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Art, Country and the DreamingTraditional Aboriginal Musical Instruments


Aboriginal traditional music consists mainly of rhythmic singing supported by a limited number of instruments. Traditional Aboriginal instruments are almost always percussive and mainly involve beating - for example handclaps, body slapping or hitting of clapsticks. The most important non-percussive instrument is the didjeridu (yidaki, also other names), and on the northern coastal regions large conch shells were used to produce sounds. There are no traditional stringed instruments.

Clapsticks A singer holds a pair of wooden sticks, one in each hand. One long and slightly flattened stick is generally grasped in the middle and held flat. The other stick, more rounded and held towards the end, is brought sharply and cleanly on to the first to make a percussive rhythm.
Boomerang clapsticks These have a similar function to clapsticks - at times they may be shaken to provide a continuous rattle, as well as being beaten together.
Handclapping Handclapping and slapping various parts of the body are used by singers of both sexes, sometimes as a substitute for a pair of sticks.
Percussion sticks A set of three or four wooden sticks hit with another stick (sometimes referred to 'gongs').
Percussion tube A hollow log drum used with particular ceremonies.
Other percussion These include a stick beaten on a shield, a stick beaten on another stick lying on the ground, and the women's bark bundle hit on the ground.
Rasp The Kimberley Tabi songs are accompanied by a rasp. A notched stick, or the side of a spear thrower is scraped by a second, smaller stick.
Rattle Island style songs from Cape York may be accompanied by the rattling sound of bunches of seed pods shaken in the hand.
Bullroarer A piece of wood attached to a long string which is swung around to produce a roaring sound
Skin drum A single-headed hour glass shaped drum, whose head is made from lizard or goanna skin, is used on Cape York with traditional songs and island dance. The open end is sometimes shaped like the mouth of a crocodile.
Didjeridu (yidaki) The didjeridu provides a constant drone on a deep note, somewhere between D flat and G below the bass clef. This drone is broken up into a great variety of rhythmic patterns and accents by the skillful use of the tongue and cheeks. Many different tone colours are achieved by altering the shape of the mouth cavity and the position of the tongue and by shutting off various parts of the anatomy which act as resonating chambers for the human voice. The greatest skill of a didjeridu player lies in the use of two entirely different notes, which are alternated in rapid succession to form complex cross-rhythms. These two notes are pitched a major tenth apart, the upper note being the first overtone.

Instruments table based on work by Hans Telford


These were once the most common and important musical instruments throughout Australia (except in the Torres Strait, where drums provided the rhythmic accompaniment.) In many areas they were often the only musical instrument, with voices providing all the melody. Clapsticks may be single and beaten against some other object (e.g. the ground, trees, weapons, bark) or paired and beaten against each other (in some areas stones are used instead of wood). There are two basic kinds of clapsticks: sticks, sometimes shaped according to the song items they are used for, with the smaller one beaten against the larger, and boomerangs, either used in separate hands or held in one hand so that the extremities can meet alternately, giving a rapid beat. Both forms were widely used, boomerang clapsticks being common in recent times in the north, where they were not in use as weapons and were obtained by trade. Clapsticks could be played by the lead singer, but also as a general accompaniment and often by women.

Text by Dr David Horton from the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia

Didjeridu (yidaki)

The name didjeridu is not an Aboriginal one but seems to have been coined by Herbert Basedow in 1926 on the basis of sounds made by players practising on the instrument. The didjeridu (perhaps less than 1000 years old) was originally used from the Gulf of Carpentaria across northern Australia to Derby, the most southerly point being Wave Hill.

Rock art showing instruments
Rock art from Kakadu, National park showing use of didjeridu and clapsticks.

It spread to southern Cape York within the last 200 years and further into Central Australia only this century. It may have evolved from an 'emu decoy', a short hollow branch blown to lure birds, such as emus and brush turkeys, by imitating their calls.

The didjeridu is made from a log hollowed out by fire or termites and cleaned out, or from bamboo with septa removed, and a mouthpiece of wax or resin is moulded to one end. The inside diameter measures about 30 mm at the end that is blown, and about 50 mm at the opposite end. Different tube lengths (normally 100-160 cm) produce different sounds, and a player will normally have a number of instruments to choose from to suit the voice of particular singers who are being accompanied.

The didjeridu is played by blowing through vibrating lips directly into the mouthpiece, air reserves being held in the cheeks and replenished by rapid sniffs through the nose which do not interrupt the continuous blowing. There are two playing styles. In Arnhem Land (and Groote Eylandt) an 'overblown' or upper tone is used, the end of the instrument rests on the ground or in a baler shell, and the right hand is left free to tap the tube. Elsewhere there are usually no upper tones, the end of the instrument is above ground or resting on the foot, and the right hand gives additional support.

Text by Dr David Horton from the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia


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