Didjeridoos and Trance States


1. Introduction to the Didjeridoo

    The didjeridoo may be the world's oldest musical instrument. According to the reckoning of the Australian aborigines who invented this instrument and remain the keepers of its lore, the first didjeridoos were made some 40,000 years ago. If this is true, then didjeridoos may have been the first instruments fashioned by human art, long before the first true drums were made by stretching skins over frames.

     The aborigines have always made them the same way, using eucalyptus branches hollowed out by termites, and adding a beeswax mouthpiece that can be shaped to the player's choice. One particularly beautiful legend has it that when the god Wurrawurra wished to create the universe, he first made a eucalyptus and some termites to eat it from within, then left the tree alone. When he came back, he broke off the biggest branch, put it to his lips and blew the long, low, rumbling tone of creation itself. The blast of sound was so mighty that out of the pipe flew millions of termites who whirled all over the sky to become the stars.

     The birth of the Sun and the Moon came later. They grew bright and very famous, but it was always the little lights that kept encoded the links between sound and creation. Why do didjeridoo players still gather when possible under a brilliant night sky? It's always been done that way.

2. The Didjeridoo, the Mammalian Brain and the Ritual Circle

     In addition to being "Creation's Tone", the didjeridoo's deep fundamental tone and overtones have long been known to have an entrancing effect, especially when several skilled players are grouped in the center of a ritual circle. This arrangement, with the didjeridoos in the center and listeners grouped in circles around them, is the usual pattern of aboriginal sound ceremonies that induce the trance state called the Dream Time, for those who seek visions and understandings. It has been documented many times that didjeridoo players and listeners who are enclosed in reverberant sound chambers, and thereby enveloped in didjeridoo sound, can go quickly from the beta brain waves of ordinary waking consciousness to the alpha states of daydream and meditation.

They can also enter the theta state of deep meditation and shamanic trance. But our main attention here will go not to the altered states of the neocortex, but to the "middle", mammalian brain.

As we'll see in the images shown below, the aborigines have always associated the shapes of the circle and the spiral with the shapes of their natural environment, the holistic visions that come in the mystical dreamtime, the embracing sound of the didjeridoo itself, and circle of community that protects and renews life. Like all inarticulate and unmetered sound, the didjeridoo's fundamental tones and overtones are expressions of the middle brain -- the so called "mammalian brain" or "limbic system" that is between the basic survival resource of the reptilian "old brain" and the intellectual faculty of the neocortex, where intuitive and intellectual faculties operate.

    While language is not formulated in the mammalian brain, the sounds that express emotion are. The primal sounds of rage and warning, nurturing and affection, grief and joy all come from the middle brain. This middle brain, which is stimulated by vocal toning, didjeridoos, crystal and metal singing bowls and other non-rhythmic sounds, can also be considered the "communal brain". The insights of sound healing master Don Campbell -- source also of the brain picture shown here -- are relevant:

    "In this midbrain area is a part of us that yearns for bonding, family and social belonging. . . . Mammalian behavior, originating in the midbrain, leads to nursing and caring for the young. Our natural urges to belong, whether to a family or a nation, stem from the old mammalian brain, the midbrain.

    "When we chant or hum for long periods, we can stimulate this limbic area to reduce stress and give us a sense of well-bring. Toning creates a deep sense of being bonded within ourselves. We can reach a state of contentment in a safe and fully aware state of mind.

    "We use this area of the brain to consciously communicate with our basic natural rhythms. It is the gatekeeper between the conscious and subconscious worlds. . . . There is no conscious sense of time here, but there are temperament, mood and the tone of our conscious responses." [The Roar of Silence, p. 47.]

     This emphasis on family and community, and on the deeper brain states experienced in trance ritual and other journeys into the unconscious dream realm, help us understand why both didjeridoos and vocal toning, even some chanting, is "circular" music. Unlike linear music scores that start with a first note and move in a set rhythm until they end on the last note, didjes and toning both curve in circles, returning to the same fundamentals and basic overtones. And unlike conventional scores, which have tempi that indicate how long a piece should take, the tones of the middle brain and the didjeridoo are timeless, leading those who experience them into trance states where limits and measures no longer occur to the mind.

    Thus middle brain tones and tribes both tend to move in circles. It is no wonder they are naturally linked with one another, and why western tribes that are based in both Earth and Spirit gravitate toward gatherings in which the circular actions of toning and chant, didjeridoo sound and trance dance are combined within the sacred geometry of a circle. As we're about to see, the didj is a magic tool for other circular processes.

3. The Spiral and the Dreamtime

Among the aborigines, the main ceremonial use of the didjeridoo is that it creates for players and listeners alike, especially when played for an extended time, the sound that is the door to the dreamtime, the deep trance state in which the individual seeker may not only see the keys to personal questions and goals, but may experience mystical visions of the patterns that unify all life in the realms of Earth and spirit. Among aborigines and others who use the didjeridoo in dreamtime ceremonies, prophets may speak in the silence after the didj tones fade.

