Alan Dargin: Inventor of rock'n'roll didgeridoo

Tuesday 25 March 2008 01:00
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The Australian yirdaki (didgeridoo) player Alan Dargin invented a uniquely fast, powerful, non-traditional style, dubbed "rock'n'roll didgeridoo". At his favourite busking site on Sydney's Circular Quay, he was a familiar figure to tourists and locals alike for two decades. He recorded five albums with various colleagues and travelled widely outside Australia, performing in the US, Japan and Europe, in 1993 playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. His most widely seen appearance was as an actor, however, with a cameo role in the 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Dargin was erroneously credited with playing the "didjeribone" (sliding didj) on the song "I Will Survive", featured in the film's soundtrack, though this was actually done by its inventor, Charlie McMahon, who had toured with him in Europe between 2000 and 2003. McMahon does acknowledge that Dargin's style was pioneering: "Alan excelled in didj solos – he was the first on the world stage to play [the] fast, complex and loud sound on didj that is popular now. That is a contemporary style, in contrast to traditional didj playing, where it's played with song and dance in a backing role."

Dargin was born in the small town of Wee Waa (the self-proclaimed "cotton capital of Australia") in New South Wales. His father, Frank Dargin, was a singer/songwriter from the Wiradjuri community, and although the young Alan was raised by a non-indigenous stepmother, he learned didgeridoo from Wiradjuri elders. Having a foot in "blackfella" and "whitefella" worlds would influence his musical development.

After attending secondary school in Newcastle, he began an acting career, making his television début in 1983 alongside a young Nicole Kidman in the mini-series Chase Through the Night. Other screen appearances included a role in Bruce Beresford's 1986 film The Fringe Dwellers, about the groups of dispossessed Aboriginals living on the outskirts of some Australian towns. Dargin himself rejected the term "marginalised", and later, when he became established, would refuse engagements from those who wanted him to wear a loincloth and body paint.

Dargin's wandering musical life had begun in the late 1980s when he started travelling abroad, bringing his yirdaki to New York City, where he was initiated into street theatre by African Americans who befriended him. Taking him back and forth between Australia and Europe – where he was perhaps better known in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands than in his home country – his touring-career highlights included performing to more than 200,000 at the 1994 Bastille Day festivities in France, and sharing a stage with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 1995. He encouraged non-Aboriginals to play the yirdaki as long as they respected its cultural significance; among his many pupils was Wallis Buchanan, who played it on the first four albums by the British group Jamiroquai.

Dargin's recorded output included the albums Bloodwood (with Michael Atherton, 1993), Two Stories in One (with the group Reconciliation, 1994), Cross + Hatch (with Michael Atherton, 1998) and DidgeriDuo (with Gary Thomas, 2001). Although able to play in the traditional style, Dargin preferred to reflect his own love of jazz, hip-hop and reggae, saying, "Who am I to put tradition on the stage?" According to Atherton, the company that released Bloodwood folded shortly afterwards, and royalties for subsequent sales over the internet have never been paid.

Dargin's health was poor as a result of years of alcohol dependency – which he had conquered – and periods spent living rough, but after veins in his throat burst, he was warned that his forceful style of playing was also endangering his life. Before his death he had just completed his fifth album, MRD, which features collaborations with the Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and is scheduled for release in April.

Jon Lusk

Alan Dargin, musician and actor: born Wee Waa, New South Wales 13 July 1967; (one daughter); died Sydney 24 February 2008.

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