I was so excited to see Xavier Rudd play the Pine Mountain Amphitheater in Flagstaff this past August. I'd been looking forward to the show for months. For those of you who don't know, Xavier is an Australian one-man-band well known as a didgeridoo virtuoso.
The didgeridoo (also known as a "didjeridu" or "didge") is a wind instrument developed by Aborigines of northern Australia at least 1,500 years ago. Traditionally, the didge is made from a tree branch or trunk hollowed by termites. They can also be made from other materials ranging from virtually any type of wood, or plant stalk, to PVC. Didgeridoos are no longer limited to use in Australia, in fact you can find didgeridoos virtually anywhere you can buy instruments, being played at Rainbow gatherings, on street corners, on german television being played by Nicole Kidman, and on stages across the globe...
At the show, Xavier was surrounded by a stand propping 3 didgeridoos in front of him on stage. The impressive percussion collection to either side of him included cymbals, djembes, bells, and more. He's mastered various styles of guitar including Weissenborn lap-slide guitar, sings and plays his original compositions, and manages to fuse it all together into beautiful melodies. I was in awe of his finely honed talent. Ever since a friend left a copy of his first album, To Let, on my doorstep for my birthday several years ago, I've considered him one of the most inspiring musicians I've ever heard.
In 2001, a different friend taught me how to make and play didgeridoos out of PVC. We spent hours practicing together while I tried to imitate the drones and screeches she coaxed out of the didge. Over time my didge collection has steadily grown larger. I've made several from PVC, and even carved a few out of Agave stalks- a yucca native to the southwest. My point is, I heart didgeridoos. So you can see why I was doubly excited to see Xavier take the stage.
When I had a chance to meet him after the show, I was struck by how down-to-earth he seemed. He was humble and soft-spoken. During our brief encounter, it came up that I played didge. That's when things got weird. He became very serious and cautioned me to "Be careful with that." I didn't know what he meant. I asked. He mentioned that didges were traditionally played by men, not women....
I told him that I've heard that before. And I have, I just disregarded it. It's not the first time that an Australian has told me that traditionally the aborignal men played the didge. I thought they were merely informing me of a silly, outdated tradition from a time long, long ago, when such arcane rules and taboos ruled the earth.
Photo caption - an aboriginal woman playing a didgeridoo, taken in 1968.
A time when oppression, segregation, slavery, female circumcision, and other cultural atrocities were considered acceptable. Not now. It never occurred to me that anyone was suggesting that women still shouldn't play the didgeridoo. Not in these modern times...
I mean, we have traditions in the U.S. too. Traditionally, we burned witches. Traditionally, women weren't allowed to vote, work outside the home, or manage their own finances. Bah-tradition.
So when Xavier said it, I found myself at a loss for words. After all, this is Xavier Rudd. He seems so freakin' progressive. He sings about respecting mother earth, indigenous rights, legalizing ganja....he doesn't seem to be bound by any "traditional" constraints. His didgeridoos are miked and amplified...he plays at venues where people pay money to watch him play instruments that traditionally were used in cultural ceremonies long before people exchanged money. And he was accompanied on stage by a rhythm section from South Africa. He has to be down with things like equality for people of all races, creeds, and genders... right?
Our conversation went on long enough for him to give me a cryptic warning that playing the didge could affect my reproductive system. He cautioned me to "Read up on it."
So I did. I found out that ya, traditionally aboriginal men play didgeridoos. Linda Barwick, an ethnomusicologist, says that traditionally women have not played the didgeridoo in ceremony, but in informal situations there is no rule preventing them from playing. Other than the fact that it is considered a kind of faux-pas.
Back in the day, women were told that they would become barren if they even touched a didge. That seems like a good deterrent in a time and place when women's main value was in their reproductive ability. I'm pretty certain that women are now considered actual people with inherent worth and the freedom to participate equally in modern society. At least in my world.
In my search for information I came across an article about Nicole Kidman after she played the didge live on camera in Germany. The article starts "Nicole Kidman could be left unable to have more children after playing a didgeridoo." Whoa. The myth is being perpetuated. "Richard Green, an award-winning actor, screenwriter and Dharug language teacher, said he was disgusted. 'People are going to see Nicole playing it and think it's all right. It bastardises [sic] our culture. I will guarantee she has no more children. It's not meant to be played by women as it will make them barren.' Mr. Green said he feared other women would imitate Kidman without realising [sic] its dangers. "
I'm sorry but I think this whole barren thing is a bunch of blarney. I mean, if it were that easy to prevent pregnancy, girls would just be blowin in sticks all the time instead of spending their cash on birth control.
AND if everyone who was told that they couldn't do something because of their gender/race/creed/color/sexual orientation/status/class or any other descriptor I may have left out actually listened to the people trying to stop them, I wouldn't even have the right to vote. So I'm not about to listen to the oppressors.
The debate about the use of didgeridoo by women rages on. For me its simply a question of what we should value more: a cultural norm versus equal rights.... And for me that's a no-brainer. When a norm is an antiquated, oppressive rule robbing women (or anyone) of equal rights, shouldn't it be completely disregarded?
Tristin Chanel of the ska band Five Star Affair playing the didge in Calgary, Alberta circa 2007.