Skip to main content

Digging Didges

Musician plays, makes and teaches the hum of the ancient art

by David A. Maurer, Daily Progress staff writer
The Daily Progress, Dec. 17, 2000

Many thousands of years ago the first melodic drone from a didgeridoo lifted into the ancient skies above Australia. The songs created by the simple instrument could have been the first music heard on the planet. It's been said if the Earth had a voice it would be the sound of the didgeridoo.

James Gagnon heard the enchanting hum and buzz of the instrument several years ago when he managed the music department of a metaphysical shop in Virginia Beach. The timeless sound filled him with a sense of deja vu, so he started what he calls a spiritual path of self-discovery. "For me, hearing the didg for the first time was like hearing a voice that was very familiar, but one that 1 couldn't quite recognize," said Gagnon, who has been making his home in Charlottesville since February. "I got a didg and started playing it at the store. As I got better, I discovered how it pulls you in. When you're playing this thing, something magical happens."

"To me it's very spiritual. The instrument creates a vibration that goes really deep into you." Gagnon said the didgeridoo changed his life and helped him become more aware of the natural rhythms of the Earth. He now plays, teaches and makes didgeridoos.

The didgeridoo is a wind instrument thought to have been first played by the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. It's possibly the world's oldest instrument. Cave paintings in Australia that are at least 20,000 years old show spirits dancing and a creature blowing into what appears to be a didgeridoo. The instruments are usually about'5 feet long and 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Traditional didgeridoos are created through a cooperative effort between man and termites. First, termites hollow out the center of a eucalyptus branch. Then the branch is cut to length and a mouthpiece made of beeswax is fashioned to one end. Didgeridoos are also made from hollowed-out bamboo. Gagnon makes his instruments from bamboo he harvests near Chesapeake.

"A friend of mine, a master flute player, showed me how to make didges," said Gagnon, who incorporates the music of the didgeridoo into his massage therapy practice. 'The hardest part of the process is curing the bamboo. You can let the sun do it naturally, but that will take about a year. "I speed up the process by using a propane torch, which takes about an hour. After I hollow it out. I dip the end into melted beeswax to create the mouthpiece that allows you to get a good airtight seal with your lips. "I price my basic didges at $50. Sometimes I'll paint intricate designs on them, and I'll sell those for $150 or so."

Gagnon said lessons are included in the price of his didgeridoos. He said one of the most beautiful aspects of the instrument is that it doesn't take any musical talent to play it. "All you have to do is be open to the instrument and have a willingness to try it." said Gagnon, who also plays the flute and drums. "It does take same time to learn, but once you get it, it's effortless. The magic of it is that it starts to play itself. You're just breathing in a rhythm and then your mind kind of gets dissolved and it swoops you up and takes you on a ride. "You kind of go into this dreamlike state. The music is very powerful and 1 think it's also healing."

Three Easy Lessons

Typically speaking, Gagnon says it takes about three lessons for a person to grasp the fundamentals of the instrument. Fitting one's lips inside the mouthpiece vibrating them by blowing air between them creates the droning. "Aborigines play from the front, but for me and a lot of westerners, its easier to play off to the side," Gagnon said. "You change the shape of your mouth to get different tones.

If I make my mouth chamber .small by moving my tongue up and my cheeks in, it makes a high sound. If I relax and let my mouth get big on the inside, it makes a low sound. You can do that in endless combinations of patterns after you've been playing for a while. You can also throw your voice into it which adds another whole dimension." Perhaps the most difficult thing for would be didgeridoo players to master is the art of circular breathing, which allows a player to maintain an uninterrupted sound. Air trapped in the cheeks is released through the mouth while the player breathes in through the nose. As difficult as circular breathing may sound, Gagnon said, he has taught about 100 people how to play the didgeridoo and all of them managed to master the technique.

Steven Majewski, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia, has been playing the didgeridoo for about eight years. He said some people pick up circular breathing with little difficulty while others, like himself, have e harder time. "Circular breathing allows you to play continuously without stopping, but it also allows you to get more in touch with what your body is doing while your playing," said Majewski, who has a collection of 15 didgeridoos, most of which are made from the traditional eucalyptus branches.

"It's another sort of meditative aspect of the didgeridoo, because you have to figure out your breathing and how you're going to breathe out and breathe in at the same time to keep the instrument going. "Actually, the more I thought about what I was doing, the harder it became for me to do. The way I figured out how to do it was to not pay attention. While playing the didgeridoo I would distract myself by watching television and eventually I started realizing that I was doing it."

