The didgeridoo is a wind instrument developed by Indigenous Australians of northern Australia potentially within the last 1,500 years and still in widespread use today both in Australia and around the world. It is sometimes described as a natural wooden trumpet or “drone pipe”. Musicologists classify it as a brass aerophone.
There are no reliable sources stating the didgeridoo’s exact age. Archaeological studies of rock art in Northern Australia suggest that the people of the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory have been using the didgeridoo for less than 1,000 years, based on the dating of paintings on cave walls and shelters from this period. A clear rock painting in Ginga Wardelirrhmeng, on the northern edge of the Arnhem Land plateau, from the freshwater period (that had begun 1500 years ago) shows a didgeridoo player and two songmen participating in an Ubarr Ceremony.
A modern didgeridoo is usually cylindrical or conical, and can measure anywhere from 1 to 3 m (3 to 10 ft) long. Most are around 1.2 m (4 ft) long. Generally, the longer the instrument, the lower its pitch or key. However, flared instruments play a higher pitch than unflared instruments of the same length.
The didgeridoo is played with continuously vibrating lips to produce the drone while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing. This requires breathing in through the nose whilst simultaneously expelling stored air out of the mouth using the tongue and cheeks. By use of this technique, a skilled player can replenish the air in their lungs, and with practice can sustain a note for as long as desired. Recordings exist of modern didgeridoo players playing continuously for more than 40 minutes; Mark Atkins on Didgeridoo Concerto (1994) plays for over 50 minutes continuously.
Traditionally and originally, the didgeridoo was primarily played as an accompaniment to ceremonial dancing and singing. However, it was also common for didgeridoos to be played for solo or recreational purposes outside of ceremonial gatherings. For surviving Aboriginal groups of northern Australia, the didgeridoo is still an integral part of ceremonial life, as it accompanies singers and dancers in cultural ceremonies that continue. Today, the majority of didgeridoo playing is for recreational purposes in both Indigenous Australian communities and elsewhere around the world.
Traditionally, only men play the didgeridoo and sing during ceremonial occasions, although both men and women may dance. Female didgeridoo players do exist, but their playing takes place in an informal context and is not specifically encouraged by Aboriginal elders. While there is no prohibition in the area of the didgeridoo’s origin, such restrictions have been applied by other Indigenous communities. The didgeridoo was introduced to the Kimberleys almost a century ago but it is only in the last decade that Aboriginal men have shown adverse reactions to women playing the instrument and prohibitions are especially evident in the South East of Australia. The belief that women are prohibited from playing is widespread among non-Aboriginal people and is also common among Aboriginal communities in Southern Australia, where it is forbidden and considered “cultural theft” for non-Indigenous women, and especially performers of New Age music regardless of sex, to play or even touch a didgeridoo.