Welcome to Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia.
Didjeridu is the iconic sound of Australia.
For all its fame and familiarity, most of us know little about the instrument.
Until now, there has never been a major exhibition about the didjeridu. As the custodian of a globally significant collection of historic and contemporary didjeridus, at the South Australian Museum we felt responsible for that story. But it is not our story to tell. This is a Yolngu story.
So we are going back to the beginning, exploring its meanings and power with the Yolngu people – cultural custodians of the instrument – who know it as yidaki.
We spent 2016 in the stringybark forests of Arnhem Land co-curating this story, working in collaboration with Yolngu people – particularly with the world’s foremost authority on yidaki, Djalu Gurruwiwi. In this exhibition he and his family introduce you to the instrument, its power and meaning in Yolngu life. In doing so, they illuminate the specific cultural and musical origins of this quintessentially Australian instrument, and how it can have meaning for us all.
This exhibition signals a huge shift in the way the South Australian Museum uses its collections, in the way it tells stories, and in the way it celebrates living Aboriginal knowledge and people. Yidaki is more than an exhibition, it is an experience that will transform visitors, just as it has transformed our Museum.
Djalu Gurruwiwi and the Yolngu
‘The sound of the yidaki calls everyone together in unity.’ Djalu Gurruwiwi
Djalu is a senior member of the Galpu clan, from the Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land.
Amongst the Yolngu, and around the globe, he is a universally recognised authority on the musical and spiritual traditions of yidaki. A quietly spoken but passionate man – fond of bright shirts and mirrored sunglasses – Djalu has spent his life trying to share a profound and reconciliatory worldview that starts and ends with his instrument.
Djalu is a national treasure, and a man of global standing and significance. All Australians should know his name, all should be lucky enough to hear his voice. This exhibition is an expression of his life’s work to use yidaki in bridging the gaps of understanding between people.
‘For Aboriginal people, not just Yolngu, Djalu is our diplomat, our ambassador. We all talk about the Dalai Lama; his role is to embrace all people, to lead with generosity, to enrich our shared understanding of ourselves and each other. Djalu is like that, he is a spiritual leader. Yidaki is his voice.’
Stephen Gadlabarti Goldsmith
The Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land are the custodians and practitioners of the most enduring cultural traditions on Earth. Living in the stringybark forests and along the coastline of the Australian Top End, they have practiced their culture – despite the incursions of history – without interruption. Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia is the living breath of those traditions.
Learn to Listen
Djalu’s story is a brave one, a generous one.
It is his vision – of yidaki acting as a bridge between cultures – that we have tried to honour. The South Australian Museum is not the author of this story, but more like the stage from which Djalu and others can speak. We’ve done our best to realise his vision and to deliver it with something close to the passion and conviction of Djalu himself.
We’ve had to be brave too. This exhibition breaks most of the conventions of classical museum curation: we’ve gotten rid of things you tend to need, like labels, and we’ve introduced things you’re supposed to keep out of museums – moisture, vibration (and even termites… but that’s another story!).
Rather than building an ‘exhibition’, we built a stringybark forest. And in that forest you are led by Yolngu voices guiding you through their system of meaning, on their terms. There are some excellent spots to relax in front of some amazing films made by The Mulka Project, in collaboration with the Museum.
The yidaki is about vibration: it is an instrument that you must feel, rather than simply hear. That’s why we’ve built Thunderboards: resonating floors that send the vibration of the exhibition soundtrack up through your feet so you can feel the music where it counts, in your body and in your heart.
What is yidaki
The didjeridu or ‘drone pipe’ was traditionally used in the region of Northern Australia stretching from the Gulf of Carpentaria, through Arnhem Land, across to the Kimberley. The term ‘didjeridu’ is a non-indigenous one, coined to duplicate the droning sound of the instrument itself.
For the Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land, the instrument is commonly known as yidaki; although within that are many different kinds of instrument with other names (such as dhadalal, djungurriny and dhumarr) held by different clan groups. For groups in Western Arnhem Land the instrument is known as mago, and by the Larrakia people of the Darwin area as mamiylim. Now, the didjeridu has been widely adopted by Aboriginal people throughout Australia.
This exhibition acknowledges those traditions, but focuses on the story of yidaki.
Yidaki come from the stringybark forests, where termites are busy working, hollowing out the tree stem. You’ll find Yolngu artists walking through the forest, tapping on the trunks with the heal of their axe, listening for the hollow thud of a yidaki in the making.
What at first glance looks to be a simple instrument requires years of practice and the development of complex technique. There is the lip vibration, cyclic breathing, varied playing pressure, cheek tension, diaphragm control, tongue position and the use of voice.
Through birthright, training and passion, the Yolngu are masters of making and playing yidaki and are celebrated internationally for their quality instruments and complex playing styles.
The yidaki sounds and stories you hear in our exhibition forest are from Djalu and Larry Gurruwiwi and Djalu’s grandson Kevin Dhurrkay.
Waking up our Collections
‘Yidaki is like a symbol of our culture, but it’s more than that, they’re also our spirit. Yidaki is our breath, our voice.’ Larry Gurruwiwi
The South Australian Museum cares for one of the world’s most extensive public collections of yidaki and didjeridus. Most have lain dormant on museum shelves for many years. We wanted to breathe life and music back into some of these beautiful instruments – to hear them speak with their own voice.
The Yolngu way to tune-up yidaki is to stick it in the river or billabong for a few days. We couldn’t do that! But we found another way. Throughout 2016 we carefully rehydrated the wood in these instruments so you could hear them being played.
Many more than 100 years old, the fragile nature of the instruments meant Museum collection managers were especially careful in reintroducing moisture to the didjeridus, and so custom-built a humidifier to prevent any damage or warping to the instruments.
To experience the success of the process, watch Djalu Gurruwiwi’s eleven-year-old grandson Kevin Dhurrkay – the future of a powerful tradition – play the instruments that have remained unheard for more than a century.