September-October 2006

Digeridoos and Don'ts - A Talkabout with Didgeridude Jay Atwood

By Joel Okida

The mysterious drones and grunts emanating from the didgeridoo bring to mind the sound one would get if it were possible to goose a humpback whale. Or perhaps the snorted mantra of a yak mActive Imageeditating. In reality, the variety of tones can’t really be described in a metaphor. This speaks to the mystical, native Australian origins of the long, tubular instrument called the didgeridoo. There are references, in some northern Aboriginal lore, to its tone being the cumulative sound the creatures in the animal kingdom would make if all were in chorus.

Recently, Jay Atwood, solo artist, and didgeridoo player for Celtic band, The Wicked Tinkers, came up for air, and we asked him about the story behind this unique instrument and to find out why being long-winded can be a good thing.

didgeridoo made in Australia and the variety of other instruments made elsewhere and out of any number of different kinds of material? Is there a connection between the pipe and how you play?




Yes, there are didgeridoos made from PVC (PolyVinyl Chlo

ride) drain pipe to beautifully made wooden American pipes. Very popular, now, are the wooden agave pipes and yucca pipes. I play didgeridoos of all different sorts. I have about 15 didgeridoos that I play in various different ways. And, personally, I love the sound of the traditional instruments. The termite-hollowed eucalyptus has a truly unique sound. If I play with the Tinkers, the instrument we use was built to match the bagpipes, so it’s unusually low, but that’s what works for the band so I use it.

JOEL: There seems to be a cottage industry of didgeridoo-like instruments and modified ones that are available. Do you think that this is a good trend or does it take away from the origins or the intent?

JAY: There’s two parts to it. If you are not saying “this is a traditional Aboriginal ins

trument,” then make whatever you want and play whatever you want. There’s actually a problem in parts of Australia where

people are doing the equivalent of strip mining eucalyptus trees and making didgeridoos for tourists and for export.

There’s this whole myth about, “if you’re going to have a didgeridoo, it has to be an Australian termite-hollowed eucalyptus one.” So people just go out and cut down trees.

The term didgeridoo is not an Australian Aboriginal word. It’s an English, or possibly Gaelic, word for an Aboriginal instrument that has lots of names in the different tribes. Calling something a didgeridoo that’s made out of PVC, I don’t think offends anyone. If it allows people to learn a new “instrument” and express themselves in new and fun ways, I am all for it. If you want to start on plastic—great. Eventually, you’re probably going to want to get a well-crafted traditional Australian one or one made by an American artisan.

A player named Marco Johnson makes didge-boxes. They’re great. I’ve played them made out of clay and glass.


: Di

dgeridoo was originally a part of the Australian Aboriginal peoples’ rituals. How does this aspect affect you and your playing of the instrument?


: I play with tremendous respect for the indigenous people of Australia. The instrument, to me, has a spiritual vibration; that is the only way that I can describe it. But I don’t try in any way to emulate their spiritual practices or their rituals or their beliefs. That is theirs. I try and take some of the techniques from traditional playing and incorporate them into my own musical and spiritual world view. There are a lot of challenging issues around cultural misappropriation among didgeridoo players. I try and balance those things by doing it my own way with respect for the old traditions.


: Why did you pick the didgeridoo over the piano or some other conventional Western instrument?


: I’ve been a piano player my whole life. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston as a pianist and an arranger. I spent most of my professional life as a conductor in show pits in Boston and New York and around the country. In 1994, I was at this festival in upstate New York, which was like Burning Man out here except smaller, about 2,000 people, called Starwood. I remember the evening of the big final bonfire. In the morning the bonfire was this blazing brutally hot pile of embers and everyone had been up dancing and drumming all night long. I heard this sound across the field and went to find out what it was. I was just amazed to find this guy sitting there and playing an instrument that I had never heard before and the sounds were blowing my mind. Then I realized that he had never stopped to take a breath and I was trying to figure that out. I watched him for over an hour and he never stopped the whole time. I just fell in love with the instrument and became fascinated by the circular breathing and the way the rhythms are used. It became an obsession for me. At first I just wanted to figure it out technically. I liked the sounds and that was enough to get me interested in it as a musician.  And then once somebody told me how circular breathing worked, I became really fascinated. That musical instrument is what is st

arted my interest in Aboriginal culture.


EL: It’s a radical departure from the piano....


: I often say that the piano has 88 keys, but each one of them basically does the same thing at a different pitch. You can get a lot of subtle variations out of it, but basically a piano sounds like a piano sounds like a piano... With the didgeridoo, you have one set pitch hollow log, but it ca

n create an infinite variety of timbre, texture and rhythm. So you’re stuck with one fundamental pitch,

but everything else can go in a million different directions. That’s the obsession with it. I still play piano and still conduct and arrange. But right now, this seems to be the thing of focus for me.

