The didgeridoo, the ancestor of wind instruments, marks the rhythm since the beginning of Dreamtime in the eternal ceremonies of Australian Aborigines. The sacred tube, between 1.50 and 2.50m long, is traditionally carved from branches of eucalyptus hollowed out by termites, the predestined by nature. Once the bark is removed, the wood is decorated with classic themes of aboriginal mythology. It is played by blowing in the conical or cylindrical cavity, using the circular breathing technique.
We set off for the remote Arnhem Land region, in Australia, to listen to the primordial sound of the didgeridoo. Carried away by its baritone and syncopated rhythm, in the ecstasy of the Garma Festival, we realise about the bond between humans and their indissoluble relationship with nature like never before. This is where music therapy starts.
Step 1: The legend
“In the beginning, the universe was dark and cold. Boonun was harvesting wood to warm up, when he noticed a hollow trunk eaten by termites. He blew inside the cavity to save them from the fire and set them free. A divine sound came out. The termites flew into the heavens and became stars. And there was light”. Every time a didgeridoo is played during male initiation ceremonies, weddings, exchange ceremonies and funerals, the act of nature's creation is renewed, reproducing its harmony and ensuring prosperity to the tribe.
Only initiated men can play it. Those who have no experience could be impaired by the power of traditional melodies. Ever since Dreamtime, most sacred ceremonies have been a men's matter, to allow them to find, through ritual practices, reconciliation with the Earth, which, on the other hand, is a given for women, who, by nature, can replicate creation. This is the reason why we will not meet women players, unless, in absence of initiated men, they are allowed to express themselves through the didgeridoo.
The circular breathing technique used to play it keeps the respiratory system healthy and frees the mind from unnecessary worries, allowing the player to focus on his feelings. It doesn't take long to realise that the therapeutic value of music, which we Westerners have artificially defined, is actually instinctive sacredness in Australia.
Step 2: Arnhem Land
The Arnhem Land region, mostly covered by the Kakadu National Park, is one of the five regions of the Northern Territory, and is located in the north-eastern corner, 500km from the territory capital Darwin. Most of the population, just over 16000, is scattered between the centres of Jabiru, Maningrida on the Liverpool River banks, and Nhulunbuy in the far north-east, on the Gove Peninsula ravaged by bauxite mines.
Declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931, Arnhem Land is best known for its wild nature and the strenuous cultural and political resistance of the Yolngu people to defend the usurped rights of those who have always lived in Australia. The village of Yirrkala, near Nhulunbuy, is famous for its bark paintings, but also for being the place where the didgeridoo, which the Yolngu call yidaki, originated. In their community, its music accompanies the rhythm of the seasons and the lives of each person. We are heading towards the eastern part of Arnhem Land, and we realise that the yidaki, which was longer and low-pitched in the central part of the region, is getting shorter and higher-pitched. Now some Yolngu beat them with clapsticks and wooden boomerangs as if they were drums. This is our songline, a map to be read with our hearing that leads from our hearts to a never-ending story.
The geography of this area features uncontaminated coasts, desert islands, rivers teeming with fish hidden by luxuriant vegetation, rocks carved by inspired winds, rainforests where to lose oneself and neat fields where to find oneself again, where the glance embraces the horizon. Kaleidoscopic birds and crocodiles protect Mount Borradaile, in the north-western part of Arnhem Land, from the pervading flow of time, as do the steep slopes that mark the border with endless floodplains. Higher above we'll find breathtaking cave art sites. We could rent a light aircraft in Darwin to get there in less than an hour, but during the dry season, it is worth going there with an off-road vehicle.
Step 3: Garma Festival
Every year, the Yolngu people celebrate their millenary cultural inheritance of dances, music and rituals during the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, which is held in August every year, in the village of Gulkula, where the ancestor Ganbulabula brought the didgeridoo into being. Every afternoon, in a forest clearing that looks upon the Gulf of Carpentaria, the divine notes of the yidaki become a powerful call to unity among all tribes, which too often are divided.
On the sidelines of the sacred rituals, tourists can have a go at playing it. We see them thank respectfully for this chance. We talk with a Yolngu player about the therapeutic value of this instrument. He says that he has never come across an Aborigine who has declared himself a healer. Then he assures us, warning us that it is difficult for us to comprehend their culture, but if would make an effort to understand at least our own, everything would be much easier. Finally he comforts us: if after hearing or playing the didgeridoo we feel better, it means that we are starting to feel something really deep.
For him, music is not as much a therapy as it is earth, freedom, the voice of nature and of every single person of the present and the past. The rhythm produced by this wooden instrument is a call to the core of our planet, a vibrant plea for greater awareness of its sacredness. He hopes we will never forget this.
By Federico Gurgone