The dark and arousing sounds of electronic music - its spiky, bassy, rough sounds seem as if they are emanating through thick heavy velvet. They have always represented a great source of animal energy for me. You can almost touch the electronic music and its sound of collapsing membranes from loudspeakers and the moaning circuits of amplifiers. While listening to the music of Icelandic diva Björk, I was always taken aback by the virtual explosions of its geysers in my head. Very often I could hear hints of breaking thick ice sheets and snow crunching under my feet in digital freezing wilderness. Since that time I always wanted a bass synthesizer, and that time finally came.
Instead of encountering a snowstorm and northern lights over Iceland, I was instead welcomed by an impenetrable veil of tropical air. A massive hair dryer - Sydney. The Sixth of December. I am leaving the airport air conditioning right behind me and I fight to draw each single breath. In my pockets, traditional little chocolate sweets of St. Nicolas begin to melt - and my dream bass synthesizer is here with me too. Actually it’s an Australian icon - a music instrument - the didjeridoo. This one just came with my luggage. It came from another direction than is usual for this sort of item and immigration officers couldn't hide their surprise. Didjeridoos, which go through customs are usually leaving Australia for good, never to return. They are always painted with snakes, lizards in the so-called dot painting style. Originally a eucalyptus tree trunk hollowed out by a swarm of termites in the bush. This music instrument is played by vibrating lips pressed onto the wax mouthpiece at the narrow end. Everything’s appears good thus far, however my yellow didjeridoo is decorated with at least dozen little dinosaurs. Customs officers are little perplexed now and are turning my didjeridoo in disbelieve to a source of light to scan hollow parts of this peculiar item thoroughly with their own eyes. There might be more to the story of the didjeridoo than just as an Australian souvenir.I hope there is one - there better be. And that’s why I am here now - Australia.
How does the didjeridoo fit together with modern sound experiments? When I play it, I always feel a bit like Jimi Hendrix, who just plugged his electric guitar into an overdriven tube amplifier for the first time. It’s strong. He often used screaming feedbacking sounds as building blocks for his impressive solos. He always played and messed around with the texture of an actual sound. The didjeridoo - or simply "didj" - invites the player to do the same thing. That’s the way one of Jimi’s interviews might have gone with Rolling Stone magazine in the summer of love in ’68 - if he picked up a didj instead of an electric guitar, of course. A Rolling Stone journalist, questioning him: “Jimi, so please tell us more about this exotic instrument. Have you ever been experienced, or enlightened lately? Where do those groovy sounds come from?”. Hendrix: “Well you know man, it’s just a hollow stick. Call it a tube, a trumpet or whatever you like dude. It just happened to be here all the time. It’s part of all the creation stories, and it started with termites blown into a fire. Those burnt little bodies of termites which went up into the sky. They actually created our own universe. Those termites are in fact the stars we see today. Those stories are a bit strange, but that’s the way people like to hear it.
I almost forgot to mention the mystery of the endless 'circular breath'. Yeah, and I am sure you know that this stick came from Australia, 'the land of Oz', originally. Well, if I have to put it straight, forgetting about all those kindergarten stories - it’s just a kick-ass bass synthesizer in fact. There are no gadgets inside it - it’s an endless world of sounds, controlled just by your breath and voice. And it’s very handy, maybe something like your personal bass synthesizer with no need for an electric plug - unless you are doing a sound check at Woodstock bro’! You can manufacture it yourself as well, it’s a simple musical instrument, and I can never get enough of tha complexity of sound coming from this single hollowed out tube, man!”
It’s been exactly four years now, when I left Australia and came back to Europe through the islands of Indonesia. I’m just preparing a fire in an old wooden house at a former wood harvesting village known as 'Dobra' in Southern Bohemia inside the Sumava Mountains. Our eight months old boy Oki is crawling over a blanket and while I am trying to strike the match, I find myself with a little piece of newspaper in my hand with a bold title stating “ZOO New Bird Arrivals”. There’s a picture of white cockatoo. In the Yolngu language from North Australian Arnhem Land it’s spelled as “lurrpo”. And so is my name as well. I got it from the Burrawanga family. One hot afternoon we were searching for eucalyptus trees nearby the township of Nhulunbuy. I never completely understood why it happened this way - why I was given this name. Before my trip to Arnhem Land I was haunted from the very first day in Sydney by the possibility that I would never learn anything new about the didjeridoo, other than from souvenir shops scattered all over the city. And for the first six months in Australia, that was in fact true. About the existence of Arnhem Land, the homeland of didjeridoo, I learned quite quickly. The only trouble was, that I found it so inaccessible and expensive, so much so that the whole trip across the globe suddenly appeared as a foolish juggernaut. It felt so unfair compared for example to the player of Spanish flamenco guitar, who’s musical instrument vocation affords him great holidays in Spain. A trip to meet true flamenco masters takes roughly two hours on a plane from Bohemia. This fortunate guitar player can be sure of endless evenings spent in swirls of captivating music along with gypsy beauties and temperamental Spanish dancers. The didjeridoo with its ever present mythology and mystery, a symbol of cultural fight for Aboriginal recognition, wasn’t that easy to approach. Not to mention the learning process. Europeans view this music instrument as something other than just a musical instrument. And it was evident, that the only key to its real meaning was hidden somewhere in Australia. I couldn’t believe in all those New Age stories, which were too elaborate and well designed for our European likings and Western imagination. I was aware of the saying “curiosity killed the cat”, but I had to get a glimpse of the real thing to understand this incredible musical instrument - at whatever cost.
The idea of writing about the Australian trip evolved within for quite a long time. Sometimes it felt that I became a witness to some kind of fairytale story, which was beyond coincidence. Nevertheless I am still not yet sure, whether it will be a travel book, novel, or strange diary entries... But most likely it will be a novel. The main character passes through so many changes and doesn’t want to let his secret go. However there is a catch! - the main character is not a person. Instead it’s the hollow trunk of a tree and maybe even a musical instrument after all superstitions! There are endless “acting” possibilities for objects which happen to be in a new cultural environment. Arjun Appaduray, in his book The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, deals exactly with this issue: “As I have already suggested, the commodity context, as a social matter, may bring together actors from quite different cultural systems who share only the most minimal understandings (from a conceptual point of view) about the objects in question and agree only about the terms of trade.” Immediately after reading this quotation I could perfectly imagine an ethno-shop in 19th century Prague making a business order to Australia (there were colonial shops back than selling coffee, chocolates, spices but ethno-shops in its true exotic sense started flourishing very recently, back in the 90’s). Business back then still had the flavor of travel, exotic lands and respect between business partners, the actual written order might have been written in the following way: “Dear partner in far away Australia, send us urgently sixty kilograms of Australian mystique in the form of your greatly demanded hollow eucalyptus tree trunks. With best regards and wishing you all the best of luck in your dangerous hunt for salt water crocodiles, yours sincerely Mr. Frantisek Vetvicka - department of foreign trade with exotic and colonial countries”.
Randy Graves, with whom I am about to meet - six long months after my initial arrival to Australia - is already very clearly explaining in Arnhem Land the situation concerning the authentic form of the didjeridoo, where "the yidaki" (as it is known) - from North East Arnhem Land - can be found today. He published a Masters thesis on this topic at Yirrkala Arts centre, and is the only body of work explaining the authentic circumstances surrounding this musical instrument in his homeland to date: “Travel anywhere in Australia, tourists are likely to be there and chances are good you will see didjeridoos in gift shops and in performances on the street. While a few decades ago it was an oddity in its own country, now it has been adopted as part of the national identity, by black and white alike. Its sound is used in television commercials throughout the world to invoke the spirit of Australia, whether it is for Australian beers or cars with Australia inspired names.” And this is a surprising statement from Djambawa Marawili, Madarrpa clan leader, also presented in Randy’s text which is hard to believe nowadays:" from 1972 to 1973, I was one of the team of the Cultural Foundation and I used to travel a lot. Every time I went past Katherine, past Northern Territory, I never saw the yidaki before, with Aboriginal People. I could see people using just the boomerang. For us, we had a didjeridoo, and it was completely different. Nowadays, the yidaki, is all over the Kimberly, right across South Australia, and right up to Western Australia, Northern Territory, all are using the yidaki.“
Back in Prague I am walking through thick milky fog over a bridge crossing Vltava river from Andel. On my shoulder a long bass didjeridoo hangs. The bridge appears to disappear in the middle of the milky wall with only the visible lights of a floating "botel" on the river to my right. It’s almost a mysterious experience. Lost in space. Lost in time. It’s time to let my consciousness drift freely without any obstacles. The bridge lanterns intermittently send beams of light down on me as I pass by. Those quick flashes are coming from huge light domes created by diffuse light around the lantern top. Those beams approach as suddenly as my memories and stories from the Australian trip. The same beams which will hopefully reveal the whole surface of a disco ball full of small scattered mirrors, in the end. The story of one musical instrument starts to come together as little light reflections create the whole impression - a shamanic disco.
My surf board rocks on the surf and I can see small, almost invisible waves coming from beyond the horizon. Those little waves change quickly into breath taking monsters as they reach the large nearby cliff. Lennox Head - a few kilometers away from the gorgeous Byron Bay, the most eastern place in Australia almost bordering New South Wales and Queensland - is just a small town with a beautiful town beach and a steep cliff overlooking the bay. I have fast-forwarded again, and so I should perhaps talk more about what happened during those first three months in Sydney. However this little anecdote offers an opportunity to explain something about Aboriginal past and their homeland experience. It perhaps connects well with the didjeridoo story, as well. The waves in Lennox Head are massive - however thanks to their gentle slope, even with such big mountains of water behind your back, it is still hard to catch them. Those waves are just beautiful as they roll in, set after set, from the Pacific Ocean. Some few hundred meters away from the main beach those little waves traveling from remotes parts of the Southern hemisphere turn into mighty tubes. Hollow waves peeling precisely off the base of the steep cliff just at the southern end of the bay. The rocky ocean floor quickly lifts them and from time to time a dolphin can be seen jumping through the face of a racing wave. After the conclusion of my surf session on the main beach (incidently with a broken rib - as I later discovered) I am admiring the view from the cliff top. It’s an amazing view with light dancing through vast clouds, painting surreal patterns upon the ocean’s surface, short lived landscapes. The Pacific Ocean. Th exploding foam of collapsing tubes and few local surfers who have positioned themselves perfectly in the sweet spot of the blue room. They live the ecstasy of today’s afternoon deep inside hollow waves. Back in town, while a lady is filling me with a veggie burger in a local bistro, I innocently ask a question about the town's origin. The story is simple: “There was a company hundred years ago that came here, harvested all the trees and shot the local people who were living here back then. The rest, they herded together and threw them into the sea.” As she pointed to the high rising cliff where I just spent one ecstatic afternoon of my life I realized not only the ocean contains rip tides and dark currents.
The Aboriginal tribes on the east coast of Australia lost most of the culture and their homelands. Many of them don’t even exist today and the rest of them live in Australian suburbs these days. However some of them seek their lost identity and what they find are only broken fragments - if any. Those tiny pieces sometimes come from regions that were never connected with their former lands. This same lost authenticity and identity is sought after by certain tourists, seekers of long forgotten spirituality and backpackers in need for contact with nature and the authentic. They almost inevitably ask this question with the purchase of didjeridoo: “Where has the authentic gone?”. Brown, in his paper, 'Can Culture Be Copyrighted', explores this situation in greater depth: “Souls lost in the forest of copies adopt a desperate search for the original that leads them almost inevitably to indigenous people, who in our time have become icons of primordial integrity, of meaning - uninflected by imitation. In seeking the authenticity of native religions, however, they succeed only in fashioning another flawed simulacrum. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that indigenous leaders want to tighten their grip on the originals.”
Cowboys exist only in advertisements. The same is true for Aboriginals, who are instantly “present” in every didjeridoo sold. Simulacrum. That’s the theme of Baudrillard. His books are almost incomprehensible enigmas of French postmodern philosophy, but what he means by simulacrum is clear. It’s a cowboy in an American advertisement. It’s a didjeridoo in a tourist shop in the center of Sydney. Baudrillard might have never played didjeridoo, but simulacrum he knows precisely: “But nothing separates one pole from the other, the initial from the terminal: there is just a sort of contraction into each other, a fantastic telescoping, a collapsing of the two traditional poles into one another: an IMPLOSION - an absorption of the radiating mode of determination, with its positive and negative electricity - an implosion of meaning. This is where simulation begins. Everywhere, in whatever political, biological, psychological, media domain, where the distinction between poles can no longer be maintained, one enters into simulation, and hence into absolute manipulation - not passivity, but non-distinction of active and passive.”
