The Science of the Didgeridon't (if you're female)

30 May 2016

Much of Aboriginal technology appears very simple - primitive, almost, from a first look - but on closer inspection the tools and instruments created and used by Aboriginal people are actually very complex arrangements of many different principles and applications of science. Take a look at the woomera and projectile motion; the boomerang and gyroscopic precession; and the didgeridoo and acoustics. Some of the first people to research the acoustics of the didg are Dr Neville Fletcher and Dr Lloyd C Hollenberg, and I would suggest you start with them if you want to pursue more information on these complex acoustics. Perhaps, though, some of the most perplexing concepts of the didgeridoo are the gender based issues, in particular, why aren't women allowed to play the didg?

I have heard all my life that women shouldn't play the didgeridoo. It could make me pregnant. It could stop me from getting pregnant. People might get sick or even die. I've heard it all. So of course when the time came for me to officially take on the role of Knowledge Keeper in my family, I started to ask questions about the origins of the stories behind the didgeridoo, and the strange thing is, I didn't ever get a straight answer about women playing the didg.

In the D'harawal, and many other south east Australian clans and nations, we do not have any Lore or Law regarding the didg, as we did not have the didg before European arrival, therefore authentic, clan based information is sketchy at best. I found it strange then that the restrictions around women playing the didg are almost exclusively that of those living in the south east.

One theory suggests that in many places, the didg has been deliberately mystified, making it forbidden for women and non-indigenous people to play in order to increase its market value. This western notion of value began, and took hold, in and around the areas of earliest European occupation, ie: the south east of Australia.

I then heard from a friend who had visited an Aboriginal Community in Arnhem Land, the home of the didg or 'yidaki' (hollow wood). He noted that a group of women played the didg to welcome visitors into their community. Now, plenty of people 'bend' the rules to say that it's ok for women to play occasionally when the men are not around, but there were also men present.

My research then lead me to discover that in many places, women actually make the didgeridoos - cutting down the hollowed trees, dressing the wood and decorating the didgs, as well as testing them and playing them. I was not disappointed then to learn of Djalu Gurruwiwi and David Blanasi from Yirrkala. These two men are described as being the Spiritual Lawkeepers of the didg and it is from them that I feel most comfortable taking guidance. It has been said by these men that there are no laws forbidding women from playing the didg. That it is a gift from the oldest civilisation on earth for everyone to enjoy, regardless of age or gender. Mandawuy Yunupingu (the late lead singer of Yothu Yindi) is quoted as saying, "The yidaki has a serious role to play in men's ceremony, but it is also used as a popular instrument for the enjoyment of women and children."

This brings an enormous amount of peace to my heart. You see, underlying my 'dog with a bone' attitude to women playing the didg, is my overwhelming need to learn the secrets of this amazing instrument from my Elder, my father, John Foster. For years I have watched my father masterfully play the didg and I have just always assumed that I couldn't play it. Recently I've noticed my dad isn't the strapping hero I have worshipped all my life. His grey hair is now white. He doesn't always have the stamina to get out and about every day, captivating audiences with his spellbinding Welcome to Country and entertaining yarns. With every day that passes, I have to come to terms with the fact that one day Dad won't be here - that his knowledge will be gone and it is up to me to keep it alive, and that includes his knowledge of playing the didg. So yes, I have started to learn the didg from Dad and I can make a good sound, but then there's the science of circular breathing - now that's another story.