Didgeridoo is his voice: how Djalu Gurruwiwi embodies the sound of a continent

Posted on Mar 16 2017 - 7:24am by dianejmoss
Didgeridoo is his voice: how Djalu Gurruwiwi embodies the sound of a continent

The Indigenous elder revered by some as Australias Dalai Lama is the spiritual keeper of the didgeridoo. A new exhibition honours his legacy and the immense significance of the Yolngu instrument that is helping to heal a divided country

The old man with straggly hair, long wispy grey beard and wraparound sunglasses sits at the back of the grandstand overlooking the verdant expanse of Alberton Oval the traditional base, if no longer the home ground, of the historic Port Adelaide Football Club.

He is Djalu Gurruwiwi: a Yolngu elder and lawman from north-east Arnhem Land, a songster, healer, virtuoso and master craftsman of the yidaki (didgeridoo), as well as the instruments spiritual keeper. From up here he surveys his Australian Rules team, smiles and nods in approval as his players go through their pre-season paces, calling for the ball and kicking and marking, on this humid morning.

In other Aboriginal nations and among non-Indigenous people, the instrument is known as the didgeridoo or didjeridu variants of the same word that probably has its etymology in English spoken by a European Australian. Yidaki is the Yolngu word and Djalu, the keeper of the instrument in north-east Arnhem Land, is widely regarded across Indigenous Australia as its custodian more broadly.

Djalu, who is aged somewhere in his 80s (Im 86 going on 96), usually rocks a Hawaiian shirt, or something similarly bright and elaborately patterned. But today hes wearing a Port Power hoody that signals a mutual adoption between him and the team.

Djalu likes their brand of footy all right. But his attraction to Port stems more simply from the lightning bolt on the team crest.

Its the lightning. The team is lightning and lightning is us, Djalu says enigmatically, as is his way.

His reference to baywara Yolngu for the power of lightning is itself an allusion to the atmospheric energy and wind enshrined in the yidaki, an instrument with its genesis in tens of thousands of years of north-east Arnhem Land history. In the hands of Djalu, and more recently his sons Larry and Vernon, the yidaki both tells and is the story of their land.

It summons the ancestral spirits and the stories of creationist animals that fashioned the earth, the sea and the sky and all the creatures, human and otherwise, stretching back some 60,000 years. It holds the histories of the clans, not the least the Galpu (Djalu) and Yunipingu (of his wife, Dhopiya) which remain central to thriving Yolngu culture.

And today they have come to Alberton to present yidaki to nine Indigenous Port Adelaide players and several club officials a testimony to Djalus determination, in his lifes twilight, to build bridges with other Aboriginal and Balanda (white, western) worlds.

Yolngu
Djalu Gurruwiwi (right) with his son Larry, who will eventually assume responsibility for taking the yidaki (didgeridoo) to the world. Photograph: Alex Robertson/South Australian Museum

Djalu is well known to audiences in the United States, Britain, continental Europe and Taiwan, where he has played to sold-out auditoriums. People from all over come to his modest house at Wallaby Beach, near the Northern Territory mining town of Nhulunbuy, to sit at his feet and sample his familys hospitality, always in the hope of being touched with his wisdom and insight.

If I shut my eyes I can see inside you, what you feel, he says.

Yet he is scarcely known in broader Australia. Which is why the South Australian Museum is now staging an exhibition, Yidaki Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia, in his honour.

The exhibition, which runs until 16 July, honours the immense cultural significance of the yidaki, the instrument of the Yolngu that has been adopted by First Peoples across Australia. Together with the clapsticks and the Indigenous voice in traditional song, its a haunting, distinctive, meditative sound that has not only come to characterise Australias Indigenous people but perhaps the continent itself.

The exhibition is testimony to Djalus skill as an ambassador between Yolngu, other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the western Balanda.

Stephen Goldsmith, an elder of the Kaurna custodians of the Adelaide plains, says: For Aboriginal people, not just Yolngu, Djalu is our diplomat, our ambassador. We all talk about the Dalai Lama; his role is to embrace all people, to lead with generosity, to enrich our shared understanding of ourselves and each other. Djalu is like that he is a spiritual leader. Yidaki is his voice.

