Saturday, May 6, 2017

Yidaki: The Sound of Australia

Yidaki, at the South Australian Museum
I have been promoting the Yidaki exhibition currently taking place at the South Australian Museum for several weeks. Now that I have finally found time to edit together footage I recorded at the exhibition, it is time to say more about the show.

Yidaki (pronounced, Yid-ar-ki), is the traditional Australian Aboriginal name for what most of the world knows as the didjeridu—that seemingly impossible to play wind instrument made from the trunks of the Stringybark tree, hollowed out by very obliging termites.

The exhibition, Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia, can hardly be called large. You could walk through the various exhibits in around ten minutes, but if that is all you were to do, you would miss all the most important parts of the show. The exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to explore this iconic instrument through sound, story, moving image and through close examination of rarely seen examples of the instruments on display throughout the exhibition space. While the didjeridu now appears in music venues and concert stages around the world (often played by non-Aboriginal practitioners), it is important to note its origins and its place in Aboriginal culture.

Although the didjeridu, as an instrument, has also spread throughout Australian Aboriginal communities, it is important to know that traditionally the instrument was originally confined to tribes and clans that inhabited the far northern coastlines of Australia, today referred to as the Top End. More specifically, this exhibition focuses on the place the didjeridu has in Yolngu (pron,Yoll-nu) culture, where the instrument is called the yidaki.

Djalu Gurruwiwi, Yolngu people, Galpu clan. Yidaki virtuoso with yidaki. Image: SA Museum.

For the Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land, yidaki are not just musical instruments, they are social instruments, instruments of healing, and of spiritual life. The exhibition has been created in collaboration with Yolngu people, particularly with the world’s foremost authority on yidaki - Djalu Gurruwiwi, who with his family introduce visitors to the instrument, and to its power and meaning in Yolngu life.
Djalu is a senior member of the Galpu clan, from the Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land. Amongst the Yolngu, and around the globe, he is a universally recognised authority and the musical and spiritual traditions of yidaki. A quietly spoken but passionate man … Djalu has spent his life trying to share a profound and reconciliatory worldview that starts and ends with his instrument. This exhibition is an expression of his life’s work to use yidaki in bridging the gaps of understanding between people.
Here is my short video montage:

The heart of the exhibition is contained in the many audio-visual exhibits that are placed throughout the room. I said, above, that you could walk through the exhibition space in under ten minutes, but that would be a waste of your time, effort and money. If you were to sit and watch every piece of video footage, and stand still and focus your attention on the many sounds of the Yidaki that fill the room with an ever changing soundscape, you can easily spend and hour or more learning about this remarkable instrument. The whole point of the exhibition is to give you a glimpse into Yolngu culture, from the Yolngu point of view. As the exhibition guide states: 
“Yidaki without sound are just sticks of wood. So this is not an exhibition about objects, but about what yidaki do, how they speak, and what story they tell. This is a Yolngu story, being told for you in Yolngu ways. There are no labels so you need to stop and listen every now and then. It will be good for you. Yolngu experts and custodians (through sound and screen) will guide you through the exhibition space—inviting you to explore the stringybark forest, voyage with the West Wind and become immersed in the mesmerising power of yidaki sound.”
One of the musicians that features prominently in the yidaki exhibition is William Barton. In the video below he can be seen performing a virtuoso composition of his own which showcases the incredible variety of sounds that a skilled yidaki player can produce on what is essentially a hollowed out tree limb. Note: William Barton’s performance does not begin until just after the 2:30 mark.

If You Go
Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia
At the South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide
Now through until July 16, 2017
Hours: 10am - 5pm daily 

Adults: $17; Concession: $12; Child (aged 5-15): $5;
Children under 5 - FREE; Family (2 adults + 3 children) $35

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