MUSIC / Didgeridooing it their way: Nicholas Williams investigates the Corroboree, a celebration of Aboriginal customs and identity

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The Independent Culture
George III played the flute. Benjamin Franklin was a virtuoso on the musical glasses. Yet their delight in these instruments can have been as nothing compared with the pleasures to be had from the didgeridoo. That, at least, might be the opinion of Richard Walley, leading ambassador for this little understood manifestation of Australian culture. He's in London for July and August, taking a key part in the South Bank's celebration of the sights and sounds of the first Australians - Corroboree. This week he's been giving pensioners a flavour of Aboriginal customs and lifestyles; earlier today, with his performance ensemble WILGI, he gave the second of two workshops on didgeridoo and native percussion. For the next seven days WILGI be rehearsing hard for the high point of his visit on 8 August: the premiere of a South Bank commission Kungya Warnghing (Spirit Speaking) for 'didj' and Django Bates's jazz ensemble, Human Chain.

It promises to be a fitting conclusion to three consecutive weekends presenting the culture of the indigenous Australian people in all its abundant diversity. The didgeridoo and its music remain at the heart of the events. Go into Virgin and you'll find didj albums listed under Asian - about as far from the point of this festival as you're likely to get, which is to assert the Aboriginal identity as something separate, with a unique and living history. Reaching Australia two centuries ago, Western arrivistes found a nomadic people, without written language, conveniently classified as primitive and thus exploitable even before Darwin pushed them to the lowest rungs of the evolutionary ladder. Later, the lone outback figure who communed with bush spirits and lived off the land acquired something of a noble pathos: 'natural man' in all his heroic cliche, even if the records of alcoholism, persecution and neglect told a different story. These Western-imposed images are now rejected. Instead, Aborigines cleave to a largely oral culture that has survived against all odds, and in the last 20 years undergone a tremendous revival.

A Corroboree occurs whenever people from neighbouring tribes meet together to sing and dance their 'dreamings' - or songlines.

The didgeridoo is an essential symbol with which Aboriginal culture now ventures into the Australian mainstream. 'The sound of it really reflects Australia,' says Walley. 'The instrument itself is a part of nature.'

This is literally true. Made from a metre-long eucalyptus branch - red river gum, stringybark and ironwood are favourites - the didj has a conical bore resembling that of a natural trumpet, but one hollowed out by termites. Man's contribution lies in decorating the gnarled exterior with elaborate totemic designs in ochre and clay; and in mastering a fiendish technique based on circular breathing; breath is retained in the cheeks to maintain a constant air supply while the lungs are replenished. The characteristic low-pitched buzz can be sustained for sessions lasting over an hour. The nearest impression is of a sound akin to the drone of a low-flying Hercules aircraft.

The skill lies in creating harmonics above this fundamental, in a variety of attacks produced by a Lolita-like tongue control, and in voiced sounds such as humming, croaking and gurgling that, like the instrument's name (origins unknown), are clearly onomatopoeic. Traditionally, the accuracy with which these are produced signifies not only skill and personality, but also regional variation. 'The sound is projected from nature itself,' Walley claims. 'That's what makes it unique to a particular area. So the players that are from an area where the dingo is prominent can portray the barking a lot purer and truer than those who've heard a dog bark, and say, well, perhaps it just happens to be similar to a dingo.'

For an instrument that seems limited by its idiosyncrasy, the didgeridoo has proved extraordinarily versatile in its adaptations to the West. Reflecting contemporary Aboriginal culture as a whole, strongly influenced, as this weekend's Corroboree instalment shows, by country and western, gospel and protest song, the didj has readily taken to jazz, blues and reggae, while also being assimilated into orchestral music: Michael Finnissy's 1991 Prom commission Red Earth comes to mind. Timbres of strings and brass make contact with the instrument's individual tonal world through the rich contrasts of its upper registers. Style is expressed through its extraordinary rhythmic flexibility, ranging from moods of near-stillness to breathtaking up-tempo riffs.

Such versatility may stem from the instrument's own history of oral transmission. Performers learn by listening and absorbing, then imitating and discovering their own personality by journeying through the long maze to technical excellence. This non-European attitude is closer to Indian or Chinese musical practice. But it also makes for intriguing encounters when the didgeridoo teams up with Western art genres.

In part, this in the raison d'etre of Spirit Speaking. Django Bates has described this unusual addition to his band as like a 'non-conformist guest at a party - the type who turns out to be the most entertaining'. Walley says that they've already talked about what the piece will be doing, though he prefers to talk in terms of 'flow' rather than structure. 'We want to make the result as unconcert-like as possible, to allow the maximum freedom so that nobody dominates. At one point the didgeridoo may play a drone, so that the saxophone player can improvise and go wild. The important thing is to leave room for spontaneity.'

If the jazz and didgeridoo combination seems an exciting prospect, Yidaki, the first half of next Saturday's QEH date, appears equally challenging. A musical account of the didgeridoo's origins, symbolism and technique, it's the result of teamwork between Alan Dargin, another of Australia's modern didj masters, and electronics composer Michael Atherton. Their recent CD release, Bloodwood, uses synthesizers, bass guitars, whistles, and a plethora of sophisticated recording techniques to update the instrument with a thoroughly modern image. Clearly bait for the purist, the intriguing result will be matched in Yidaki by visual projection. 'There's folk music from the Lake Dora region of the Kimberley Mountains,' Dargin comments, 'and slides showing land formation and Aboriginal faces that represent the country, the spirit of the people and what originated from that.' For a country such as Britain, riven by issues of national identity, this will be a salutary exposure to a culture whose art, whatever its contemporary costume, begins and ends in the land.

(Photograph omitted)