Reconciliation Stories - Yidaki

In 1987 newly formed Dance Excentrix was preparing a program for the 1988 Fringe Festival, under founding Artistic Director Elizabeth Dalman. Amazingly, Elizabeth had been able to engage iconic Australian band Gondwanaland for a series of workshops with the dancers and to provide recorded music for the production. This was I believe the first close up exposure that I had to the didgeridoo, or Yidaki as it is known its culture of origin, the Yolnu people. Charlie McMahon’s playing of the Yidaki conjured up for me the beauty and wildness of the Australian bush.

Some years later in the What Happened Here workshops, already mentioned in an earlier post, a young project assistant called Luke Fox introduced the workshop participants to the Didge, as it was called then. He was careful to introduce the instrument as traditionally belonging to one of the many indigenous cultures and nothing to do with the Peramangk history and culture that was the main focus of the workshops. In fact this was a good way of putting the Peramangk into a context that acknowledged the many indigenous cultures that this continent is home to.

This second exposure to the Yidaki inspired me to seek out a teacher in order to learn myself. I was lucky to find Alistair Black who had worked in the Northern Territory as a wool classer. Alistair had learned to play from some of the best makers and players of the instrument and had formed a deep cultural connection with them. Within five lessons I had been exposed to the potential for a huge range of vocal expression through the Yidaki and I began a journey of exploration of my own musicality.

Questions inevitably arose then about potential cultural appropriation. As I started to perform with some of the things that I had discovered, I was sometimes challenged by non indigenous audience members about my relationship with the instrument. When I caught up with Alistair some years later he told me a story that put me at my ease, as I was very sure that something that was liberating my musicality should not come at the cost of cultural insensitivity. When Alistair reached a level of proficiency he asked one of the Elders who had taught him something along the lines of “who can I teach, what should guide me”. The response was such a gift. “ You are the Didgeridoo man now Alistair, you decide those things”. This story encapsulates a thing that I have experienced many times, the generosity of indigenous people.

The circle was completed for me when in 2001 I was engaged by the Principal at Murray Bridge North School, Richard Wundke, to build and run a performing arts program for student engagement. One element of this was to teach young boys, both indigenous and non-indigenous, how to play the Yidaki. This was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever had. To help these boys build relationships with each other and to develop a high regard for indigenous culture was a delight. One of these students, who had strong Ngarrindjeri heritage, became a very capable player. As with several of these boys he went on to learn a brass instrument and joined the High School music program. I attended a concert at the High School at his invitation as he was playing Yidaki alongside Jazz great Don Burrows who had run workshops at the school. This story gets even better though, as in conversation with his grandfather a few years later I learned this young man had met his estranged father and it turned out that his father was a Yolnu man who was of course delighted that his son was a very capable Yidaki player.

The Yidaki has opened up in me a deep connection to myself, as a maker of sound. It also started an ongoing musical journey toward an understanding about the innate qualities in all of our species, regardless of cultural context, that draws us to sing, to tell story, to dance and to make music. Too often we stand within our culture of origin and try to understand another culture from that point of view. Too often when cultures intersect the dominant culture subsumes the non dominant one, enriching itself and weakening the other. It is my belief that in such cultural interactions we must be prepared to undergo a process of deconstruction of our own cultural practice in order to truly meet those from another culture.

I could write for hours about what the Yidaki has taught me about the nature of rhythm and how our capacity for rhythm is tied to our capacity for language, but that is a story for another day.