Aboriginal music in context

I was looking for something else this afternoon and found an excellent review of an album by the band Rivertribe, where the reviewer gave some insight into the context of the didgeridoo and how it is often abused in world music. I thought I’d share it, as it got me thinking.

I cannot take on the task of reviewing this piece of music, before I lend you some background information about two specific things; the genre of “world music”, and secondly the didgeridoo and the Aboriginal culture. They are both two of the most heavily raped and watered-out things I know of, and being a person who holds both in great respect, I feel that I must put forth knowledge. There is a big problem within the genre of “world music”; respect for the sounds made. It is easy to slap music from one country on to something from another, assuming they hold a given pitch and conformity. Got some rumba for this drone-singing? Wanna have a little Mexican guitarro with that rap music? Do you prefer your digde with ambient drum loops or African clay-pot drums? The variations are endless, and often you can split the whole genre into two chunks; good music, and disrespectful music. And let me tell you; the difference between the two is very, very thin.

One can treat the sounds with respect. You can listen to its sounds, tracing their meaning through rhythm and natural counter-instruments. You can read about it, learn from a master, or ask so many questions you feel you know something about it.

  • Why and when is it played?
  • Who plays it?
  • Where does it come from?
  • What does it mean to play it?
  • Has it got a history?
  • Has it got some myth and stories attached?
  • Am I even allowed to play it, and at what times? 

Or you can totally ignore all of this, and create whatever you want to, ignoring that good music has to be respected and loved. There is a lot of this latter.

River Tribe is chock full of instruments from all over the world, blending them together in their own style and preference. They especially love and use the didgeridoo. But apart from being that “cool sounding thing”, what do you really know about the didgeridoo?

Ngarrriralkpwina, Yiraka, Yirtakki, Wuyimba, buyigi, artawirr, garnbak, djibolu, Kurmur, ngaribi, bambu, martba, paampu, Ilpirra. No, these are not strange made-up words created for the purpose of causing my spell-checker to go bonkers. They are all words for that Australian aboriginal instrument we all know better as the didgeridoo, named so by early settlers and explorers after the sound it made. It is probably the oldest instrument known to mankind, and hence surrounded with mystery and myth, like the myth that all Aboriginals play the didgeridoo. In fact, it has only been known by a few northern tribes to play the instrument, although the popularity also within the Aboriginal societies has spread it far and wide. The whole issue of the instruments international popularity had its renaissance after several excavations of native bamboo (Bambusa arnhemica: note the latter word, indicating its native growing land; Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory ) versions of it only some few decades ago, spawning the anthropologic and archaeological circles to carry the news to the world. Since then, it is probably the most widespread native instrument anywhere in the world, including the simpler and most basic of all instruments, the drum.

The didgeridoo was mostly used for three things; storytelling, ritual singing, and casting a spell, all with direct links to the Dreamtime.

Can you play or listen to the didgeridoo without thinking of the Dreamtime? Not bloody likely. And; what is the Dreamtime? A brief explanation from Paul Ah Chee Ngala, chief of the Aboriginal Art and Cultural Centre in Alice Springs / Uluru;

“According to Aboriginal belief, all life as it is today – Human, Animal, Bird and Fish is part of one vast unchanging network of relationships which can be traced to the great spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime.”

“The Dreamtime continues as the ‘Dreaming’ in the spiritual lives of aboriginal people today. The events of the ancient era of creation are enacted in ceremonies and danced in mime form. Song chant incessantly to the accompaniment of the didgeridoo or clap sticks relates the story of events of those early times and brings to the power of the dreaming to bear of life today.”

There is a fourth type of song; a travelling song, used when a tribe or specific person within is about to go walk-about. To me, this is what Potter’s House sound like and is all about. It is a song that talks about travels, longings and adventure. Maybe in a strange sense this song really appeals to my travelling self; my most loved ones resides in Australia, and all I want to do is to travel there, see them, meet them, and love them. I miss them terribly, and there lies the credo of this piece; through its long anticipating swirls of “almost there”, you almost get there through shifts in melody and harmony. All hope is not lost. You’re almost home, and back with those who you love. There is a form of happiness flowing through me, a longing happiness.


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