Didgeridoo players bring the Dreamtime to Leeds

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The Independent Online
The didgeridoo, the tube-shaped Aboriginal instrument once the preserve of Rolf Harris and a handful of adventurous jazz musicians, comes into its own next month with the UK's first national didgeridoo festival in Leeds.

The popularity of the exotic 20,000-year-old instrument has rocketed as its funky and relaxing resonant bass sound has been picked up by bands like Jamiroquai and others on the festival circuit. It now has thousands of players.

The two-day festival, "Didj up North", brings together 10 of the biggest names in didgeridoo playing from as far as Australia, Japan and California. There will also be training workshops.

One top player, Australian Alan Dargin, is reputed to be the fastest didge player in the world and has performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. He also appeared in the Australian cult film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

"When I got back from Australia in 1989 I could only find two didge players," says Ianto Thornber, the festival organiser. "Now, at a guess, there are between five and ten thousand."

The instrument's appeal lies in its mystery and its informal training, he says. "It appealed to me as there is no formal music to play - you have to do it yourself; but the sound is stunning and mesmeric.

"Didgeridoo music, like most music round the world, has never been written down and it probably never will be. People believe they are going to be spiritually linked to the Aboriginal Dreamtime when they play. Didgees used to be made specifically for different ceremonies, and the spirit of an ancestor would be sung into it as it was being prepared and painted.

"After the ceremony it would be burnt. Its function was to renew the links with the story, the ancestor, the Dreamtime."

People are put off learning because they think the continuous "circular breathing" techniquewill be too difficult, says Mr Thornber. Circular breathing is a skill that allows you to make a continuous tone without taking a breath, and without fainting.

"Circular breathing is a stumbling block but it's not difficult. I once taught a taxi driver in half an hour, but that is pretty exceptional. It just clicks one day."

Didgeridoos can be made from plastic, bamboo, English oak or ash as well as the best bloodwood or string bark varieties of Australian eucalyptus, and cost between pounds 5 and pounds 2,000; the most expensive have beenhollowed out by termites. Most still come from Australia.