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

Fred Tietjen

an Interview with Ed Drury

 This interview contains important information and links about the Garma Festival 2000 which has not been published elsewhere at the time of the interview. For that reason, I've went ahead and published my entire schedule of material through June 2000 at the beginning of April 2000. Do come back though, because I'm pushing up the pace of the publication of interviews and articles for the year 2000 to allow the addition of some very special projects as we move into festival season.

 Fred Tietjen has been at the center of the didjeridu awareness in North America for well over a decade. He has written extensively on the subject and is the curator for one of the finest collections of instruments anywhere in the world. Often at the center of a swirl of controversy around issues affecting Indigenous knowledge and property, he's been hunted and hunter in the proverbial game of making sense out of this phenomenon. It is for this reason that I was quite excited to interview him for my series of articles.     - Ed Drury Mar 2000

[Ed] Can you describe your relationship with the didjeridu?

[Fred] Sure, my relationship with the didjeridu is a multi-faceted one that spans 15 years of playing, collecting, and dealing fine collectible instruments , as well as , co-producing educational seminars and concerts with Aboriginal didjeridu artists . As a didj enthusiast I've been very lucky. I've been able to explore the instrument from its' ritual use in Arnhem Land during intimate mortuary rites and open public ceremonies to it's cross-over into popular music and culture by the instruments leading Aboriginal proponents.

 Also, I've documented the construction of yidaki by some of its' most talented traditional makers of the Djapu, Gumatj and Galpu clans of NE Arnhem Land and interviewed the popular Aboriginal artists closely associated with this instrument today, including Alan Dargin, David Hudson, David Blanasi, Mark Atkins, Janawirri Yiparrka, Mandawuy Yunupingu and all of the fellows of Yothu Yindi.

 Fundamentally, my relationship with the didjeridu is an on-going process of education that has been facilitated by the traditional owners of the instrument in Arnhem Land who have been exceedingly generous by allowing me access to information, instruments and culture. The foundation of my educational is in the personal relationships that have developed with my hosts and benefactors of the Yolngu clan groups of NE Arnhem Land.

  When I was in graduate school in the mid-seventies I heard my first didjeridu in the soundtrack of Nicholas Roeg's movie "Walkabout" and the sound captivated me. In 1985 I started playing on PVC and began a quest to find out everything I could about the Australian Aboriginal didjeridu. In order to do that I thought it would be valuable and necessary to get to know Aboriginal people.

 In 1988 I met Yothu Yindi under fortuitous circumstances and we became friends. I was introduced to their concert instruments made by Djalu Gurruwiwi and the playing of Milkayngu Mununggurr who is considered to be the 'Bungua" or boss of yidaki because of his vast knowledge of song material. Subsequently, I found myself in the richest of yidaki learning environments with access to the Aboriginal experts , not only within Arnhem Land, but also among other distinguished artists in the pan-Aboriginal world of didjeridu. From these experiences my appreciation for the use of yidaki in traditional culture and world music was shaped.

[Ed] How would you describe your playing now?

[Fred] My playing is really very basic and eclectic . I have many instruments to practice with and each of the instruments is a different teacher. Each one has a voice and my playing style changes from one instrument to the next. I am fond of NE Arnhem Land bunggul style of playing (type B) because that is what I have been exposed to the most.

 However, I an also fond of gunborrk style (type A) of Western Arnhem Land. Like yourself (Ed,) I have hosted a master class for David Blanasi here in San Francisco at Wicked Sticks Gallery and both attended that session and recorded it.

[Ed]What are your playing and practice habits?

[Fred] I have about 20 instruments at home of varying age and antiquity. NE Arnhem instruments, prominently, and 2 Western Arnhem instruments David  Blanasi presented to me at the close of his West-Coast tour in 1999. I play about 10 minutes a day alternating instruments and sometimes more extended sessions of about an hour once a week where I jam with a friend. This is my home practice.

 My other practice is at Wicked Sticks Gallery there I go through instruments by Djalu Gurruwiwi , David Howell, Milkayngu Mununggurr and other yidaki makers of the Yothu Yindi clan groups who are lesser known peers of Djalu. I play each instrument examining them inside and out noting their morphological features and playing characteristics. One of the things I have noted is that extraordinary instruments start by harvesting extraordinary pieces of wood.

[Ed] Who are your influences and teachers?

[Fred] Well, I've had some good teachers . It's been a dream come true in that area. It's too bad I'm not a more talented student! My first didjeridu teacher was Witiyana Marika the co-founder and former co-lead singer and dancer of Yothu Yindi. He taught me vocalizations and shared his perspectives with me about yidaki. While the didjeridu was a bridge to my meeting Aboriginal artists, it receded into the background over time as the relationships developed.

