sticks making the first overtone easy to hit and transition back to the fundamental. The overall bore is larger that traditional yidaki, so it is possible to accent with the breath without jumping to the second note. Tonally, they are not as "throaty" sounds as either traditional instrument, but as a learner's instrument, a very useful instrument in it's range.

Jim Wegner Bondo Didjeridus
Like their Northeastern influences counterparts, these instruments are longer than expected by pitch owing to a conical shape. (Left to right: F#, E, and  D# ). Because of the bondo, they are also heavier than expected and the wall thickness is also greater at the trumpet end and thinner at the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece diameters are approximately 1.25" on all three. None of these require a beeswax mouthpiece (desired in Northeastern style playing especially.)

The inside walls are quite smooth and there are no restrictions. The gentle bends a small distance from the mouthpiece seem to compensate for this fact by adding a small amount of Back pressure on bounced breaths and overtones. Overtone notes are closer to the fundamental (an octave rather than a tenth on most of the Western Arnhem Land pipes discussed earlier).

Since the bore is less restricted and smooth, it is possible to play a fairly firm Didero vamp associated with Western Arnhem Land players without jumping to an overtone during the accented breaths. The more open channel also is less demanding to add vocals through than the NE sticks which I find requires quite an advanced playing technique to accomplish.

Best of both worlds? No, but a great first pipe suitable for study purposes and to hone your skills on while you save and search out the right pipes for your collection. And you will have a collection, oh yes....


  Questions about this or other articles in this series can be directed to Ed Drury

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