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Sanshi's Diary - Rripangu Yirdaki Masterclass 2009
Last Updated: 12/06/2009
Hi, it’s Sanshi from Didge Breath here!

This year I attended the 2009 Rripangu Yirdaki Masterclass.
Feel free to read my diary and look at some photos…

The Rripangu Yirdaki Masterclass 2009 was held on 18th-22nd of May in far north-east Arnhem Land where the Yirdaki originally come from. May in Northern Territory is the middle of the dry season. Hot during the day but cool at night. Great season to visit.

I spent time with an elder of the Galpu clan of Yolngu people, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi and his family in Gikal outstation. Gikal is located 3hrs drive or 6hrs by boat from the mining town Nhulunbuy. There are 2 houses at the community, facing a beautiful beach, surrounded by Eucalyptus trees and mangroves. Electricity ran by generator, no mobile phone reception, no shops, just us and big nature.

You can see a small island with a single tree on it in a distance from the beach where Wititj the rainbow serpent is sleeping. When the tide is high, the island will be under the water so you can see just the tree on the water, very amazing.

First day, we had welcome ceremony by Djalu’ playing Yirdaki onto our chest. This cleanses our body with sound vibration of Yirdaki. Also traditional Galpu songs and dance, “west wind” and “fresh water” were played by young Yolngu boys.

Next day, our family caught a big green back turtle! Turtle was cooked in open fire, top and bottom with some tree leaves and hot rocks inside. Turtle meat is juicy with fat and full of ocean flavor. It’s top food.

In the afternoon we jumped into an old yellow Landcruiser and headed to the bush for Yirdaki cutting, following tree experienced Yirdaki craftsman and women. Djalu’, Dopiya and Lena. Last time I followed Djalu’, this time I decided to follow Lena. Check the hollowness of the Stringybark tree by knocking with an axe. Flick the green ants biting on my legs, asking to the land with lips vibrating “BRRRR Yirdaki Yow!”

We heard the axe chopping tree from somewhere, “Grand-pa already found one!” Lena said. Lena and I kept searching for Yirdaki in the Stringybark forest. The tree we look for were about 15-20cm diameter. Lena cut a little bit and check how hollow it is, some weren’t hollow enough, some were ok on the bottom end but termites haven’t reach to the mouthpiece. We kept calling to the land and finally cut 3 logs. One was 120cm long other two were 150cm long, mouthpiece were just fitting the thumb. We then cleaned the inside and played the raw log, you can hear the quality of the Yirdaki already. “Manymak!”(Good!) “Land likes you!” said Lena.

We gathered up about dozen of raw logs, and start working on making Yirdaki. Stringybark literally bark is stringy, so you can peal it very easy from top to bottom. Next process is chiseling from the bottom, widening the inside a little bit, going about 15-30cm deep, depending on the logs. The rest of the inside is left mostly natural. Then we shaved the outside little by little with the draw blade and big knife (like crocodile Dundee size). Shave the white wood part, inside is redder wood. If you shave too much, you’ll make a hole. By tapping with your finger you can tell how thin the wall getting. Finish with disc sander and sandpaper and a coat of wood glue to stop the yirdaki getting dry too fast.

The shorter one was painted “BARU” (crocodile) for my son. Longer one had a bend near the mouthpiece. It looked like a snake so painted “Wititj” (Rainbow serpent) with cross hatching.

On Third day, a young guy called Terrence took 3 of us on the dingy out Yirdaki cutting. He sings, catches Turtles and plays awesome Yirdaki. His Yirdaki sound is powerful. He sat with us and taught us the rhythm of “West Wind” over and over.

We arrived at the beach of the second bay from Gikal, a couple of axes and a saw in each hand, we walked into the bush. Terrence peals a little bit of bark and check the hollowness by tapping tree with finger. He generally chooses thinner trees.

This time I had an axe in my hand to try and cut Yirdaki just by myself. Tap the tree and hear the sound, try cut a few times but no luck, but finally I found very hollow sounding tree. Within a few swings of the axe, I found it was already hollowed well. And actually the mouthpiece was too big for yirdaki, but I cut above from there and it was bingo! It’s perfect size. Manymak Yirdaki! It has been painted “file snake” with dots.

On the fourth day, everyone become family and friends. Little kids asked us for giant swings every second. Everyone’s Yirdaki were painted with croc, turtle, dolphin, lotus flower or rainbow serpent with traditional crosshatching. Some of us also give the artists a shoulder massage.

We also made “Bilma” (Tapping sticks). They are crafted from Ironbark tree. It is very dense and hard wood. When you tap together, it makes a very sharp sound. The bigger, the lower the tone, smaller the higher pitch. Song men sing and tap the Bilma, dancers and Yirdaki player follows Bilma. So you could say the Bilma is the most important instrument.

We had small Bungul in the evening. I joined as a dancer with white ocher body paint. We had eucalyptus branches in both hand, and shook them side to side. Listen to the Bilma and stomp on the ground, flicking sand with steps. Women start dancing gently, Yirdaki plays Dit Dit Dit Dit Dup Tol Tol Dup Tol Tol… Bilma keeping the beat, sometime dancers make calls, “Oooooo-Yooooo- BRRRRR- Yow! Yow!”. And songman was singing ancient songs….

Yirdaki master class is full of surprises. If you are a didgeridoo lover, it is definitely worth attending. You’ll experience all of traditional skills to build your own Yirdaki, and how to play.

Thanks for reading and I can’t wait until the next Yirdaki Masterclass!

I hope to see you there


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