Subscribe

Core group keeps didgeridoos humming in Sonoma County

The sound of the didgeridoo has been described as the instrumental manifestation of the mystical mantra, “Om,” a powerful resonance that grabs hold of you, passes through you but doesn’t let go.

The unique aboriginal Australian instrument captured the attention of musicians in the early to mid-1990s as part of their fascination with world music. Its mainstream popularity peaked sometime after the beginning of the millennium, then fell victim to the stratospheric popularity of the ukulele.

Thanks to a hardy core of local musicians, the ancient wind instrument is making somewhat of a comeback in the North Coast. They continue to share their fascination with it through their music, teachings and bastard inventions.

New class

In a rectangular room at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa, where sounds bounce mercilessly off the walls of brick, wood and glass, Zackary Miller puts his lips together and does a prodigious raspberry, one that would shame a toddler.

It sounds a little like any raspberry you’ve ever heard, but powerful. If you were standing close, you would almost certainly catch a light spray.

Then put a long hollow piece of wood at the source, and with a little practice you’re generating a sound that is both primitive and modern - a hypnotic tone that can share as easily with synthesizers, electronic drums and effects-laden guitars as it can with ethnic drums.

Miller instructs the half dozen students in his didge class through a round of raspberries. Later he turns to what he calls the “quiet and loud.”

“Everybody do the quiet and loud with me,” he says. A deep, resonant droning sound follows, like a room full of chanting Buddhist monks or a Sonoma County yoga class, for that matter.

BBbbbuuuaoo.

BBbbbuuuuaaaauuu.

BBBBBBuuuu.

BBBBBBbbBBBBa.

“The goal in circular breathing is ultimately to keep a continuous note,” Miller says. “So, when you’re exhaling and blowing the note - BBbbuuaaAA - you ultimately want to catch air in your mouth and use that air to keep the note going. Push it out with your tongue and your cheeks, and while you’re doing that, you inhale.”

Miller, a manager at the downtown Santa Rosa music store Bananas at Large, said he recently launched his didgeridoo class as a way to “encourage community around the instrument.” The free class for beginning and intermediate players meets every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Arlene Francis Center.

“A few years ago, there was a bit more momentum in that community,” said Miller, who started playing the didge about 20 years ago. The North Coast has a handful of really good players, he said, and many more who can be classified as beginner or intermediate.

Rio Olesky, the well-known west county astrologer, is among the area’s best.

Olesky, who lives in Forestville, also started playing the instrument in the mid-1990s and still plays it as a form of musical meditation.

Music has always been a part of hi s life, he said. He played guitar and drums, but nothing resonated with him the way the didgeridoo did.

“This just grabbed me, won’t let me go,” he said. “It’s the sound of the Earth, it’s the ‘Om’ sound. So there’s the drone of the instrument, the Om sound. With that you can play with rhythms forever.”

1,500-2,000 years old

The didgeridoo, or yidaki as it is know to the aborigines of Northern Australia, is one of the oldest musical instruments. Some claim it has been around for 40,000 years and is as old as aboriginal culture itself.

However, geological dating of rock art depicting aboriginal people using the instrument puts the age closer to 1,500 to 2,000 years.

Miller’s personal didgeridoo is the real thing, made in Australia of eucalyptus wood. It’s sound is as earthy as the process involved in making it.

Traditionally, a host of termites hollow out a young eucalyptus tree. The hollowed tree trunk is checked for the right timbre and then cut down. The cut tree will often will re-shoot and grow again.

“They wait for the one that has the right sound,” Olesky said of aboriginal people.

The thickness of the hollowed out trees ranges from a quarter to half an inch, he said, producing instruments that come in different heights and a variety of musical keys, with the most popular being e or d.

Some are straight and some flare out like a horn at the end. To create a better seal, a rim of wax is placed on the side of the instrument where the musician blows into it.

Didgeridoos also can be made PVC piping, glass, agave shoots, bamboo and other materials.

Olesky has a collection of 17 at his home in Forestville. He says there is something primal and essential about playing them.

The aborigines have a concept called “dream-time,” he said, a non-ordinary state of reality that can be accessed when you sleep, dream or are involved in the creative process.

Playing the didgeridoo taps into it.

“The whole body is vibrating; it’s very healing,” said Olesky. “I feel like I’m in the music or I am the music. It’s almost like the music is playing me.”

In the early 1990s, he traveled to Tucson, Ariz., where a friend lived and had been making didgeridoos for a while. He got connected with a didge community that was evolving in the area, as well as in the Bay Area.

That’s when he met a guy named Stephen Kent, an East Bay musician and KPFA radio show host considered one of the best nonaboriginal players in the world.

Originally, the instrument was reserved for ceremonial and ritual purposes, but over the years, rhythmic patterns have evolved.

“Now it’s more for entertainment rather than ceremony,” Olesky said. “They’ve taken it beyond the ritual.”

Percussive qualities

Santa Rosa musician and inventor/tinkerer Andy Graham is among those taking the didgeridoo beyond the drone of ceremonial rhythms.

Graham, who is essentially a rock-style drummer, was drawn to the didgeridoo when he discovered it had percussive qualities.

“It can be a wind percussion,” he said. “It’s all with what you do with your mouth. You’re basically doing beatbox through it.

“All the sound is made in your body. All the didgeridoo is an amplifier.”

Graham, 47, got into the instrument after spending a year in Seattle, during which he attended a music festival called Trance Mission. Since then he has focused on using it to play nontraditional rhythms he describes as “active, crazy dancing kind of stuff.”

In line with the didge’s almost synthesizer-like quality, Graham has literally electrified the instrument. “As if (the didgeridoo is) not a weird enough instrument as it is,” he joked.

One of his inventions, the Dijbass, is a combination didgeridoo and electric bass, with a hollow body made of welded and machined 6061 anodized aluminum and internal baffles that “fold” the airflow back up to the hole toward the top of the instrument.

Another uses a solid brass didge body, three electric guitar strings, a bass guitar string and electric pickups.

He believes the didgeridoo’s popularity may wane, but it won’t fade out altogether.

“It has a timeless, ancient sound,” Graham says. “And at the same time, like a synthesizer, it blends in beautifully with electronic music.”

The Open Didgeridoo Clinic starts at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the Arlene Francis Center, 99 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. It is open to beginners and intermediate players. More information is available at facebook.com/theopendidgeridooclinic.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at (707) 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette