Yidaki is the Aboriginal word for didgeridoo in eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia, among the Yolngu Matha-speaking people who call themselves Yolngu.
It is a generic word and there are many other names in the same area for didgeridoo, some referring to specific types of didgeridoo usually of a sacred even secret nature.
Yidaki has been in wide usage among didgeridoo players worldwide since the emergence of the Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, who hail from eastern Arnhem Land and which became one of Australia's most famous cultural exports.
These days, the word yidaki is applied to didgeridoos that are made by Yolngu people in eastern Arnhem Land and there are distinct differences, acoustically ,structurally and with playing techniques that sets it apart from standard didgeridoos.
Some Yolngu are currently using the synonym mandapul to refer to the instrument, out of respect for the passing of a Manggalili-clan man in early 2011 whose name sounds similar to yidaki.
Typically, yidaki have a flared shape meaning that the mouthpiece end of the instrument is slimmer than the bell end. The bore in the neck region is narrow compared to generic didgeridoos, with the bore gradually widening towards the bell. This provides the necessary compression in the air column which in turn aides backpressure and ease of play. Acoustic balance is also achieved with this sort of shape configuration giving bassy depth, higher frequency harmonics, and a nice spread of frequencies in between.
All yidaki share certain attributes generally and these can be best described as acoustic in nature. They are prized for their unique dark, textured acoustics- sometimes called a dirty or raspy sound. The interval between the fundamental drone and overtone note is usually a little bit over an octave; for instance, a yidaki that plays in the fundamental note of E would have, ideally, an overtone of E, F or F#. A yidaki with a fundamental note of F would have an overtone note in the key of F, F# or G.
As the didgeridoo continues to find fans across all continents - some say it is the sound of Mother Earth - new ways of playing the instrument have developed. In this way, it is useful to distinguish between yidaki and didgeridoo, and traditional and contemporary styles of play. Using the word yidaki also honours the instrument's origins and the cultural practices of Yolngu people where it continues to be made and used in an unbroken, continuous musical tradition that some say is the oldest in the world.
Today, the yidaki is enjoyed worldwide by music lovers and didgeridoo players. To play the yidaki in a traditional style is possibly one of the hardest playing styles to master .
So prized are yidaki among aficionados that many modern didgeridoo craftsmen in Australia and overseas have modelled their work to yidaki specifications such as shape and bore dimensions. Today, most non-Yolngu makers of fine didgeridoos produce instruments which share some but not all characteristics inherent in yidaki.
Yolngu play yidaki quite differently to how standard didgeridoos are played .Their traditional style is often called hard-tongue technique which involves rapid almost staccato-like effects using the tongue and diaphragm to create fast percussive beats.
This traditional style of play is generally agreed among didgeridoo players to be the most difficult style to master.
The use of animal calls or vocals is rare with the emphasis being on complex rhythms. Most yidakis are played with the lips in the middle of mouthpiece as opposed to modern didgeridoos where the majority of players use a slightly off centre lips technique.
A yidaki may be left undecorated or painted with various designs, patterns or symbols that the artist has a cultural birthright to. Simple designs may be blocs of colour in bands, or handprints, yet they are imbued with meaning. More complicated designs may include animal, plant and other figurative motifs, and sacred geometric or abstract patterns. These all have meaning too, usually not revealed to the public in its entirety.
Yolngu also sometimes use a dotting technique to paint but this should not be confused with Aboriginal art from Central Australia and the Western Desert regions.
Painting a yidaki can be painstaking work for the artist, the mark of a great artist is sometimes judged by the fineness of his or her cross-hatched lines or rarrk. These fine lines are painted with a hair or reed brush and requires a steady hand. Ground-up earth pigments called ochres are commonly used in eastern Arnhem Land by artists.
Unlike modern didgeridoos, Yolngu do not seal their yidaki even those made for sale. The reason for this is simple.- Yolngu do not need to. Traditionally as well as today, a yidaki is used in eastern Arnhem Land until it begins to deteriorate and crack, and then another is made.
Many players also consider the gritty raspy sound of the instrument is compromised by adding to many internal sealants.
This can make a yidaki vulnerable and due to their high value it may sometimes be necessary to use some form of treatment to ensure the longevity of the instrument. To preserve your yidaki, its bore can be sealed lighly with a wood glue water combination and/or the instrument can be maintained with occasional oiling - natural plant-based oils such as tung oil and olive oil have been used effectively by owners of yidaki worldwide. This will give the instrument a degree of protection without affecting the natural sound to much.
The dark-coloured wax on the mouthpiece of some yidaki is the wax from the native Australian Trigona stingless bee, this wax is commonly called "sugarbag beeswax". The colour may vary from brown to black depending on the species of Trigona bee and the quality of the wax and can be quite difficult to find. Modern didgeridoos typically have a yellow-coloured beeswax which comes from the hives of the common European honeybee.
Some yidaki have no wax whatsoever on the mouthpiece for the reason that none is needed. For Yolngu craftsmen and musicians, an ideal mouthpiece opening is anywhere from 28-33 mm. If an instrument has these dimensions then one can play the didgeridoo with a natural mouthpiece if so desired.
If the opening is bigger than this, a rim of sugarbag beeswax may be used to reduce its diameter. If it is smaller than this, the craftman or player may open it wider with a pocket knife or any edged tool. If the natural mouthpiece opening is already of an ideal size, it is left alone and no further work is done to it.
You may of course add beeswax to your yidaki if you prefer the comfort of beeswax and the cushioning effect it gives the lips but it is not essential
The didgeridoo is commonly known as mago in Western Arnhem Land. Mago are typically shorter than and acoustically different to the yidaki of north-east Arnhem Land. In terms of sound characteristics, mago are somewhat richer and more full-bodied than yidaki. Also, the overtone note is not a feature of Western Arnhem Land playing and most mago do not play this note easily.
The greatest proponent of the mago was a Western Arnhem Land didgeridoo player by the name of David Blanasi. Blanasi travelled the world displaying his virtuoso style and won accolades for his skill and charm. He also performed with Rolf Harris in the UK and this had a large effect on popularising the didgeridoo among non-Indigenous audiences.
A yidaki should be treated and handled with care. Upon purchasing a yidaki, it should not be over-played but gradually broken in. Sealing both the outside to protect the artwork (if not already done so) and ligtly sealing or oiling the bore to maintain the integrity of the instrument may necessary to ensure the instrument lasts a lifetime.
Ochre decoration is more fragile than acrylic artwork and can be protected with a matt sealant so that the ochres do not deteriorate over time. However, some didgeridoo players prefer the look of an instrument that has been handled and that has a little bit of fading of the artwork.
See the section under care and maintenance for more information about yidaki and yidaki care instructions.
Our traditional instruments (yidakis and magos) come from IDIDJ Australia. IDIDJ is Australia’s didgeridoo cultural hub for traditional instruments from Arnhem Land.
Guan Lim of IDIDJ is Australia's foremost expert on traditional Arnhmeland instruments and essentially runs IDIDj as an anthropological and philanthropically group that documents and records all aspects of traditional didgeridoos. He did his doctoral research in Arnhem Land and has an 18 year relationship with didgeridoo-making families and communities in Arnhem Land.
He currently sources all our traditional instruments. These are meticulously hand picked for their artistic and sound qualities, field collected and properly documented with cultural integrity a priority. Many of these instruments have been used in traditional ceremony or represent truly collectable pieces from some of best know traditional craftsmen.
Spirit Gallery is proud to be the exclusive retail outlet in Australia for IDIDJ traditional Arnhem Land instruments.
You can find further information about IDIDJ at www.ididj.com.au