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Preserving unique Australian sound

By Julie Jackson for CNN

Renowned didgeridoo artist Djalu Gurruwiwi selects a suitable tree.




GOVE, Australia (CNN) -- "To find the right tree you have to go out bush and select from thousands of trees. There are not many -- you might find one or two a day and sometimes you are lucky and get more. You go and tap on the side of the tree and if it's hollow we can tell because we have an ear to pick up the sound."

Valerie Dhamarrandji describes the special excursion her tribe members have made for thousands of years to locate the termite-eroded wood they craft into what is considered to be one of Australia's most unique cultural offerings.

The didgeridoo (also spelt 'didjeridu') or yidaki, is a totem, a musical instrument and a symbol of identity for its traditional owners and custodians, the indigenous people of Northern Australia.

To create its unique rhythmic sound, a special playing technique called "circular breathing" is used, in which air is breathed in through the nose at the same time as air is being blown out of the mouth.

For the people of Northern Australia, the deep spiritual tradition of the didgeridoo is associated with the "Dreamtime" and the craft holds a special place -- one they fear is at risk of being lost in the modern marketplace.

Guan Lim heads an organization working to preserve and promote the traditional custom of the instrument in its new life as an Australian souvenir to many tourists worldwide.

"The yidaki is unique to the 'Top End' of Australia. There are lots of them on the market now, some of which are authentic in that they are made by an indigenous Australian but not authentic in terms of what a didgeridoo traditionally is and the region it comes from."

Guan said that his organization, iDIDJ Australia, has managed to set up a guild which can certify the authenticity of didgeridoos for the customer. But it is a long road.

"We are making headway, but in some ways we might be preaching to the converted. Only 1 percent of the audience out there are interested in learning more and appreciating it on a different level and 99 percent just buy them as tourist keepsakes."

Guan said that larger companies can mass produce didgeridoos at a fraction of the cost and have a distinct advantage over the indigenous tribes of Northern Australia who take much longer to make one didgeridoo.

He said that the skill involved in making an authentic instrument is worth a lot more than what tourists pay for the ones they can buy for reduced prices at the majority of stores.

Valerie Dhamarrandji explains that preserving the tradition and culture of the didgeridoo is something that also requires a lot of attention within the tribes and the responsibility is passed down through generations.

Dhamarrandji's cousin, renowned didgeridoo artist Djalu Gurruwiwi, is the current caretaker of the tradition.

"Every time he goes on tour he explains to the audience that it was given to him by his father and when he blows it there is power in it; it is part of his indigenous culture," she said.

Dhamarrandji said Gurruwiwi was given the duty of preserving the didgeridoo culture by his father and has been practising from a young age.

"When you are given that responsibility and authority you have to abide by it because your father wants you to do it and it has been an honor to him," she said.

She said the problem for Gurriwiwi now is finding someone to be his successor.

"He's trying to get his sons to do it but it is something he believes they have to be interested in."

To learn more about iDIDJ's mission to preserve the didgeridoo culture visit the Web siteexternal link.

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