Earth pigments and recycled print toner on Stringybark hollow pole
Yiḏaki are didjeridus that are specific to North East Arnhem land in Australia’s Northern Territory, where the instrument originates. The term yiḏaki is used in Yolŋu (the nation of North East Arnhem land Aboriginal people) languages as the generic name for the didjeridu. The name yiḏaki is most correctly used for instruments from this region that have been solely made and decorated by Yolŋu people.
Yiḏaki were originally limited to the Northern extremes of Australia, in particular Arnhem land. In relatively recent years, yiḏaki spread to other parts of Australia and the rest of the world. Yiḏaki began to be manufactured in different ways and with different types of materials. It became commonly known as the didjeridu, a non-Aboriginal term for the instrument. Through it’s International popularisation as the didjeridu, it has been somewhat displaced from it’s spiritual and cultural roots that are still held by the Yolŋu in Arnhem land today. The Yolŋu are masters of making and playing the yiḏaki and are well known Internationally for their quality instruments and complex yiḏaki playing styles.
Yolŋu artists carefully select naturally occurring termite hollowed tree stems, which are cut and shaped into suitable sounding instruments. They are made with certain desired acoustics that can vary dramatically between different clans, from high pitch to very low. Typical yiḏaki have small natural wooden mouthpieces around 30mm in diameter and taper out to a diameter of around 100mm at the distal end. Having a small mouthpiece means they require less air to play and produce sound easily as a result.
The vast majority of yiḏaki are made from Gadayka (Stringybark – Eucalyptus Tetrodonta). Gadayka is by far the most common tree in the North East Arnhem land region and often grows in a conical shape, which is desired for acoustic reasons. Occasionally, Guŋurru ( Woolybutt – Eucalyptus Miniata) is used.
In appearance yiḏaki seem to be a simple instrument, however the playing styles of the Yolŋu are complex and require many years of practice. Yiḏaki are played by vibrating the lips which produces a basic tone. This tone is maintained continually using cyclic breathing and is varied through use of the playing pressure, the tension in the cheeks, the use of the diaphragm, the tongue position and the use of the voice.
Traditionally, yiḏaki are painted with naturally occurring red, white, black and yellow earth pigments. In recent years acrylic paints began to be used. Both the artwork and the sound and overall style of the yiḏaki denote cultural history and law.
The diamond design on this yiḏaki refers to the following story.
In ancestral times, the leaders of Yirritja moiety clans used fire for the first time during a ceremony at Ŋalarrwuy in Gumatj country. This came about as fire brought to the Madarrpa clan country by Bäru the ancestral crocodile, spread north and swept through the ceremonial ground. From this ceremonial ground the fire spread further to other sites. Various ancestral animals were affected and reacted in different ways. These animals became sacred totems of the Gumatj people and the areas associated with these events became important sites.
The fire spread inland from the ceremonial ground and burnt the nest of Waṉkurra (Bandicoot) forcing him to hide in a hollow log ḻarrakitj to save himself. Waṉkurra is thus danced and sung at mortuary ceremony as he is associated with the burial log used to contain the bones of the deceased.
Djirikitj, the quail (sometimes called the ‘fire making bird’), picked up a burning twig from this fire and flew away with it, dropping it at Maṯamaṯa. There is a large paperbark swamp at Maṯamaṯa, where native honey bees live. Fire from the burning twig dropped by Djirikitj took hold of the tall grass in the swamp area and the native bees fled to Djiliwirri in Gupapuyŋu clan country. Thus Gupapuyŋu honey and Gumatj fire are linked through these ancestral events and also refer to a relationship between these two clans which is played out in ceremony.
The honey eating Pee-Wee Biṯiwiṯi built its nest high up in the trees safe from the fire; its song was to be heard after the morning of the fire. The indestructible spider Garr came out after the fire had passed and spun its web between the trees which is said to catch the souls of the Yirritja dead. Garrtjambal the kangaroo was as frightened as Waṉkurra and ran away from the fire burning his feet in the hot ash as he did so. Waṉkurra traveled through the hollow log with its tail on fire transferring the Gumatj identity to new places.
The harbinger of death is Ŋerrk, the sulphur crested white cockatoo who is intimately associated with this place, these people and this ceremony. Another powerful Gumatj bird is Djilawurr whose sites are often associated with freshwater rain-forest adjacent to the harbours of Macassans.
Gamata, a sea grass is a manifestation of fire on the sea bed, the ribbons of grass sway like flames. Dugong feed on this sea grass.
These creatures are all associated with named sites which were burnt as the ancestral fire spread across the land. Where the sites described occur outside Gumatj clan country, the path of the fire represents important relationships held between these clans.
The Gumatj clan design associated with these events, the patterned diamonds, represents fire; the red flames, the white smoke and ash, the black charcoal and the yellow dust. Also the black skin, yellow fat, white bone and red blood of Gumatj people. Clans owning connected parts of this sequence of ancestral events share variations of this diamond design.