Here are some different sides about women and the didgeridoo

Written by Linda Barwick
The Didgeridoo, From Arnhem Land to Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeldt Back to Index

This aims to clarify some misunderstandings of the role of didjeridoo in traditional Aboriginal culture, in particular the popular conception that it is taboo for women to play or even touch a didgeridoo.

While it is true that in the traditional didgeridoo accompanied genres of Northern Australia, (e.g. Wangga and Bunggurl) women do not play in public ceremony, in these areas there appears to be few restrictions on women playing in an informal capacity. The area in which there are the strictest restrictions on women playing and touching the didgeridoo appears to be in the south east of Australia, where in fact didgeridoo has only recently been introduced. I believe that the international dissemination of the “taboo” results from it’s compatibility with the commercial agendas of New Age niche marketing.

My understanding of Aboriginal culture in Australia has been formed as an academic ethnomusicologist, through acquaintance with the ethnomusicological and anthropological literature as well as through personal contact, during classes and fieldwork, with the Aboriginal people in a number of communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

It is true that traditionally women have not played the didgeridoo in ceremony. However let us review the evidence for Aboriginal women playing didgeridoo in informal situations. In discussions with women in the Belyuen community near Darwin in 1995. I was told that there was no prohibition on women playing and in fact several of the older women mentioned a women in the Daly River area who used to play the didgeridoo.

In a discussion with men from Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar and Gunbalanya it was agreed that there was no explicit Dreaming Law that women should not play didgeridoo, it was more that women did not know how to. From Yirrkala, there are reports that while both boys and girls as young children play with toy instruments, within a few years, girls stop playing the instrument in public. There are reports that women engage in preparation of didgeridoos for sale to tourists also playing instruments to test their useability. Reports of women playing the didgeridoo are especially common in the Kimberley and Gulf regions the Westerly and Easterly extremes of it’s distribution in traditional music. The didgeridoo has only begun to be played in these areas this century where it accompanies genres originally deriving from Arnhem Land (Bunggurl) or the Daly region (Wangga, Lirrga and Gunborrg)

The clamour of conflicting voices about the use of didgeridoo by women and by outsiders has drawn attention to the potential for international exploitation and appropriation of traditional music and other Aboriginal cultural property. In addition, the debate has drawn to international attention the fact that there are levels of the sacred and the secret in traditional Aboriginal beliefs, many of them restricted according to gender. Perhaps the didgeridoo in this case is functioning as a false front, standing in for other truly sacred and restricted according to Aboriginal ceremonial life that it can not be named in public. In this way, the spiritualising of the didgeridoo not only panders to the commercial New Age niche, but also serves as a means of warning non-Aboriginal people to be wary of inquiring too closely into sacred matters.


Written by Linda Barwick
The Didgeridoo, From Arnhem Land to Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeldt Back to Index

In the news this week is a story about a book ready to be published by HarperCollins with a chapter on how to play the didgeridoo. It’s an activity book for girls. That sounds cool, unless you’re name is Mark Rose, an Australian academic, and you are bent on perpetuating the myth that girls or women should not play the instrument. Furthermore, Rose got himself so worked up while being interviewed by a reporter that he reversed the outcome of the more familiar hex. The old myth was simple: if an aboriginal woman touched or played a didgeridoo she’d become pregnant. Rose advises that a woman would become infertile. That’s a new one. And not just aboriginal women, but all women everywhere that dare to defy the taboo.

Of course none of this is true, and there are myriad articles and statements by aboriginal men and women of high degree to the contrary (not to mention the millions of women that have touched and played didgeridoos for eons that have not become pregnant or infertile). I am disappointed that an educated adult man and a newspaper reporter consider such voodoo newsworthy in the 21st century.

That said, many legends begin with some hint at truth. Within traditional ceremony the didgeridoo is only played by men. The sound is used to accompany song and dance, and that’s where the context of “men’s business” regarding the instrument begins and ends.

The myth in question was created and spread by (mostly) self-professed “cultural authorities” living in south eastern Australia, far from Arnhem Land where the instrument has its roots and, more importantly, its lawkeepers. What began as misinformation evolved into a “curse” which fed the Western ideals of noble savages and their magic.

Pushing all the contention aside, one only needs to visit Buku Larrngay Mulka, an aboriginal art center in the heart of didgeridoo country. Many of the finest didgeridoos (called yidaki up there) are decorated by Yolngu women. I’ve been to Arnhem Land and I’ve put the question of this taboo to aboriginal didgeridoo masters like David Blanasi and Djalu Gurruwiwi, both lawmen of high degree. According to these absolute authorities there is no law forbidding women to play the didgeridoo. The crafting, painting, and distribution of didgeridoos is a gift from the oldest living culture on the planet for everyone to enjoy, regardless of gender.


Barry, Mark, Pablo, Jorge, and Dingo of L.A Outback Didgeridoos

LETTING girls play the didgeridoo is like letting people play with razor blades, say indigenous commentators.

And a book that teaches girls to play the ceremonial instruments should be pulped because there are cultural taboos on women playing the male instrument, they say.

Academic and Aboriginal education advocate Dr Mark Rose said it was an “extreme faux pas” on the part of the publishers of the Australian edition of the Daring Book for Girls, set to be published in October.

The book is a revised version of the US edition by Andrea J Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. The local edition replaces almost half the original content with uniquely Australian material such as The Rules of Netball and How to Surf.

But the chapter How to Play a Didgeridoo reflected “extreme cultural insensitivity and mammoth ignorance”, said Dr Rose, a member of the western Victorian Gundjitamara Nation.

The chapter says: “Playing a Didgeridoo appears deceptively simple, until you’ve got a `didge’ on your lips and no sound comes out. But a few easy instructions and you’ll be playing like a seasoned pro”.

Dr Rose, who is the general manager of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association (VAEA), said the inclusion of the chapter showed how “out of sync” the general community was with indigenous issues.

He said there were specific cultural protocols around the instrument, including a ban on females touching or playing it.

“Each nation has its own cultural protocols around it but it’s a male instrument,” he said.

Dr Rose said indigenous people believed there were consequences for women who played a didgeridoo, including infertility.

“I wouldn’t let my daughter touch one,” he said.

“I reckon it’s the equivalent of encouraging someone to play with razor blades. I would say pulp it.”

Indigenous author and chair of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Dr Anita Heiss said the ASA had guidelines on writing about indigenous issues.

“I haven’t seen the book, but that sort of stuff, had it been written by an indigenous person or had they actually spoken to an indigenous person … clearly that chapter wouldn’t have been in there,” she said.

“It’s cultural ignorance and it’s a slap in the face to indigenous people and to indigenous writers who are actually writing in the field.”

Ms Heiss said she wouldn’t “even pick up a didgeridoo”.

Shona Martyn, the publishing director of HarperCollins Australia, said she was unaware of any taboos on women playing the didgeridoo.

She said she apologised if the publisher had “inadvertently offended anyone” but believed it had acted responsibly.

She said there was probably a “divergence of views” among Aboriginal people. and there were no plans to pulp the book.

“We would only ever pulp a book if it was a very genuine reason, and I’m not convinced that we’ve offended all Australian Aborigines,” she said.

She said her own daughter had been encouraged to play the instrument by local indigenous people during trip to Uluru, as had African-American singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman during visits here.

By Judy Skatssoon
September 02, 2008 05:12pm