Women Playing The Didgeridoo
Last Updated: 07/03/2009
We reckon it is awesome how tracing back as far as documented and known history allows, many musical instruments originated primarily for ceremonial, celebration or spiritual functions.
Also fascinating is how many instruments were developed in some way to resemble, depict or in some reference sexuality. The Guitar was shaped in the form of a woman’s body, the African Drum also, there is much to be said about the Native American Flute and the list goes on. Even amongst the very few Australian Aboriginal groups who actually played the Didgeridoo had phallic considerations for the instrument.
Commonly in traditional nomadic and resident cultures around the world, to ensure the survival of their people, different jobs were allocated to different sexes, ages or bloodlines. If those allocated to hunt for food cared for the children all day then that night the people would go without food, not a good thing! It was all about survival.
The “Dreamtime” an old Aboriginal man once told us, was a necessary intricate group of stories, unique for each group, and massively related to the geography of the nomadic route and survival of the group. He once told us a story about a very dangerous snake shaped water hole. There was only one safe place to enter the water. So the Dreamtime style story mainly for the children, in short, was; A serpent creature lived in this waterhole and he was always hungry to eat people, especially children. The river was shaped like a snake and the only place to be safe was at the “head” end of the water hole. Also any swimmers had to have an uncle stand watch up at a certain sacred watching spot, he would sing a song to ease the hunger of the serpent and stand watch. Swimmers could only enter the water carefully and to a certain depth, as this was safe. Anybody entering the water without the Uncle, song and watch, if they survived the serpent, would be severely punished.
This story was told, because back then there was no pool fences, the water in the watering hole was dark and they did not want the kids to swim unsupervised. So this ritualistic, “Dreamtime” style story keep the children safe at that time of year at that watering hole.
Similar stories were created in areas of rocky outcrops, that different spirits lived amongst the rocks, so to go up into the mountains or on the rocky areas, people had to have certain family or group members present, sing certain songs or offer ceremonial prayers and enter the area quietly and carefully so as to not displease the spirits who lived there. We were told that this story again, was to keep the kids safe. They see rocks and want to run up them, mess around then somebody gets hurt. These stories are all about the survival of those people in those areas.
Stories have been used for a long time to keep people focused on their core business, particularly during work time! Some of these group “stories”, different of course from group to group were regarding the Didgeridoo. Imagine the problems if “Sarah” spent all day playing didgeridoo instead of collecting bush tucker for the group. People would go without eating! So its cool for “Sarah” to play but she must get her job done first. Hard to keep kids and young adults on task so in comes the stories, like “if girls play the Didgeridoo they will get pregnant” or the opposite, “ If girls play the didgeridoo they wont be able to have children”. Or “Girls can’t play because the Didgeridoo is a phallic symbol” I have even heard “If girls play the Didgeridoo they will have twins!” These reasons and stories were often totally different between groups.
The people in each group are allocated different responsibilities. As no written communication or lap tops were available back then, responsibilities and stories had to be handed down by word of mouth and an involved security system of many people contributing many jig saw pieces and checking up to ensure stories, songs and ceremony were accurately passed through the generations.
In the few groups in the far North of Australia who ever used the Didgeridoo for ceremonies, music, playing and story telling, somebody was allocated the custodianship of their Didgeridoo songs. This was allocated basically at birth. Didgeridoo custodian was one of the jobs allocated to boys, men’s business. These future custodians’ would be taught the intricacies of that groups specific Didgeridoo songs and stories during his life until he ultimately became the custodian of the Didgeridoo for the group. Other men and women had different roles, song man, dancers, hunters, lawman, and the like.
Now the fact is, although the Didgeridoo man may not be the lawman, he still knew the law. Likewise the Women who were custodians of certain ceremonial dances were not the song man they still knew the songs. So to, anybody in the group who had different functions, their job was their job and they were the ones responsible to do their job. But outside of that life went on. Singing songs, playing didgeridoo, discussing law, hunting, weaving, tracking, bush tucker sourcing were all skills shared across the board. It’s the same today right, you are into tennis so your mates come and play tennis with you, your mates are into jogging, so you meet them a couple of times and go jogging. Your mate plays Didgeridoo so you to give it a go. Some things you fall in love with, some are so so and you never go jogging again!
It is true that in certain ceremonies the Didgeridoo player was the male. but outside of that ceremony their friends, family, sisters, daughters and wife’s and so on could play some mean un-ceremonial Didgeridoo!
Up in Arnhem Land amongst some people there, a few of the women were incredible players, so powerful, even playing logs before they were shaped! One lady had played in a couple of ceremonies’ because the regular players were away.
These people laughed when they heard that some people were spreading the rumour that women worldwide were not allowed to play the Didgeridoo! They said why would anyone , especially someone not of their group, ever profess to be respecting them by abiding by one mythical law. If they wanted to live by their law, then they needed to go live in with those people, be adopted into the family and live the whole law. Makes sense doesn’t it!