 I adopted a stance of not bringing up the topic of yidaki whenever we would spend time together during Yothu Yindi American Tours (subsequent to 1988) in 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1996. Since I would see them for intense marathon periods of time on the road - with extended intervals in between -we'd simply pick up where we left off and have fun. I'd wait until someone said," Fred where's that yidaki? " or in the middle of playing a game of pool someone would start singing yidaki solos.

 In addition to Witiyana Marika who encouraged me over the years- all of the yidaki players in Yothu Yindi-from the beginning to present - have played a role in my education starting in 1988 with Milkayngu Mununggurr, Makuma Yunupingu, Bunimbirr Marika, Kevin and Yomuno Yunupingu and now Gapanbulu Yunupingu. Also, Dhambit Mununggurr, Milkayungu's sister and Gapanbulu's mother, who has acted as a translator and consultant in my trips to Arnhem Land. She has recollections of when her father instructed Milkayngu and all the Yothu Yindi fellows to make yidaki as young boys. She has also shared with me some fascinating historical accounts of the harvesting, construction and painting of  yidaki as well, going back to the days of her grandfather in the 1930's. e.g. Before the wider availability of modern tools ,Yolngu makers used to thread fencing wire through the bore of a yidaki and tye the ends of the wire to trees, like a clothes line, moving the instrument back and forth along the abrasive wire to clean out the bore.

 While Gapanbulu is a current yidaki player for Yothu Yindi, he has a reputation for being a prodigious hunter, and I am also interested in hunting and gathering. I enjoy spending time with him hunting so last year when I had a chance to visit we made spears and fished for stingray and mullet instead of 'playing' yidaki. This is one example of the rapport building which provides a basis for education. In the evenings he would bring me to gatherings of young men who were practicing yidaki playing and singing so they could play in ceremonies.

 These are some of my most cherished recordings.

 In addition to the YY fellows, I have learned from all the players I've set up workshops for here in America- Alan Dargin, Mark Atkins, David Hudson, Janawirri Yiparrka, David Blanasi and other Aboriginal artists who are not associated with the didjeridu. Mostly, I've taken the same approach with all of these fellows. I'm more interested in building rapport than in detecting some fact about didjeridu or yidaki that I don't know. When I refer to "learning" from the aforementioned distinguished artists I'm referring specifically to the wider process of  intercultural rapport building- not things related to didjeridu technique et al. In that fashion, my relationship with the didjeridu is also non-technical , anecdotal and all about serendipity taking place within rich learning environments.

[Ed] What are your impressions of current world music with respect to indigenous cultures? What trends do you see now and into the future?

[Fred] I think world music can expand our awareness of other cultures providing some extra-musical benefits. In regards to Indigenous cultures world music can act as a bridge leading people to explore alternate and complementary world-views that contribute toward our collective well being. Yothu Yindi is a prime example of a band with a message embedded in their music that includes human rights, social and environmental justice and our shared destiny.

[Ed] What is your vision for www.didjeridu.com  and "Wicked Sticks"?

[Fred] Primarily www.didjeridu.com is about education. It is a dot.com that functions as an educational vehicle . All of the information and images on the web site have been generously contributed by Aboriginal artists, communities, and writers in the field of contemporary music .

 Well Over 200+ written pages. In a didjeridu market-place rife with  hype and hoopla it seemed appropriate to present the instrument from the informed perspectives of Aboriginal didjeridu artists and music researchers.

 It offers enthusiasts relevant and in-depth information about the didjeridu, behind the scenes interviews with the popular Aboriginal artists and one-of-a-kind instruments, non-paralleled, by the finest makers. Profits from the sale of instruments go to support Aboriginal business development in Gove peninsula and two Indigenous non-profit organizations; The Yothu Yindi Foundation (http://www.yothuyindi.org), Woodfish Institute http://www.woodfish.org) and the Permanent Collection of instruments which is available for the public to play and enjoy.

 Though the site was launched in the last week of 1999, it had been  in-utero for 6 years. In Spring of 1994 , together with Mark Smith a Queenslander of Aboriginal heritage living in San Francisco, we drafted a report called the "Cultural and Commercial Applications of the Internet for Aboriginal Artists" We spent three months in the evenings, brainstorming, eating pizza and drinking beer with friends from MIT and Wharton who were super-techno-literate. The report was delivered to the management of Yothu Yindi in the Fall of 1994 as dot.com sites were starting to become more popular. It was a timely report that offered information and some divination. In June of 1995, Yothu Yindi launched  their site with web master, Steve Hutchings at http://www./yothuyindi.com

 The idea of having a didjeridu web site that would focus on an informed presentation of the instrument by Aboriginal artists emerged from the aforementioned report. About the same time I got involved in a writing project with David Hudson which was included in the book "The Didjeridu from Arnhem Land to Internet", edited by Karl Neuenfeldt and published by Perfect Beat Journal and John Libby&CO. The Book is the first comprehensive study of the didjeridu from a range of musical, cultural and sociological viewpoints with major contributions from Aboriginal artists. The book, which has sold out it's first printing and received rave reviews served as a template for the site.

