Playing the didgeridoo

Hippies do it, musicians do it and Aborigines have been doing it for 40,000 years now. Wondering how on earth it’s possible to produce sound by blowing into a long hollow tube, this month, Enjoy the Algarve tries playing the didgeridoo in Penina.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine March 2017

The second José João Cabrita Guerreiro (50) starts playing his didgeridoo, Gustave the Dog comes running back from exploring the village of Penina. I’m baffled – normally the only sound worthy of such an immediate reaction is the opening of the fridge door.  José, however, isn’t surprised at all. “The didgeridoo produces a very primal sound, like a voice from the earth,” he explains the dog’s reaction. Logical, as it’s probably the world’s oldest musical instrument. Originally from Yirkala in Arnhem Land (Northern Australia), the didgeridoo is a wind instrument that was first used by the Aborigines, the indigenous Australians who’ve been playing it for the last 40,000 years.

The Portuguese José came across it in Belgium in 1996, when two members of his world music band were playing it. Captivated by the distinctive sound, he became a self-taught didgeridoo player and when moving back to the Algarve in 2001, he got in touch with the only other didgeridoo players in Portugal. Together, they formed the Associação Portuguesa de Didgeridoo (APD). At APD’s annual festival (see picture below by Rui Fereira) -which is held this year from 30 August to 3 September at the Sítio das Fontes in Estômbar- you’ll find workshops and concerts, promoting not only on the didgeridoo, but also the Australian Aboriginal culture in Portugal.

 

Traditionally, didgeridoos were made by termites hollowing out the trunk of a eucalyptus tree – a process that takes between 10 and 15 years. Apart from cutting the trunk at the right length and decorating the outside, humans aren’t involved in the creation. Nowadays, the instruments are also made out of other wood, fibreglass and carbon. José, who’s an instrument maker as well as a musician, uses the flower of the agave that’s growing in the Algarve to create didgeridoos. “Make sure the agave is dead before you start, cut the flower stalk at the desired length and hollow it out.” He owns about a dozen didgeridoos; ranging from a traditional one made of eucalyptus wood to one he created from cardboard. Yes, like empty loo rolls cardboard. There’s even a travel-sized one in the shape of a box. They each produce their own tone, which depends on the length as well as the material. Jose: “The inside of a didgeridoo that’s hollowed out by termites is like a cave, causing the sounds to bounce on the walls before exiting; it produces a charming sound.”

Creating any sound at all by blowing into a long hollow tube looks pretty hard. Especially if you’re musically challenged, like I am. (In high school music classes, when everybody played the flute apart from talented kids who performed on their violin or harp, me and two others got degraded to the xylophone. After two lessons, I was given stickers to put on the different bars so I’d hit the right notes. Three months later I was finally allowed to swap music for drawing). Luckily, although sheet music for didgeridoos does exist, José doesn’t make me try and read complicated notes. Instead, he encourages me to blow raspberries. “Go back to when you were a child,” he enthuses.

 

This advice doesn’t only apply to the playful animal sounds we make, but also to the breathing, which is essential in playing the digeridoo and should come from your belly. Not from somewhere high up your chest like so many people breathe nowadays. The didgeridoo should be held loosely; this isn’t an instrument for stressed perfectionists.  I follow José’s instructions, put my lips inside the mouthpiece, try to form an air-tight seal and blow air out, letting my lips vibrate raspberry style. The result is surprising. There’s actually a sound coming out, which is more than I expected. It’s easier when blowing raspberries from the side of your mouth, and although it doesn’t go well every attempt, (read: 78% of the time I sound like a seal with a cold), when it happens, the sound and vibrations resonate through your body.

The Rocha da Pena mountain in the background makes for a scenery that fits perfectly to the deep calming tones – it’s like having our own Algarvian Uluru here. “When my Australian friend came to visit he said it looked just like the outback,” comments José, for whom the Aborigine culture is as important as making music. He explains about the Dreamtime, what the Aborigines consider the start of the world, when creator-beings followed routes across the land. These paths describe the location of waterholes and other landmarks, and are recorded in traditional stories, dance, music and paintings that act like maps, like the dot-painting that can be found on one of José’s didgeridoos. With this knowledge in mind, the didgeridoo seems made to be played in the wilderness even more. However, according to José the best sounds are obtained when playing it in the bathroom because of the amplified acoustics. Still, the location doesn’t matter as much as the musician: “The person is the music box, the didgeridoo only amplifies the sound,” he states.

 

As my music box seems to be stuck at only a single tone, we try bringing some rhythm into it, blowing in three different bursts. My spit accidentally lands in his almost €900 costing didgeridoo, but José doesn’t seem to mind and counts out loud to set the pace, his hands and feet already moving in the rhythm he just thought out, his voice adding some kookaburra sounds to the mix beat-box style. Soon, my lips start to tingle, my jaw hurts from using muscles I don’t normally use and I feel lightheaded. I’m well out of breath – the circular breathing technique, which allows didgeridoo players to play for hours as they blow and breathe at the same time, is still a long way off. It’s usually learned after two to three lessons and involves tasks like blowing bubbles into a glass of water non-stop for 5 minutes. Turns out that also for musically challenged people, didgeridoo is great fun.

Jose goes a step further, saying it’s not only fun, but very beneficial as well. “For me, playing the didgeridoo is like a form of therapy. After playing for just 10 minutes, it feels like I’ve meditated. It keeps you in balance, works against fears, and also against snoring.” Sounds like something worth continuing at home. José, who frequently plays at meditation retreats, adds the importance of an upright body posture when playing (something I’ve completely forgotten during our lesson) and delivers a final tip: practise. Ideally every single day for about 10 minutes. And thus he gives me a didgeridoo made of PVC to take home. Although I’ll never get to the level of José and his wife Manoli, who play anything from samba to rock & roll with their concerts and orchestras all over the country, at least I’ve got a very efficient dog flute.

When to go?

Whenever you want, but lessons are only possible by previous appointment. Call José on (00351) 960 347 577 to schedule one in. Didgeridoo lessons are normally taught in Penina, but they can also be given on another Algarve location as long if there’s a minimum of 5 persons.
Want to know more about didgeridoo? The didgeridoo festival is held from 30 August to 3 September 2017 at the Sítio das Fontes in Estômbar. All info can be found on the website of the Associação Portuguesa de Didgeridoo (APD).
Picture by Rui Fereira

 

For whom?

World music lovers. Anyone who wants to play an original instrument while learning about the Aborigine culture will love it.
There’s no need to have any musical experience (or talent). Children from age 6 and upwards can learn to play the didgeridoo as well.
José speaks English, French, Dutch and Portuguese.

 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine March 2017

Posted in This month we try.