Pure Sound: Guy Lancaster on Discovering and Making Didgeridoos

Contributor Guy Lancaster talks music, meditation, land use, and anarchy in this beautiful piece about making and playing didgeridoos.

Didge--Cutting2Pure sound.

That is how I would describe the characteristic drone of the didgeridoo. Sound before it’s shaped into nice little notes, before it’s sculpted, conscripted, limited. Sound that does not fall willingly upon the standard musical scale. Talmudic legend holds that the light created by God inaugurating the first day of Creation was of a different quality than the light we now experience, divvied up between moon and sun and stars—that with the original light one could see all across the planet at a glance. I think that the sound of the didgeridoo stands analogous to that primordial light, as if that drone is the well from which all other sound springs. Bringing a didgeridoo to a jam session (and I have) is to find yourself on a slightly different plane from all the other players.

Playing a didgeridoo is, for me, very much a form of meditation—in large part, because it is necessary to master the art of circular breathing to make any real progress with the instrument. Circular breathing involves storing air in your cheeks and blowing that out, using only your facial muscles, while you simultaneously breathe in through your nose. This is not the most natural activity in the world and has to be practiced, but once you know how to do it, playing the instrument is more than just making noise. It becomes a constant interplay of breath in, breath out; of timing; of body joined to sound.

Of course, I can say that now, but it was a far different story when, at the Argenta Foodie Fest a few years ago, I bought my first didgeridoo from a local craftsman who goes under the trade name of Mr. Bamboo. The acquisition was somewhat accidental, the purchase originally intended for someone who, as it turned out, didn’t really want one, thus leaving me with a didgeridoo, of all things, on my hands. I never had any musical training growing up and eventually came to envy all those school band members who could at least belt out the semblance of a tune on some bit of curvy brass. And so, when in my mid-thirties, I ended up with one more didgeridoo than I ever expected to own in my life, I thought to myself, “I bet this can’t be that hard—it’s essentially just a bamboo pipe, after all.” This was going to be my instrument.


Cutting the bamboo.

I turned to that traditional store of knowledge, various YouTube videos, for guidance and rather quickly got down the basic lip motion, which is essentially like blowing a raspberry, but without the tongue stuck between the lips. There are, in fact, a variety of tones and effects that can only really be practiced if one can first get the circular breathing down and thus have more than just one lungful of air at one’s disposal. I found a video in which a guy recommended filling one’s mouth with water and squeezing it out, using only cheek muscles, as one inhaled through the nose. He made it look easy, and so I grabbed one of my water bottles and headed out to the back deck. Eventually, my wife came home and found me outside and opened the back door to ask, “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’b lerbing to play tha didgidoo,” I said after coughing up my latest attempt.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “It looks more like you’re waterboarding yourself.

Rather quickly, though, I got the hang of it, probably because the body learns with great rapidity when faced with the prospect of drowning. Once I had that down, I discovered a world of sound hidden in this simple, bamboo pipe—pitches that changed depending upon the slightest movement of the tongue, staccato drumbeats made my staggered breaths, the vocalization of notes. It’s like my uncle (and probably yours, too) always used to say: You’ve got to hold your mouth right.

As I played, though, I began to think a particularly interesting thought, perhaps summed up best in the words: Maybe it’s easier than I ever imagined.

Didge--Bamboo Grove

Bamboo stalks on the family land.

Allow me to explain. My wife has a book, Knitting for Anarchists, which, while it does cover how to make your standard black pullover, more importantly centers upon the idea that “we must regain our illiteracy.” The point of the book is that a few rules can allow one to make a variety of things, and you don’t need a whole slew of patterns—this book is absolutely pattern free. Another book we have, the self-contradictory How to Cook without a Book, follows that same line, emphasizing process rather than recipe. I wonder if one of the big obstacles we face is that fear of letting go of all the apparent advantages literacy (a term used widely) has provided for us—standardized products produced by specialists. Even cultural “products” come that way, from music to books. We have bred a worldview in which, because something is produced in a factory or studio, we imagine ourselves incapable of replicating that thing for our own purposes, or we imagine that to do so required specialized knowledge, and so we need those knitting books, those gardening books, etc. And those volumes that are designed to free us end up standardizing our thought processes once more, even if that wasn’t the intention in the first place.

Music, for me, had always been one of those specialist pursuits, one I imagined always beyond my ken once I was no longer able to register for band. But here I was, age thirty-five, discovering for the first time the joy of making music in a somewhat competent fashion, all by myself. It was a revelation, one which I took to the next level some months later when I decided to try making my own didgeridoos.

You see, my mother-in-law has a parcel of land down in Hot Springs, and long ago someone decided that it would be a grand idea to plant some bamboo down in a low-lying, rather damp area, and the bamboo must have agreed as to the worthiness of this idea, for it quickly spread itself out, inching ever closer to the house and, in general, just getting in the way. For some time now, Anna’s brothers and I have been cutting back this green mass, and it some point (I am pretty slow), it occurred to me that, perhaps, just perhaps, there might be something more worthwhile to do with this stuff than just slash and burn. After all, my didgeridoo was nothing more than a length of bamboo with all the diaphragms punched save for the top one, which had been fashioned with a smaller hole to serve as the mouthpiece. Surely I could use this as a model for making some of my own.


Instrument in progress.

I can, and I did. Basically, all it requires is a saw (to cut the bamboo), some piece of pipe or conduit or a something like a broom handle (to punch out the diaphragms), a small screwdriver and a hammer (to punch out the beginnings of the mouthpiece hole), and some sandpaper (to widen the mouthpiece and generally smooth everything down). By now, I’ve made dozens of these things. Some were good enough to give to friends as presents, while others ended up in the burn pile. I’ve experimented with length, width, and type—some didgeridoos I make from the lower end of the culm, with the mouthpiece where the base use to be, while others come from higher up on the plant. I’ve also experimented with various curing methods—earlier ones, I just let dry in a shed, and then I moved on to using a propane torch to turn that matte green into a glossy, golden hue, while most recently I have employed a homemade rocket stove for the job, using the wood smoke to give the bamboo a near-black finish.

The whole process of learning to play, and then learning to make, musical instruments of my own has done more than give me confidence in tackling other musical pursuits. In the episode “The Wheel of Fortune” of his 1978 television series Connections, science historian James Burke observes that, due to the rise of standardized parts and standardized systems of productions, our lives have become defined by a variety of products made by machines in the service of distant corporations. Empty your pockets, and the items that you see—money, lip balm, keys, flash drive, cigarette lighter—depend upon a mechanized system of production for their very existence. We assert our personality through the acquisitions of these items, in various concentrations, rather like gamers creating their avatars, except instead of putting points in intelligence or agility, we put them in clothing, cars, books, entertainment systems. Christmas and birthdays and other gift-giving exercises become educated guesses as to how others see themselves, what products they might want to complement their self-estimation.

But now I have a different vision, a vision of a world in which what we own comes from the land around us, a world in which our lives are replete with the careful cultivation of skills, a world in which this musical instrument that I make for you is yours alone, unlike any other in the whole universe.

Didge--finishedGuy Lancaster holds a Ph.D. in Heritage Studies from Arkansas State University and works as an editor in central Arkansas. He intends to learn the banjo next.