September-October 2007

Blowin’ in the Wind:
A Breath of Fresh Air at the Jammin’ Tree Didgeridoo Festival

BY JOEL OKIDA

didgeridoofestival200709_450.jpgThe small, but mighty Jammin' Tree Didgeridoo Festival ( www.jtdidgefest.com ) located in a wisp of a town called North Fork, and under the shadow of Yosemite, is the kind of unique entertainment that runs below the radar of the giant music festivals in California.  An acquired taste to be sure, the festival promotes the culture, music and art of the Aboriginal people.  The intimate setting requires a mellow demeanor, but a curiosity for the unusual in terms of sound and art.  The mood is low key, but friendly and the family atmosphere adds to the openness of the environment.  The grounds of the festival are actually a local baseball field, but this grassy venue is surrounded by the wildness of its Sierra surroundings.  A river and swimming hole a few steps from the vendor booths are much more inviting as the warm temperatures push the visitor to submerge in some relief.  If you are lucky enough to reserve a camping spot adjacent to the water, you have the best of both worlds at opposite ends of your tent.

Key to grasping the philosophy behind the festival is a basic understanding of the unique instrument known as the didgeridoo.  The mystical nature of the instrument is born from its centuries-old aboriginal outback beginnings. A drone instrument to begin with, but now utilized in different musical configurations in as many varieties of musical bands, the "hollow log" slowly appears to be redefining itself on the world music scene.  In recent times, players from many different countries have adopted it, intrigued by the challenge of its simplicity and the complexity involved in mastering it.  That seeming contradiction is noticeable when any newcomer picks up the didgeridoo.  Although basic intonation can come rapidly, further modulation and creation of the sustained resonance through a process known as circular breathing may take months or years of practice.   In short, in creating this kind of clarion call, a player generates an assortment of tones by breathing methods not ordinarily examined by laymen or even Western woodwind-playing musicians.

Not surprisingly, the many people gathered here are those who admire both the metaphysical aspects of the instrument and the closeness that comes with a small coterie of those in the know.  Who knows what they all do when not at didgeridoo festivals?  It doesn't really matter because when you enter the portals of this festival, everyone seems to revive a kind of neo-hippie mind set.  And that is meant in a good way.  The open-ended possibilities of the didgeridoo allow anyone to experiment and learn from several musician/instructors and to partake in or just witness its usage in group settings.  The fact that heightened breathing awareness and control is central to playing the instrument adds to the general concepts of both freeing and focusing one's mind, spontaneous creativity, and "jamming" with others who are like-minded.  There is a well-connected and friendly clan of people who make up the brother and sisterhood of musicians.  Lead by organizers, Grahm and Trish Doe ( www.didgeridoostore.com ) , a sense of community seems to pervade the festival.

The daytime workshops provide the basis of the festival.  There are beginning through advanced workshops in, of course didgeridoo, Tuvan Throat-singing (i.e., the "human" didgeridoo [ www.khoomei.com] ), building a didgeridoo, busking and performing, aboriginal-style painting, circular breathing (key to the didgeridoo non-stop tones or drone), Tai Chi, Qigong, and bellydance.  Instruments can be borrowed or purchased at discount rates.

This year's festival brought several musicians who exemplified the kaleidoscope that is the sound and soul of the didgeridoo.  Jeremy Donovan ( www.jeremydonovan.com.au/ ), deeply connected with his family roots, his heart imbedded in the rainforest people of Far Northern Queensland, New South Wales, offered a personal journey of his experiences through his paintings, storytelling,  vocal techniques and the didgeridoo.  His painted body, screen projections, and almost primal calls told of his connection to his grandfather and his path to revelation, enlightenment and the discovery of who he was.  This underscored why his commitment to his aboriginal roots are so strong.

David Blonski ( www.davidblonski.arts-com.com ), whose often thematic playing showcases a wide variety of composition which resound with primal calls from the animal kingdom, sweeping washes from the sea, echoes from faraway caverns, and otherworldly tones which often seem to project the often foghorn-like nature of the instrument, bleating out of some pre-dawn thunder and vaporous mist.  Drawing from a vast collection of didgeridoos and a musical catalog which bridges World, New Age and the didgeridoo genres, Blonski approaches the melodies and drones from different angles and conjures up imagery through imaginative phrasing and tonal concepts.

One intriguing performer came by way of a country faraway from the Australian outback.  Bringing new discipline and technique to the art of the didgeridoo, Ondrej Smeykal ( www.smeykal.com/eng/ ), visiting from the Czech Republic, explodes on the stage although calmly seated cross-legged for the entire performance.  Circular breathing gets a workout as both inhalation and exhalation become partners in a rapid fire style which begets a techno-dance rhythm that had the audience on their feet.  With a sound range that roughly encompasses a churning drone, throbbing bass, nasal percussion, and additional orbital intonations, Smeykal is seemingly able to incorporate breathing techniques that split apart the sound and make the listener look for a second didg player or a tape loop hidden somewhere on the stage.  There are already a few YouTube videos albeit of poor quality, documenting his near electric beat pumping style.

The Wicked Tinkers ( www.wickedtinkers.com ) incorporate a didgeridoo and occasionally another drone instrument, the Bronze Age Irish horn, into their Celtic mix of jigs, reels, and anything else that they can pound into their audience.  The musical crossfire air assault between Scottish bagpipe player, Aaron Shaw and didgeridoo player, Jay Atwood can switch back and forth between contrast and complement.  Lying somewhere in the vast range between the traditional, the thematic and the techno sound, and because the Tinkers' sound is big and brash, the didgeridoo role here is usually made to fit snugly between the hearty drum beats of Warren Casey and Keith Jones and the piercing range of Shaw's bagpipe.

A trip to the Jammin' Tree Didgeridoo Festival can be fun and educational and the fact that the setting is in the great outdoors, loose and comfortable, makes it a holiday from the urban clog.  Next year, the festival runs from August 15 through August 17.  If you're on the way to Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, or the Bay area, fit a day into your schedule.  Even with a morning or afternoon of didgeridoo playing, you'll have plenty of time to catch your breath. Take a workshop or two, a hike or three, have a picnic, jump in the river, go fishing, and make sure you stay or come back for an evening concert.   Make camping reservations early or check the website for nearby lodges, motels, and B & Bs.


Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.