Could you imagine any country, or the globe making a law that women were not allowed to play the guitar, or even the flute! Or maybe if a global ban was put on women playing any drums, because of rumor of an ancient African practice regarding men being the Drum players in a specific ceremony.
On top of this, the word Didgeridoo was a western created name for the instrument; each aboriginal group had different names for the Didgeridoo and instrument sizes and styles of playing.
Today we have Didgeridoos made from split logs, plastic, clay, glass, brass, fiberglass, leather, hemp and a list of materials too long to list!
The Didgeridoo is truly a global instrument, like the guitar, flutes, keyboards, drums, violin and the rest. Every instrument has a past, a present and a future. We are just so excited about what lies ahead, the music, the artists, the players, the makers, the listeners and supporters of this marvelous instrument we know as “The Didgeridoo”.
Here is professionally researched and published articles which gives even more insight into the occasional misunderstanding regarding women and the Didgeridooo.
Written by Linda Barwick
The Didgeridoo, From Arnhem Land to Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeldt Back to Index
This aims to clarify some misunderstandings of the role of didjeridoo in traditional Aboriginal culture, in particular the popular conception that it is taboo for women to play or even touch a didgeridoo.
While it is true that in the traditional didgeridoo accompanied genres of Northern Australia, (e.g. Wangga and Bunggurl) women do not play in public ceremony, in these areas there appears to be few restrictions on women playing in an informal capacity. The area in which there are the strictest restrictions on women playing and touching the didgeridoo appears to be in the south east of Australia, where in fact didgeridoo has only recently been introduced. I believe that the international dissemination of the "taboo" results from it's compatibility with the commercial agendas of New Age niche marketing.
My understanding of Aboriginal culture in Australia has been formed as an academic ethnomusicologist, through acquaintance with the ethnomusicological and anthropological literature as well as through personal contact, during classes and fieldwork, with the Aboriginal people in a number of communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.
It is true that traditionally women have not played the didgeridoo in ceremony. However let us review the evidence for Aboriginal women playing didgeridoo in informal situations. In discussions with women in the Belyuen community, near Darwin, in 1995. I was told that there was no prohibition on women playing and in fact several of the older women mentioned a women in the Daly River area who used to play the didgeridoo.
In a discussion with men from Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar and Gunbalanya it was agreed that there was no explicit Dreaming Law that women should not play didgeridoo, it was more that women did not know how to. From Yirrkala, there are reports that while both boys and girls as young children play with toy instruments, within a few years, girls stop playing the instrument in public. There are reports that women engage in preparation of didgeridoos for sale to tourists also playing instruments to test their usability. Reports of women playing the didgeridoo are especially common in the Kimberley and Gulf regions the Westerly and Easterly extremes of it's distribution in traditional music. The didgeridoo has only begun to be played in these areas this century where it accompanies genres originally deriving from Arnhem Land (Bunggurl) or the Daly region (Wangga, Lirrga and Gunborrg)
The clamour of conflicting voices about the use of didgeridoo by women and by outsiders has drawn attention to the potential for international exploitation and appropriation of traditional music and other Aboriginal cultural property. In addition, the debate has drawn to international attention the fact that there are levels of the sacred and the secret in traditional Aboriginal beliefs, many of them restricted according to gender. Perhaps the didgeridoo in this case is functioning as a false front, standing in for other truly sacred and restricted according to Aboriginal ceremonial life that it can not be named in public. In this way, the spiritualising of the didgeridoo not only panders to the commercial New Age niche, but also serves as a means of warning non-Aboriginal people to be wary of inquiring too closely into sacred matters.
"That didjeridu has sent them mad"
Murray Garde with Peter Danaja et Tom Djelkwarrngi Wood
The new didjeridu mythology
Beliefs have developed about the didjeridu which are not found among its
original owners. These ideas emphasise the didjeridu's sacred status and have
endowed it with a mystic spirituality never held by its traditional cultures.
An example involves the well-known gender debate about whether women are
'allowed' to play the didjeridu. While women in the Maningrida region do not play
the didjeridu this is not because of some strict taboo but simply because
didjeridu playing is not viewed as a usual female activity. In parts of the Gulf of
Carpentaria, such as near Borroloola, and in some places in the Kimberley region
of Top End Western Australia , Aboriginal women do in fact play didjeridu in
traditional music and some have been quite famous for it. Despite this, some
Aboriginal people in southern parts of Australia now hold to a taboo on women
playing the didjeridu for more recently developed spiritual reasons [Barwick
1997: 95], Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land do not share such a view of the
didjeridu as a highly sacred and spiritual object - the sounds of which, in New
Age mythologies, are even claimed to heal the sick [Neuenfeldt, 1998: 73-102].
Although amused and intrigued by such claims, the Aboriginal contributors to this
article dismiss them as nonsense, unheard of in their experience.
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