It is strange that after playing piano since I was 5 that I wind up as a professional didgeridoo player! Which is almost oxymoronic: how many professional didgeridoo gigs are there? I think I have it (the one)! It’s just a handful of people that are making a living doing it and it surprises me more than anyone that I’m making a living playing the didgeridoo much to my parents’ dismay. They were certain that I was going to be either a concert pianist or minister of music in a Baptist church somewhere. I don’t think that they get it! They haven’t seen us play yet. I think my mom’s scared to see me in a kilt! She’s not looking forward to that.


: How much of your own musical background is part of the didgeridoo playing and how much is just your gut or soul response to the instrument? Of the other players that you know, how many of them have your classical music background and how many of them just picked it up and started to play?


: The vast majority of didgeridoo players have no traditional Western music experience. If you look in the musicians’ union book, generally, if there are didgeridoo players at all, they’re trombone or baritone



How much does my background play into it? You know, because music is so much of who I am, I can’t say any percentage of it is, but I know how to listen to other musicians, how to collaborate, how to improvise, and I understand form and structure. But when I’m working with, say, the Tinkers, I’m really listening intently to Aaron’s (Aaron Shaw) bagpipe, trying to be a good accompaniment to his playing.

JOEL: If you play with several other didgeridoo players, is there some kind of protocol or lead lines?


: Most of the time, if you’re playing in a group, the music will be totally improvisational. However, in traditional Aboriginal music, I’ve never heard more than one didgeridoo. And the didgeridoo is always secondary to the “song man,” the guy who is singing the songs. I have played for 4 or 5 hours at a time without stopping. Aboriginal songs tend to be very short, but Aboriginal rituals can be very long so you play many short songs in a row.

JOEL: Aside from the more unique Tinkers’ drums and bagpipe, are there other instruments that get played along with the didgeridoo?


: The traditional Aboriginese play clapsticks (two short wooden sticks), which are sort of like claves, and known in most countries as bilma. There’s also the bull-roarer (a big piece of wood on a string that gets whirled around and around) which is sometimes used ritually and sometimes used before or after a song, but generally not during a song. They also do a lot of body percussion and clapping. It’s all very planned out. I can’t really speak with authority about Aboriginal music. But I can say that if you listen to traditional didgeridoo players, they can sing you the pattern that they are going to play on the instrument before they do it. It’s like the way the Indian drum, the tabla, is taught.  A tabla player can sing the part as well as play it. Didgeridoo players do the same thing. They reach it through this kind of sung thing. In Western white guy drum circles, it’s all improvisational.


: What are the limitations and what are the unique features of the didgeridoo and where do you think it can it be taken?


The only limitation of the didgeridoo is that it is primarily based on one note, although, you can overblow notes--trumpet-style. You can get 2 or 3 other pitches to come out of it. The way you vocalize into it, you can get a whole range of other sounds. I view it primarily as a rhythm instrument and y

ou can do any rhythm you can think of. There’s also the issue of finding a didgeridoo in the right key. It’s one thing that beginning players, if they don’t have any other musical experience, just don’

t get.

JOEL: The didgeridoo has many other names which appear on both Australian travel and musical instrument websites, can you elaborate on the differences in nomenclature? You also hear the name yrdaki or yirdaki as another name for the didgeridoo.


: There are at least 20 words that I know of from different tribes. Didgeridoo is not one of them. It’s a European word. The most interesting thing that we’ve heard so far is that in Scots-Gaelic “didgeri” means horn player and “dhu” means black. So didgeridoo (or didgeridhu) would be “the black horn player,” a reference to the guy playing the instrument, not the instrument itself. It’s the best theory I’ve heard so far. Other people talk about the name being what the instrument sounds like: “didgeridoo, didgeridoo...” Well, sometimes it does, but sometimes it bears no relation to that at all! Yrdaki. It’s almost unpronounceable. There’s a common sound in some Aboriginal languages that’s called the retroflex ‘r.’ You say the ‘r,’ but you touch the tip of your tongue so your soft palate says “uh-r.” You hear it and say, “What?” In Yolngu culture (ed. Yolngu

are an indigenous Australian people inhabiting North-eastern Arnhem Land)

, which is probably where the didgeridoo originated, yrdaki is their word for the didgeridoo, or at least one of the words. Yrdaki is only really usable if you’re selling not only Australian Aboriginal-made didgeridoo, but traditional

ones from North Arnhem Land because that’s the only place where they were called that.


: Females traditionally do not play the didgeridoo. Has that changed?


: There’s lots of debate about that. In some Aboriginal tribes, females do not play. In others, they don’t play in the specifically male rituals. And in still others, no one cares. The didgeridoo comes from one area of Australia and now it’s become pan-Aboriginal. I think that’s only become true since the early 1900s. I think likewise, some of the stories about taboos and rituals have spread among the Aboriginal people, and now they’ve become sort of the way things are where I don’t think they necessarily were that way to begin with.

A great didge-player named Randy Graves, has done a lot of research into it and what he seems to say is that in some tribes, it’s true: women do not play. Didgeridoo playing is kind of a guy thing. I am not an expert about these taboos, but I don’t think that any of them would apply to Western women unless they were visiting Aboriginal land. Brandi Chase is an amazing player. She’s just incredible and she happens to be the partner of Randy Graves.


: Currently, there seems to be an interest in the music as well as the playing of the didgeridoo. Do people come up to you at concerts and show an interest in it?


: I find that more and more people are becoming aware of the instrument. There’s an interest in it which is mainly due to the fact that it is so unusual at a Scottish festival. At the Highland Games where everything is Scottish, Scottish, Scottish, there’s the weird guy on stage playing the giant log! So I think there’s a circus factor to it. I also think that there’s an awareness going around just because there are good players out there. I think the very first Survivor (television show) in Australia had a really big impact. I believe it was David Hudson who played the didgeridoo for that show. The Crocodile Dundee soundtrack used one and Outback Steak House commercials. I think it’s more of an “Australia-philia” thing going on; it was a sound that you suddenly heard in commercials.


: There is a local didgeridoo festival here in California. What does that have to offer?


: Starting in 2000, there was a festival called the Joshua Tree Didgeridoo Festival. Peter Spoeker and Graham Doe (of were a part of it and the guys at LA Outback, in Studio City. They got together and decided it was time that all didgeridoo players met up. So they got some of the well-known US didgeridoo players to agree to come to this campground in Josh

ua Tree, outside the national park. They had people from France, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia. It was an eye-opening experience to hear people who played in a traditional way versus people who never had any traditional training at all. In didgeridoo playing, there’s no method. In Western culture anyway, there is no way of training on the didgeridoo other than people getting together and asking, “How did you do that? How did you make that sound?” So we listened to each other and compared notes. I went to that festival the first 3 years. That first festival was where I actually met the Wicked Tinkers. It is now in northern California and known as the Jammin’ Tree Festival (


: Do you see the didgeridoo creeping into other kinds of music such as Native American, taiko, Afro-Cuban, etc.?


: I think it could be used in any one of those things, although not so much in jazz or classical Western music which is written out already. It’s a fairly inflexible for Western styles of music. It’s also fairly quiet,  so as soon as you get 5 or 6 other instruments playing, unless you’re heavily miked, you’re going to lose it. I think that it will remain something of a curiosity in the Western musical traditions. Today, I hear it more and more in rave or house music, which are heavily drone and rhythm based anyway and in a lot of the psy-trance, Goa or club music.


: So who do you look to as far as good didgeridoo players today?


: My favorite is Steven Kent, a Northern California classically-trained musician and a musical director. I believe he played French horn first. There are very few players that are as profoundly expressive percussive and meditative styles. He is an amazing player and he has a band called Trance-Mission. I like some of what they do, but I love him as a solo player.


: Can you recommend any specific recordings for those interested in listening to the different kinds of didgeridoo music?


: Among the traditional players, David Hudson is a great Aboriginal musician. It’s interesting because what I really love in very traditional didgeridoo style is NOT really what I would like mixed in with a rock band. They really don’t jibe together. There are bands that have done it, Brother does it, and a well-known Australian band called Yotha Yindi has done that.


: What is the best way for someone interested in playing to get started?


: Contact someone who knows how to play. If you don’t know anyone, for people in the Los Angeles area, contact someone at LA Outback ( They are a tremendous resource. If they can’t do it themselves, they can recommend someone to you.

Books on the didgeridoo:

The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet

, Edited by Karl Neuenfeldt. John Libbey & Company Pty Ltd, 1997 ISBN: 1 86462 004 8

Didgeridoo - Ritual Origins and Playing Techniques

by Dirk Schellberg,

Binkey Kok Publications ISBN 90 -74597-13-0

Interesting books on Aboriginal culture:

The Songlines

by Bruce Chatwin, Penguin Books ISBN: 0-14-009429-6

Voices of the First Day – Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime

by Robert Lawlor, Inner Traditions International ISBN: 0-89281-355-5

Information on good instruments and resources for the didgeridoo enthusiast:

Ed Drury’s site

LA Outback:

The Didgeridoo Store:

Marko Johnson’s Didjbox :

Chad Butler makes American hardwood instruments in Oregon. ( ).

The two CDs that currently live in Jay Atwood’s player are:

Organic Dance Didgeridoo

by Resonance

Didgeridoo Solo

by Ondrej Smeykal (who is from the Czech Republic and one of the more interesting, innovative contemporary didge players around and not at all traditional.