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Charlie McMahon - Player Profile
Last Updated: 17/01/2014

Charlie McMahon took up playing the didjeridu as a child, long before it became popular outside its home in the tropical north, and has become the most acclaimed didjeridu player in Australia. While Charlie revered the playing of the Aboriginal people in their traditional ceremonies, he did not seek to mimic their performance, but took the didjeridu to contemporary music.

Charlie McMahon - KB Article








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Playing Didgeridoo
Playing Didgeridoo
Playing didgeridoo


Interview


How long have you been playing the Didgeridoo/Yidaki?
52 Years

How did you get introduced to this awesome instrument? How old were you, where you?
Robert Tudawalli, playing in the film Jedda when I was 4

Did it take you long to achieve the Circular Breathing?
I did not know about rhythm breathing (circular breathing is a misnomer) and came upon it intuitively while practicing in 1970.

What was your childhood dream job?
Farmer

How did you know you were to become a traveling performing Didgeridoo Player, was there a defining moment?
No

You’ve travelled a bit and seen many things and tasted lots of amazing food from around the world what would be your favorite dish?
Most Japanese food is tops but best is fresh shell fish and crab at Ramingining in Arnhem Land

Biggest musical/didgeridoo influence?
David Blanasi showed me Didj Design No players have really influenced my technique but for the Tudawalli inspiration

The best advice you ever received and from who?
Move around the stage while playing suggested Timothy Leary

Proudest moments?
Releasing Terra Incognita in 1983, Didj horns concept on Tjilatjila and inventing the face bass

Most important question…….If you were a chicken, why would you cross the road?
To get you buggers to stock my recordings



Biography

Charlie McMahon took up playing the didjeridu as a child, long before it became popular outside its home in the tropical north, and has become the most acclaimed didjeridu player in Australia. While Charlie revered the playing of the Aboriginal people in their traditional ceremonies, he did not seek to mimic their performance, but took the didjeridu to contemporary music. Charlie learned how to tune didjeridus to concert pitch and practiced different styles while jamming with bands at gigs.

At 16 years Charlie lost his right hand while experimenting with rockets in his backyard. He reckons it was not all bad for afterwards he “hooked” into school work & won a university scholarship. He holds an Honours degree in Government & Economics from Sydney University. In 1975 was appointed to the academic staff, teaching & researching town planning.

Finding academic life “too much talk” Charlie took to the bush & learned & skills he’d previously thought impossible one-handed. In 1978 Charlie was appointed an adviser in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (now ATSIC) in central Australia, which at the time was moving from administering big settlements to encouraging self determination. While on secondment to the notorious Papunya Settlement 200km west of ALICE SPRINGS, some Pintubi elders showed Charlie the WESTERN DESERT country they called home. They asked if he could find & develop water bores so they could move back. Charlie resigned from the DAA to work for the Pintubi’s Councils. By 1984 a line of water bores extending over 400km into the GREAT SANDY DESERT & across the NORTHERN TERRITORY border into WESTERN AUSTRALIA was established.

“Never a dull moment in those seven years in the swag” Charlie says. “I wouldn’t really call them highlights, but some big moments were being bitten by a venomous snake while asleep & the encounter with a group of nine nomadic Pintubi (the so called “Lost Tribe”) at KIWIRRKURRA, where we were erecting the windmill on the last bore.

On a break from bore drilling in 1983 Charlie recorded with synthesizer player Peter Carolan the GONDWANALAND PROJECT instrumental album TERRA INCOGNITA, which prefigured world music by almost a decade. This seminal album showed the didjeridu could be a key component in contemporary music - setting the mood & driving the rhythm. Documentary film makers embraced the album for its distinctly Australian ambience. The experiment worked so well that Charlie & Peter dropped the “Project” tag and engaged percussionist Ed Duquemin to launch GONDWANALAND as a touring & recording act. As well as regular pub & club shows GONDWANALAND played epic outback tours and the live energy induced the up tempo style more evident in their next three albums: LET THE DOG OUT (1986), GONDWANALAND (1988) WILDLIFE (1990) & WIDE SKIES (1992). GONDWANALAND hold the record for Australia’s largest live performance with their SOUND CLOUD performance to 120,000 at Sydney Cove in 1988.

Charlie’s reputation and openness ensured he’s always in demand. In the bush were he is always pleased to go, Charlie has been hired as a guide by MIDNIGHT OIL on their DIESEL & DUST tour, WIM WENDERS for the film UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD and SHIO TANIMURA, a Japanese novelist. Charlie has recorded on albums by SNAKEFINGER, MIDNIGHT OIL, JANES ADDICTION, HISASHI SHIRAHAMA, ED KUEPPER, TED EGAN, JOHN WILLIAMSON, SUNRIZE BAND & DEF FX. In 1994 Charlie toured the USA, Europe, South Africa, Australia & New Zealand with MIDNIGHT OIL.

After GONDWANALAND called it a day in 1992 Charlie took a more acoustic direction performing and recording under the name GONDWANA. In TRAVELLING SONGS by GONDWANA (Australia 1994, Japan 1995 & Europe 1996) Charlie has broken new ground as a producer. TRAVELLING had significant airplay with songs like CORRUPT WOBBLE, PIG WOBBLE & RIDE making the sound more accessible. Arnhemland singer BOBBY BUNUGGURR has credits on four songs & his Ganal Bingu lyrics reinforce the indigenous character of the music. “The didj doesn’t wander & jump around so much. It sets the groove and travels”. The 7th album TJILATJILA (1996) under his own name is original for its use of multi tonic didj playing techniques, which enable the didjeridus to play melodic movements & chords that are the basis for the string and piano arrangements. The acoustic direction reached a high point with the symphonic track SWARM arranged for orchestra and performed by Charlie with the Sydney Youth Orchestra at the official 1999 Australia Day Lunch. Tonally, complex SWARM was written around the pitch shift DIDJERIBONETM invented by Charlie in the early 80’s, and now available.

An eight album repertoire gives the GONDWANA trio, a solid 2 hours of didj based groove music for their live show. The 1999 European tour saw GONDWANA sharing the bill with the likes of Dr. JOHN, FEMI KUTI, GARBAGE & JOHN CALE. Carlos Peron (YELLOW) was so taken by the seismic sound he invited Charlie to join him on stage, and re-mastered XENOPHON.

Experiments by Charlie led to the development of a SEISMIC recording device (Face Bass) used to stunning effect on the release, XENOPHON. The Face Bass picks up the didjeridu vibrations in Charlie’s body giving the didjeridu a more complex & deeper sound. Produced with Paul McDermott and Ed Duquemin, XENOPHON has a significant composition involvement by traditional Aboriginal singers Bobby Bunuggurr, Djoli Liawonga and Tom Kelly. As the only white Didj based group invited to play both city & bush Aboriginal communities, Charlie and GONDWANA have succeeded in bridging Australia’s racial divide.
In 2000 GONDWANA performed at the Australian Pavilion at World Expo, Hannover and the opening ceremony the Sydney Paralympic Games.
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