Roughly an hour later after the plane took off from Darwin to Nhulunbuy, disappearing clouds start to reveal meanders and tributaries of remote rivers. Yes, this is the ancient Arnhem Land full of mythology itself. The hundreds of kilometers of shorelines, full of salt water crocodiles, box jelly fish, untouched mangroves and eucalyptus trees. This flight is used only by technicians who work at open cast alumina mines and by Yolngu people who from time to time venture into Darwin. a short chat with a traveling technician servicing remote camera systems in Nhumunbuy is suddenly interrupted by an unexpected aerial view of one of the sedimentation mining pools. The vivid red color is contrasting with the steel blue surface of the Arafura Sea. By now it’s evident that we are about to land in Nhulunbuy and I am readying myself for landing in the last Australian frontier, where ancient culture meets the modern.
'The Martian Cronicles' by Ray Bradbury had a big impact on me long time ago. But it’s at this very moment that I realize how true this book is in relation to describing the Arnhem Land status quo. And the similarities are not only in the color of the soil: ‘I felt the strangeness, the road, the light, and for a moment I felt as I were the last man alive on this world... It has to do with Time. Yes. You are the figment of the Past!’ ‘No you are from the Past,’ said the Earthman having had time to think of it. ‘You are so certain. How can you prove who is from the Past, who from Future?’“. Suddenly I feel like in that mountain pass, where Martian accidentally meets Earthman, both locked in a strange time-less moment during one night on Mars. Two mindspaces existing on the same land, who is real one and who is simply the other's imagination?
The new sound detonations of an amplified yidaki reached the listeners’ ears. It is a uncompromising and electrifying sound. So far away from our learnt and accepted sound of didjeridoo! Nothing like monotonous bubbling sounds, but instead very fast and clear rhythms. The instrument, which is played by Milkaynu Munnungurr himself is tuned into high A key and its high pitched humming sound gives the impression of listening to an electric guitar. After a while, sounds which are typical only in Arnhem Land music start to fill in - short hoots, a bit like trumpet overblows, can be heard roughly an octave higher than the basic drone. They give the music even more speed and rhythm. Suddenly comes silence. Milkay talks to an old singer who starts to give new tempo with his rhythm sticks called bilma and introduces a new song. The yidaki works here more as a bass guitar than a solo instrument on its own. The most important are the bilma, which creates the backbone of the composition. The yidaki joins in only for short parts, whilst the singing continues. Each part of a song is fragment of a story being told. It has been like that for aeons. Without interruption. Something happened a few decades ago and this tradition changed into an almost forgotten jewel, harder to find again each and every year. And the much sought after yidaki is about to be found - to our surprise - more often than ever, at increasing numbers of burial ceremonies through out all of Arnhem Land. Now only the bilma rhythm can be heard along with an almost oriental sounding singing voice. A high pitched male voice sings in Yolngu Matha language another part of the story. Meanwhile the dancers are getting ready. Out of the blue there are a dozen dancers in the middle of the sandy platform where the dance exhibition is taking place. Young men with dark red bandanas tied to their elbows and knees. They dance to the music in a very peculiar fashion, not far away from strange house music dance recipes, or electric boogie. They move their hands in an almost robotic-like fashion and place themselves into various defensive or fighting positions, imitating Indonesian Maccassan people. They press the sand hard under their feet and it flies off in huge geysers to their waists. Red bandanas on their hands animate the hard blowing wind. The whole view is very moving and it resembles a scene from Star Wars - an exotic desert tribe holds a corroboree just before invasion into another planetary system. The last moves of the dancers are perfectly synchronized with the final spree of the yidaki’s high pitched hoots. With the last sound everybody is standing still for a brief moment, before they run back to join their group. Some young boys are still struggling in the sand. They tried to freeze as the older dancers did in the last moment as well, but didn’t recognize the impending end of the song.