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TRACKER: Hark, She Blows.

<Tracker – May Edition>

KISSmyBLAKarts by Sam Cook

Hark, She Blows.

This time, it started with a loud proclamation via Facebook™, declaring that women are allowed to play the didgeridoo. Almost immediately it became the viral news many a European female who’d been doing it anyway, wanted to hear. Posts started streaming in from all over Australia and beyond in triumphant virtual rapture from non-Indigenous people globally “I like this, my wife does too”.

The announcement was given within the context of an endorsement from a Yidaki master. It was as they stated ‘a true Aborigine’, who has said its okay for women who aren’t traditional to play freely. In the age of social networks, the audience, the reposts and the counter position in real time, made for quite the online spectacle.

I clicked the links to said master that were accompanying the decree. These deposited me to one particular Indigenous male from one specific tribal nation and indeed he had been quoted as such. Beyond this, females within his family are noted on the site in their role of Yidaki production. Interestingly, the site is an enterprise for a vendor offering a $2,500 per person five day cultural immersion with Yidaki masterclasses, to which the master is the brand.

Second to this, they felt legitimised by non-Indigenous ethnomusicologist Linda Barwick. In her book The ‘Didgeridoo, From Arnhem Land to Internet’ (Perfect Beat Publications), Barwick proposes although women have not traditionally played the didgeridoo ceremonially, informally there is ‘no prohibition’ in ‘the Dreaming Law’. Barwick goes on to suggest that the myth of the taboo is a southern Indigenous construct, adopted recently in areas to which the didgeridoo is not traditionally found.

One quick Google™ search can give you an idea as to how Barwick is lauded with pseudo-celebrity status for putting the ‘facts’ right and flinging the door wide open for all and sundry to adopt, adapt and appropriate by way of interpretation.

It must be pointed out that in a world of agenda and self-interest, one can propagate any position they so desire, including the framing of multi-gender use of didgeridoo as sanctioned by “Law” from the “Dreamtime”. We are after all talking about 'Dreamtime' an English term coined about 1896 by Frank J. Gillen a Justice of the Peace, of the Alice Springs telegraph station and the ‘didgeridoo’ touted to be named by Australian explorer Herbert Basedow in the 1920’s. Within these constructs imposed upon and widely defining Indigenous cultural authority, clearly anything is possible.

Yet what becomes of this? An influx bigger than the predicted uptake of the instrument labelled ‘taboo’ to gender XY and the green-light of another round of cultural misappropriation or a world left confused by conflicting messages? Or is it the cultural crossroads where tradition and popular culture collide? In honesty, there are depths that create complexity around the topic of women playing the didgeridoo and its not a clear cut case of black and white.

From my Indigenous world view, originating from the North-West of Australia we were told from a very early age that as females, we weren’t to touch the didgeridoo without permission to do so. I say this because I know an Indigenous female who was given permission to do so and I can say that yes, in some instances women do play. But just because she has permission doesn’t make it a free for all.

We are an oral culture and personally I give far more credential to my Elders than a book, complete with full editing suite and thematic agenda. Why wouldn’t I, a book can go out of print in a matter of years, its relevance often outmoded by the time it lands on the shelves, however a cultural continuum of oral history since time immemorial from the oldest surviving race, the two hardly compare. I too will also tell my daughter and nieces that females aren’t to touch the didgeridoo without permission to do so, in the hope they too impart this knowledge and so on and so forth.

Whilst the term didgeridoo is the Euro construct, I’ve been using it deliberately within this piece to circumvent a push within the new age market place to limit the scope and focus of the didgeridoo to one particular tribe and one particular area. The truth however is that this instrument can be traced tribally as far South-West as Roebourne Western Australia, across to Central Australia and Far North Queensland. In this, its known by so many more names; Ngarrriralkpwina, Yiraka, Babmu, Martba, Paampu, Ilpirra, Kurmur, Dijbolu, Artawirr, Ngaribi, Wuyimba, Buyigi, Yirtakki amongst others, each with its own Lore, ritual and belief system that is reflective of a living culture and comes within its own determination.

It also comes within its own cultural authority related to these areas and while one master from one tribe in his country proclaims its okay for women to play the Yidaki, he does not speak for any other tribe or custodian in any other area but his own. Should he be out of turn for proclaiming this, then that’s the business for his community to determine. Equally, if he so chooses to create his brand around this and charge $2,500 per person, and his people are happy for this, then so be it. I don’t and I won’t speak for his tribe, it’s entirely their call.

What I will defend is this perpetuating myth that people in the South East and South West of Australia have no right to enforce their cultural authority in their country, should they not wish for women to play the didgeridoo. Like the master in his country, they too have the right to speak in their tribal area. To not respect their decision or supersede it with another’s Lore from the north under the guise of ‘a true Aborigine’ is blatant disrespect.

Also to suggest their men are not real of Indigenous enough to play this instrument is a broad offensive generalisation. Who could know every didgeridoo players backstory or lineage? I know of some Noongar artists in the South-West of Western Australia who underwent the same permissions process as the sister in the North and have under the sanction of that arrangement, every right to perform and become as masterful as a traditional artist. Inter-tribal cultural trade is a part of trade routes that extend as far back as the oral histories themselves and are often validated by the latest Archaeological find, so its conceivable that the didgeridoo was a traded.

In today’s context, it remains a tradable item and a sellable commodity. I’ve heard it said, ‘If they’re so sacred, stop selling them.‘, yet who said profit can’t be derived from our cultural continuum in the present day in the same way a painting is sold and revered. At least the economic benefit goes to the source instead of toward an overseas version made without the cultural knowledge of process and context.

But where does this leave us? We’re at a stalemate my friends the recurrent message from both sides, fierce polar opposites, defiantly standing off and ready to go to blows and I’m not talking cyclic breathing here. The didgeridoo has become aligned to an Australian identity and musically falls within the woodwind family. Artists will view it not on cultural terms but on its ability to deliver them to their musical destinations, European women will view it as their feminist right to play, new agers will default to their master ‘a true Aborigine’ and Indigenous people will view it as one of the last objects on which their communities had a say yet their collective voice was diminished because yet again, the others chose not to listen.


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