Goldsmith says that as a boy and a young man the sound of the yidaki awoke in him a yearning that bordered on an inadequacy for his inability to play an instrument that was not, traditionally, part of Kaurna culture. He started on a vacuum cleaner pipe, then on bamboo and graduated to the real deal.

It [learning to play yidaki] was a key to finding myself becoming a bit stronger as an Aboriginal man, he says.

Djalu
Im 86 going on 96, says Djalu Gurruwiwi. Photograph: Alex Robertson/South Australian Museum

While Dhopiya paints the names of Ports nine Indigenous players more than any other AFL club on the yidakis to be gifted to the club, another Kaurna man, Karl Winda Telfer, arrives at Alberton with an old, old instrument covered in cloth.

He gingerly unwraps the yidaki and gives it to Djalu. The old man runs his hands over its smooth exterior, and pats it, as if it were human. Its the yidaki that Djalus brother, who died a few years back, left in Kaurna country with Telfer, who he taught to play.

Telfer explains: Ive just been looking after this yidaki. Now Im giving it back, so that it will go back home where it came from, to north-east Arnhem Land, you know … old man [Djalus brother] teaches me. He gave me permission to play. It shows an ongoing connection between us and the Yolngu … It closes the circle. Im happy now. Im relieved.

Due to their relative isolation, the Yolngu were among the last Indigenous people of the continent to be harmed by invasion and colonisation as the pastoral and mining frontier spread north and west. But they were always outward-looking, establishing commercial and familial ties with the Macassan trepang fishermen of Sulawesi long before first British contact.

After first contact, in the early 20th century, the Yolngu were feared as warriors who fiercely protected their ancestral lands from invaders not least the Japanese who came in, uninvited, to take the trepang after the Macassan traders were effectively outlawed by government. Djalus father, the warrior Monyu, first fought the Japanese fishermen (some of whom were also covertly mapping the northern Australian coast), and he later joined the Northern Territory special reconnaissance unit during the Pacific war.

The story of the Japanese before and after the war when Djalu met in peace with fishermen and pearlers from Japan are all in the Yolngu songlines that cross the rich, red earth of Arnhem Land and go out into the sea, beyond the island, Milingimbi, where Djalu was born and another, Raragala, now deserted, where he grew up.

Djalu
If I shut my eyes I can see inside you, what you feel. Photograph: Alex Robertson/South Australian Museum

As he ages Djalu becomes more difficult to understand, due in part to an old facial injury and, perhaps, a spell cast by an enemy due to his one-time role as a tribal enforcer (the stories about Djalu seem as endless as the songlines). Sorting the real from the mythical or imagined is not easy for Balanda.

Which is why it has taken years for the young London-based Australian film-maker, Ben Strunin, to make a biopic of Djalu. Titled Westwind (that which Djalus yidaki harnesses) and backed by Film Victoria, Screen Territory and Screen Australia, the movie is due for release later this year.

Strunin, who has toured Europe with Djalu, says the old man deserves all the recognition of our most celebrated music stars his work is helping to heal the divide in this country and beyond. He transforms people wherever he goes. Its a blessing to be in his presence.

Yidaki: exhibition honouring Djalu Gurruwiwi and the didgeridoo opens in Adelaide. Source: Peter Drew

Three thousand people jammed into the South Australian Museum forecourt on North Terrace to watch Djalu and the Barra Band featuring sons Larry and Vernon play. Djalu was unwell before the performance. Larry placed the yidaki against his head and chest, and sounded it. (Its party of a healing ceremony Djalu has shared with countless Balanda, including myself, over the years.)

Djalu performed. But he was later briefly hospitalised.

He is becoming frail; his sons and his grandson, Kevin will eventually assume his legacy and assume responsibility, themselves, for taking the yidaki to the world.

Yidaki its been my whole life, Djalu says. A good life.

Yidaki Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia is open at South Australian Museum until 16 July

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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