Basic Didjeridu Accompaniment type A from Western Arnhem Land

 This article attempts to break down the rhythmic elements of the traditional didjeridu accompaniments used in the Western regions of Arnhem Land of the Northern Territory. This area includes the Coburg Peninsula, Croker and Goulburn Islands and the Liverpool River on it's Northern most region and in the south it extends from the west coast to Katherine and further east. The didjeridu of western Arnhem Land is used as a patterned drone which varied according to song type and to the singer's place of residence. There where many Aboriginal names for this instrument, some of them now losing currency like the languages to which they belong. Some of the  language groups associated with this area are: Gunwinggu, Gunbalang, Djawan, Yiwadja, and Wagatj.

 Western Arnhem Land singers either inherit their songs from their fathers and older male relatives, or they 'dream' them for themselves. Dreamed songs are believed to be communicated in this way by the spirit of a deceased singer. A Western Arnhem Land singer prefers to select the pitch of his didjeridu accompaniment to match his song. A player, therefore, may have more than one instrument lying near at hand. Dance songs in this region almost invariably begin with the droning sound of the didjeridu to which the singer then adapts the range of his song's melody. The usual order of entry of the sound components into a Western Arnhem Land dance item is the didjeridu first alone, then the singer's stick beats and finally the singer's voice. Some of the Aboriginal names for the didjeridu in this region are :  magu, kanbi and kanbak.

 Several phonetic interpretations of the harmonic elements of the basic vamps used have been documented. Two common examples are "didero" and "dejama". Regardless of the harmonic variants, the basic 2/4 and 4/4 rhythmic elements seem common to all examples used in this document. Assumptions about the greater body of traditional songs can not be made because it is unknown just what percentage of the traditional music has been recorded. My guess is that the entire available recorded collection represents only a small fraction of the body of compositions and artistic influences of these people. This article will deal with the most basic elements from the stand point of a non-aboriginal musician who is attempting to take the very first steps toward understanding the musical elements rather than the cultural or spiritual elements of this playing style. In any attempt to understand the music of any native peoples, it is the Aboriginal people themselves who are the authorities on the subject. It's important to understand that these musical traditions and the people who are the keepers of it still exist and keep the secrets of the Dreamtime even today. They are not about to disappear from the planet. It is we, the members of the so called "dominator" society who are endangered as a species if we do not at least try to listen and tap into the rhythms of the people who have survived multiple global crisis over hundreds of thousands of years. The fact that we still have people with such an unbroken tradition is a most hopeful sign as we embark on the 21st century.

Of the body of recordings from this region which I have dealt with, it is obvious that the inhaled breath is accented and falls on an important beat of the measure which is distinctive from many other styles of didjeridu playing where the position of the breath is difficult to distinguish and may in fact occur in random places throughout the repetitive rhythmic phrase. The inhaled breath is given an equal accent to the exhaled first beat of the measure, occurs on the second beat of a 2 beat pattern or the third beat in a 4/4, and is often further accented by a vocal stridor or high harmonic vocal sound in harmony with the fundamental. The style of accompaniment being considered here is called Gunborg. The style associated with regions further to the east  of this region is often refered to as Bungul. For a  look at didjeridu style B, Richard Man has set up an excellent FAQ page on the Yolngu playing style at ttp://

The breath comes on the "ro" sound which is a full quarter note in 2/4 time. The first syllable of the phrase didero is on the down beat of the ONE and is accented, the second syllable is not accented and occurs on the backbeat of ONE. The final syllable ("row") is also accented and occurs simultaneously with the inhalation. The pronunciation of the "D" sounds is very different in terms of mouth shape from the English "Da" or "Deh" sound.  For an excellent guide to pronouncing Aboriginal language phrases,  be sure to visit Peter Lister's site on Aboriginal languages. Here is a 16K RA file of me going through the mouthsounds of this first basic vamp sounds/wamouth.ra. And here is the basic vamp performed by me with the "stridorous" in breath on the second beat sounds/vamp1.ra.  And here is a demonstration of the mouth sounds for Dejama. Please note that these are my impersonations of the traditional phrases. I decided to use my own efforts rather than sample off the field recordings of traditional musicians for copyright reasons. Rather, I will attempt to demonstrate each of these patterns and then give a complete discography of field recordings so you can  purchase the real thing (strongly recommended).

Discography :

 There is an excellent example of the mouth sounds associated with this style to be found on :

Popular Arnhem Land Classics, Collection by LM West in Beswick in 1962, track 3

Published by "Bard's Cathedral",  Box 46141, Seattle, WA  206 768-8450

In the following examples the 2/4 time should be counted as "ONE and TWO and" where ONE and TWO are the two "beats", the "and"s are the "off" beats. So the count is some thing like :

Basic Vamp "Didero"
Beat 1 and 2
mouth Shape Did eh row
Breath Out with accent out Stridorous in breath

Basic Vamp II - "De Ja Ma"
Beat 1 and 2
Mouth Shape De Ja Ma
Breath Out with accent continue out Stridorous breath in

The figure below notates the vamp "De ja Ma" in 2/4 time.

 Northwestern Didjeridu Syle notated in 2/4

Discography for the proceeding :

 Songs from the Northern Territory Volume 1, collected by Alice M Moyle, Tracks 3 and 4
Popular Arnhem Land Classics, Collected by LM West, Especially tracks 1,6 and 10


 The variations on the basic rhythmic pattern are subtle but quite effective. The first one is just to repeat the first two syllables once before the breath which will move the breath to the first beat of the subsequent measure then of course by doubling the first two syllables again we come back to the breath on the second beat. Here is a brief real audio example of that : sounds/vamp2.ra.

Now you can see that all kinds of rhythmic turns can develop when syllables are repeated or dropped or done with slight syncopation. Here's an example of just that : vamp3.ra

In all the audio examples I have been playing at very slow tempo, which is a great way for learning to pronounce all the mouth shapes. It's also a great way to show all my short comings as a player :-). In reality, there are different phonetic devices used for the faster tempos as well as the ones discussed are usually heard at a faster tempo. In this final sound clip, I'm actually rushing the basic vamp a bit, though the tempo is really not faster than some of the field recordings listed. sounds/vamp4.ra

Discography :

Examples of both these variations and many more can be heard on : Didjeridu Master : David Blanasi,  Big Bang Records. To order this recording and instruments from this region, visit the White Cockatoo Web Site.