 So my vision for the site is one of on-going education for didjeridu enthusiasts world-wide.

 In regards to Wicked Sticks Gallery at Clarion Music Center, it has been  a nexus of didjeridu activity on the West-Coast since 1990. It is a vibrant educational resource center providing information, instruments and community. Together with Stephen Kent (Resident Artist) and Clara Hsu(Owner) we've produced over 25 educational seminars and concerts with Aboriginal Artists and another 30+ events featuring Stephen Kent. We have a world-class yidaki collection which is a de facto museum and a gallery where people can come and meet other players and play extraordinary instruments. The only thing that is missing is an espresso machine!

[Ed] What were the highlights, for you personally, from the Garma Festival?

[Fred] In 1999 I had the opportunity to attend the Djalu Gurruwiwi Master Class in Arnhem Land at the Garma Cultural Festival hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation and facilitated by David Howell. The festival was held in a clearing of a stringy bark forest on an escarpment overlooking the Gulf of Carpentieria in Arnhem Land. The festival site at Gulkula is where Ganbulapula, an ancestral spirit-being ,brought yidaki to the Gumatj people. The master class was held within the context of a larger Garma cultural festival - in reality- an open ceremony belonging to Yolngu people of North East Arnhem land to which 200 guests were invited to participate. The Master Class was limited to ten participants. I was one of those ten.

 During the week long Yidaki Master Class with Djalu we were instructed in NE Arnhem Land yidaki playing and yidaki making. Djalu also brought his sons, Vernon and Larry, Gapanbulu from Yothu Yindi and heaps of other young yidaki players from the various clans so we could get a sense of  the versatility of all the local talent. Classes ran from 4-6 hours a day with evening sessions sitting around eucalyptus camp fires under Arnhem Land skies. Throughout the day and evening, in between yidaki tutorials ,we got to see members of Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Warramirri, Wanggurri and Dhalwangu clans from the region re-enact the Wangarr or Dreaming stories of the sacred site of Gulkula where we were encamped with 6 of the 16 Yothu Yindi clan groups.

 So ,we got to experience the yidaki in one of its' formal uses in ceremony complete with songmen and scores of dancers shaking a leg and kicking up dirt. By all accounts, it was an awesome experience for festival attendees to observe and partake in this week long ceremony which embodied unity, harmonization, and balance. In addition to the prodigious yidaki offerings guests had the option to attend daily seminars on Language, Bark Painting, Bush Foods and Medicine , Weaving, Land/Fire Mangagement , and Turtle Harvesting. These seminars were chaired by Aboriginal Prof. Marcia Langton in her role as director of the Northern Territories University Center for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resouces Management.

 What is in store for Garma 2000?

 On behalf of the Yothu Yindi Foundation I would like to extend an invitation to all the didjeridu enthusiasts in the cyber-world to attend the Yidaki Master Class at the Garma Festival 2000 to be held in Arnhem Land later this year. This is the real Millenium event where 10 lucky people will have an opportunity to have a unique cultural immersion experience in yidaki's richest of learning environments. It will be an experience of a life time. No hype!  

 For application and registration information, you can e-mail

yidakimasterclass@didjeridu.com or call 1-415-474-6979.

[Ed] Every community, including Portland for that matter, thinks of itself as having a didjeridu "scene". Does San Francisco have a special energy or sound associated with didjeridu playing and if so what drives it?

[Fred] Yes, and aside from my bio-regional bias, San Francisco has been a center for American music since 1950 when the Beat generation discovered Jazz giving rise later to the Counter-Culture and the phenomenon of the San Francisco sound of the 1960's with the of the Grateful Dead Santanna, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding  Company, Moby Grape, Sly Stone ,The Doobie Brothers; the famous Filmore Auditorium , Avalon Ball Room., and more recently MC Hammer, En Vogue, Counting Crows, etc.

 San Francisco has always been on the cutting edge culturally and musically and we have a diverse multicultural urban population that is historically experimental.

 In regards to the didjeridu, Charlie McMahon came here in 1981-82 playing with punk bands like the Mutants and Snakefinger . Charlie is credited with crossing the instrument over into pop music. He had a willing coterie of fellow musicians to experiment with in integrating the sound of the didjeridu into the avant garde and punk music scene. So, San Francisco does have a driving energy. Also , Stephen Kent taking up residence in San Francisco in 1990 and releasing 12 didjeridu CD's acted as a magnet. He has worked in virtually every club and world-music venue in the Bay Area, is popular in Europe and respected by Aboriginal artists.


Questions about this and other articles should be sent to Ed Drury