The didgeridoo is considered by many to be the oldest wind instrument in the world. And, lately it has been found to alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnea. In this article, we explore the history behind this ancient instrument and how recent research claims that playing the didgeridoo has health benefits.
We should start by saying that the didgeridoo has not always been known by the same name. In fact, within the different Native Australian cultures that initially produced the instrument it was known by no fewer than 45 different names. The Yolngu people are one such culture that still produces the instrument to this day. Inhabitants of NE Arnhem Land, the Yolngu people know the didgeridoo by the name of ‘yidaki’. The yidaki were made from a variety of eucalyptus woods including ‘stringybark’ and ‘woolybutt’. The yidaki maker would examine many trees to find one that was perfect to make a yidaki; it needed to be naturally hollowed inside by termites. To check if the eucalyptus was hollowed sufficiently, the yidaki maker would hit the bark with his hand or a tool to see if the wood was suitably hollowed. If not, the tree would be left for a later date.
Many Native Australian cultures used the didgeridoo during their religious ceremonies. The music from the didgeridoo was used to accompany singing and dancing during these rituals and, the instrument could only be played by men. The style of play was passed down from the generations and, this style is still difficult for the western player to replicate. Although women were not encouraged to play the didgeridoo they were able to do so in informal situations.
It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the term ‘didgeridoo’ came into widespread use. Its origins stem from Herbert Basedow who was an Australian anthropologist that spent much time living with various Native Australian peoples. He is believed to have named the instrument after the sound that is produced whilst the instrument is being played.
The Contemporary Didgeridoo:
It is only in recent times that the didgeridoo has become popular throughout the western world. As recently as the 1930’s the didgeridoo was known only in a small area of the Northern Territory in Australia. It was improvements in infrastructure, transport and trade links that usage of the didgeridoo started to spread across the world, becoming a major instrument in the west only within the last 30 years.
Many didgeridoos are still produced using the traditional methods used by the Native Australians centuries ago. However, with its widespread appeal there have come new ways to produce the instrument. Some of the materials used to craft the modern didgeridoo are teak, bamboo, hemp, cactus and plastic. In fact, didgeridoos can be found in almost any material! However, many indigenous Australians believe only the native craftsmen have the spirit to produce a genuine didgeridoo and, this spirit is transferred into the instruments they produce. All other didgeridoos are said to lack this native spirit.
In 2006, the British Medical Journal asked a group of sleep apnea suffers (snorers!) to play the didgeridoo for 25 minutes a day over a 4 month period. The results showed that the group experienced improved breathing during the night and that their snoring had decreased. These improvements were attributed to the strengthening of their airways.
From a traditional instrument used by a few native peoples, the didgeridoo has stood the test of time over thousands of years. It has now become a popular instrument throughout the world and this ancient instrument has recently been shown to provide a very modern cure to snoring!