Thursday, May 27, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`If The Earth Had A Voice' -- Didgeridoo's Mesmerizing Drone Has Become A Folklife Fixture

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Playing the Australian didgeridoo is similar to whistling; you know: Put your lips together and blow.

But with the didgeridoo, the lips must vibrate, making the act something akin to buzzing a Bronx cheer through a 4-foot-long tube. This deceptively simple vibration unleashes the low, mesmerizing drone of the didgeridoo. (Also spelled didjeridu; the Aboriginal name is Yidaki.)

Aboriginal tradition equates the low-pitched, rythmic resonance of the thousands-of-years-old instrument with the sound of the Earth itself. Or so it says on the Web site of the Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre in Australia's Northern Territory: "If the Earth had a voice it would be the sound of the didgeridoo."

Flash to Seattle: Memorial Day Weekend 1999, Northwest Folklife Festival. You'll see the long, hollow tube of the trumpet-like didgeridoo. But likely there will be nary an Australian Aborigine in sight.

The barking sounds emitting from didgeridoos could just as easily be imitations of Ballard Locks sea lions as of Australian dingoes. You'll likley see more didgeridoos made out of 1 1/2-inch black ABS pipe than of the termite-hollowed eucalyptus limb traditionally used in Australia.

These are Pacific Northwest players who are creating their own didgeridoo sound. They nod to the Australian Aboriginal tradition while gleaning their own sounds from the Northwest. The black plastic pipe didgeridoo, which some players jokingly refer to as "indigenous to North America," is a common sight at Folklife, partly because of workshops where people learn how to play. Incorporate local sounds

"The technique that would be the most Aboriginal would be to look around us and incorporate the sounds here," said Brian Pertl, during a recent guest-lecturer stint at a University of Washington music course on didgeridoos. In 1995, Pertl's impressive command of the didgeridoo helped him land a job at Microsoft, where he manages five other ethnomusicologists choosing images and audio for software.

Folklife gets partial credit for boosting the Northwest to its claim to one of the highest concentrations of didgeridoo instruments and players outside of Australia, Pertl said. And indirectly, credit also goes to the communitywide interest in different cultures and lifestyle.

Pertl, who will teach Folklife's didgeridoo workshop Sunday afternoon and play on the Monday didgeridoo panel, is another reason why interest thrives in the Northwest. And so is Stuart Dempster. Now a UW professor emeritus, Dempster began teaching trombone in the School of Music in 1968. In 1974, after returning from a Fulbright fellowship in Australia, Dempster was the first in the nation to teach a credit course in didgeridoo technique.

He retired last year but returned to teach the UW School of Music didgeridoo course this spring. Dempster is in the process of dismantling his office, which Pertl says has been a wellspring of Northwest didgeridoo technique.

Dempster and Pertl make playing the instrument look easy; students will tell you it takes a lot of air. They must master a technique called circular breathing. Air is trapped in the cheeks to play the instrument while the nose continues to breathe air into the lungs to refill the cheeks. Students vocalize the word "didgeridoo" while they blow, a step toward buzzing and barking - or buzzing and crowing, depending on the indigenous sounds - simultaneously.

"A good didgeridoo player can do just about any animal sound," Pertl said.

In 1994, Pertl formed the "Didgeri Dudes" with Jamie Cunningham to spread the Northwest sound.

In the Northwest style, imitations of indigenous sounds supplement the traditional Australian dingo and kookaburra. Song titles on the Didgeri Dudes' self-titled recording reflect the Northwest: "Gray Whale Migration," "Seattle Crow," "Dying Salmon." (The Dudes are on hiatus; Cunningham is teaching ethnomusicology at North Texas State University through the summer. John's Music Center, 206-548-0916, sells the Dudes recording and Pertl's instructional tape, "Echoes From the Dreamtime.")

"What we were doing wasn't traditional," said Pertl. "Traditionally, you would only have one didgeridoo playing at one time with a vocalist. We were combining traditional techniques with our backgrounds to create music which is completely different (from that) in Australia."

There's something compelling about that rythmic drone, something intriguing about creating such a bold sound with vibrating lips. Pertl and Dempster didn't realize how compelling until their 1993 premiere Folklife panel appearance - at 10 a.m. on a Sunday.

"We figured who in the world is going to get up at that hour?" Pertl recalled. "We got there and there was a line around the building. From there it just took off."

As a Washington State Commission for the Humanities scholar, Pertl toured the state from 1992 to 1994 lecturing on didgeridoos. He spoke 20 to 30 times a year with 50 to 100 people attending each lecture: "I was always amazed at the interest."

A trip to Australia introduced Pertl to the sound of a didgeridoo. As a graduate in trombone from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc., Pertl won a fellowship in 1986 to study the Australian didgeridoo and Tibetan chanting. After spending several months immersed in each culture, he returned to earn an ethnomusicology master's degree at Wesleyan College in Connecticut.

In 1990, Pertl came to Seattle to pursue a doctorate in Tibetan music. He also began studying with Dempster: The call of the didgeridoo won.

Microsoft first hired Pertl to record 30-second sound samples of a didgeridoo and a Tibetan trumpet for its "Musical Instruments" CD-ROM. A few months later he recorded instruments for what is currently called "Encarta World Atlas," which led to a full-time job.

The spread of the didgeridoo beyond traditional Aboriginal use - and into the hands of women - has drawn mixed reactions. Dempster said Americans learning didgeridoo technique is not unlike Japanese scholars studying Beethoven. In a global sense, "They borrow our stuff; we borrow theirs."

The Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre Web site says female players are limited but not banned. As ethnomusicologist Linda Barwick explains, while women do not play in public ceremonies, they may play informally, although stricter restrictions exist in Southeast Australia.

The band Yothu Yindi, a Northern Australian rock and traditional Aboriginal fusion band, has both aboriginal (Yolngu) and non-Aboriginal (Balanda) members.

Pertl has heard the gamut of responses. He says he respects the culture by not attempting to replicate it: "I've been playing for a long, long time but what I do is not Aboriginal culture."

Mystical qualities have been associated with the didgeridoo, including a belief that the vibrations can heal. But Pertl says he's just in it for the music. Pertl said he's been told he plays so well he must be channeling an Aboriginal spirit. " `No,' I said, `I just practice a lot.' "

--------------------------------------- Folklife didgeridoo panel and workshop: ---------------------------------------

1-1:30 p.m. Sunday: Didjital Universe didgeridoo workshop at Mercer Forum, Seattle Center.

2:30-3:20 p.m. Monday: Seventh Annual Didgeridoo Panel at Children's Museum Performance Studio.

Australian didgeridoo Web sites: and

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company


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