According to Margo Smith, curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection and Study Center of UVA, the didgeridoo figures strongly in Aboriginal mythology. She said many of the Dreamtime stories have close ties to the instrument.

Dreamtime Folklore

In Aboriginal folklore the Dreamtime is the period when ancestral beings rose up from the crust of the Earth. They then traveled across the land creating all plant and animal life, as well as the landscape features. "I think a lot of people find the sound of the didgeridoo very exotic and very ancient," Smith said. "There are so many sounds that can come out of it.

"A number of contemporary Aboriginal bands have incorporated didgeridoo and their traditional songs with rock music. Yothu Yindi, for example, is an Aboriginal band from northeast Arnhem Land that has done this.

"I think it's wonderful that Aboriginal people are exposing people to the sound of the didgeridoo in both the traditional and the more contemporary way. It kind of speaks for what's going on with Aboriginal people. They're steeped in tradition, but they're also a very contemporary people."

Gagnon is dedicated to spreading the word about the didgeridoo to people in this area. He said that he especially enjoys going to schools and introducing children to the instrument.

Part of Gagnon's presentation includes telling the story of how the Aboriginal people say the didgeridoo came to be. "The story goes that a long time ago when people discovered fire it changed their lives," Gagnon said. "Fire gave them light in the darkness and warmth in the cold. About that time a young man was carrying a log to the fire. He looked inside it and saw that it was hollow and that there were termites living inside it. He didn't want to burn the termites in the fire so he decided to blow them out, When he blew into it, he discovered it made a sound like this..."

Gagnon blew into his didgeridoo, producing a low droning that could literally be felt as a vibration on the skin. As he played he changed the pitch of the sound from a low buzz to a high-pitched warble.

"They say that the termites went out of there and up into the sky and made the Milky Way," Gagnon said. "And that sound is the first sound of primordial creation. I think at the time humans started to play these things their consciousness started to change. When you play the didg something magical happens."

Majewski agrees that the didgeridoo seems to take on a life of its own. He feels the instrument can help even the novice player bring the best out of it. "What's nice about this instrument is that within a relatively short amount of time, one can start making interesting sounds that are pleasing to hear," said Majewski, who has traveled to Australia to watch master didgeridoo maker Bill Harney create the instruments. "The instrument teaches you more than anything. Each instrument, if its not mass-produced and ... made in the traditional way, has its own unique sound, timbre and way it responses to your playing.

"So when you start playing any particular didgeridoo, you'll start to figure out what it likes to do and how it likes to be played. The first couple of times many beginners will make very rude sounds, but within a short amount of time, it's possible to make soothing sounds that are pleasant to hear."

Aboriginal composers rely on the sounds of nature to help them create music for the didgeridoo. As they play, they might mimic the sound of the flapping of a bird's wings or the yap of a dingo. Other sounds of nature like thunder, rain or blowing wind can also be imitated by an Aboriginal musician. In the hands of a proficient player, the instrument can produce a seemingly endless array of sounds.

Good Vibrations

Last year the Kluge-Ruhe Center held a workshop that focused on the ancient instrument. A highlight of the program came when Majewski played a didgendoo. "The music Steven played was haunting, certainly otherworldly," said Julie May, associate curator at the center. "Ifs surprising how a hollow tube can resonate like it does and fill a room with its sound. "It was amazing "

Majewski said the instrument actually sends out vibrations. He said the purpose of the player is to start up the vibration in the didgeridoo. "The player builds up a standing wave inside the didgeridoo," Majewski said. "Basically, your goal is to vibrate your lips in such a way that you get the frequency that is the fundamental frequency of the pipe.You just need to find the right frequency that the instrument is at. Once you start vibrating it at the right frequency, the instrument starts vibrating itself."

"You can feel it resonating through your head. Some people find that it's actually rather soothing and helps relieve stress and even headaches." Majewski said the instrument is clearly becoming more popular here in the United States. "I hear didgeridoos all the time now, especially on television commercials," Majewski said. "It's a very enchanting sound and when you hear it, you're drawn to it. "I think advertisers realize this. It also has an exotic sound so anytime they want to convey a mood of exoticism, the didgeridoo seems to be finding its way more and more into that milieu."

Even more amazing than hearing a didgeridoo is playing one, Gagnon said. He sells his handmade instruments on the Downtown Mall and also from his home. "My mission is to get these things going," Gagnon said as he held one of his didgeridoos in his hand. "I think the vibrations they put out are both good for the Earth and good for the people on it. "Since I've moved to Charlottesville, I've must have sold more than 25 didges. So I know there's at least 25 out there buzzing, and hopefully that number will continue to grow."