This pattern is circular too, but now -- as shown in the aboriginal coiled serpent and the drawing above right by Kimba Arem -- it's the spiral of unconscious experience, endlessly moving outward toward new dimensions of awareness, inward toward the new perception of unifying shapes and energies.    

Sound healing pioneer Jonathan Goldman relates a story that's far more often and closely connected with the lives and rituals of the aborigines than the fanciful creation story told above. The aborigines tell of a supernatural race called the Wandjina, a "dreamtime" race who created all the life forms on Earth, including the aborigines, then decided when it was time to leave Earth for the Dream Realm to leave the aboriginal people a gift: the didjeridoo, which "created a sonic field, a sort of interdimensional window" through which the Wandjina and their aboriginal brothers and sisters could travel to meet each other. [Jonathan Goldman, Healing Sounds, p. 60.]

Like prolonged toning, and the vowels and overtones of the Tibetan chant masters, the didjeridoo opens the door to the unconscious. And if is true that the unconscious is where all the archetypal images the human race have always resided, then the didjeridoo's growing popularity is understandable.

It comes at precisely the time when not only the meaning of the archetypes, but their power to unite the human race through cohering, healing images, is now more and more widely understood, and artists create as before the shapes of union that cross all barriers of thought and culture and speak to the commonality of all hearts. Listen to and play the didjeridoo long enough, and the question isn't whether the dream images of peace and reunion will come, but when.

This is why paintings like Joanne Nangala's "Bush Banana Dreaming" (right) are typical of the dreamtime symbols that often appear in aboriginal art. This image uncannily resembles the mandala-like patterns that sound creates in sand, powder or liquids, as explored in recent years by scientists in the new field of cymatics, and are adapted for therapy by sound healers who apply sound frequencies to the body and energy field for the purpose of awakening and realigning energy and vitality.

    For the aborigines, though, this is nothing new. They have long used the didjeridoo as a healing instrument, blowing the didjeridoo over the afflicted part of the body to link the intentions of player and recipient. When the dis-eased person's intention is strong, and the tone and intention of the didj player are true, pain and tension, and the discomfiting states that produce them, can be pleasantly removed. The author and others in the Sacred Sounds group of Oahu have experienced this many times, as both players and receivers, and other sound medicine groups have reported the same results.

4. The Breath Circle: How to Play the Didjeridoo

    The first step in learning the didjeridoo is the one we took when we were children, and blew through cardboard tubes to make foghorn sounds. Most new didjeridoo players can find the fundamental tone of their pipes in a few minutes, and feel the vibration at once. They also soon learn to make some overtones and harmonics by moving their lips and cheeks, thereby changing the size and shape of the sound chamber in the mouth.

The true art and challenge of the didjeridoo, however, is in the technique of "circular breathing". Does this term mean that we somehow breathe air in through the nose and out through the mouth simultaneously? No. It's physically impossible for the lungs to inhale and exhale at the same time.  What does happen is that the player takes short sips of air through the nose while blowing out air that is still in the mouth and throat from the preceding breath. There is just enough air left to keep the pipe vibrating until the next sip of air comes in through the nose.

One simple way to learn the technique is to blow air through a straw into a bowl of water -- puffing the cheeks out like Dizzy Gillespie makes this easier -- while breathing in through the nose. Once the player can do this, then it's easier to do the same thing through the bigger straw of the didjeridoo itself. The result, as the player gains skill, is that he or she can keep the pipe humming continuously for several minutes, then for a half hour or more. Master players can imitate animal sounds -- the grunt of the crocodile, the cry of the bird, the bark of the dingo dog -- and can even play two didjes simultaneously by holding one at each corner of the mouth. Gradually, as the circular breath becomes habitual and easy, the player is hardly even conscious of breathing anymore. The in-and-out breaths drop away from the mind, and all that is left is a stream of sound that seems to flow of its own accord, with little or no conscious effort from the player.

The circular breath is symbolic in meaning as well, as it embodies the natural rhythms of creation and destruction, expansion and contraction, growth and decay, and all other expressions of ebb and flow in the material realm. At the same time, the sound of the circular breath, unbroken by pauses for breath and seeming in the dreamtime to last even longer, embodies the frequency of eternity.

5. How the Hawaii Fire Tribe Uses Didjeridoos

    As is evident enough by now, the entrancing sound of several didjeridoos can be a superb complement to a Fire Circle's traditional trance-inducing elements of drums, rattles, chant, dance and the fire itself, once we solve the technical problem of projecting the relatively soft, low-pitched, droning tones of the didj so that they can permeate the entire ritual area and envelop it in sound. The full-scale Fire Tribe gatherings held at the solstices in Hawaii have been blessed with some very skilled didj players, some of whom use bell-mounted microphones and an amplifier to get fuller sound coverage of the ritual space.

Tricky issues arise with didjes in the Fire Circle, not the least of which is the question of whether electronically amplified sound is appropriate in an ensemble which otherwise consists of acoustic instruments only. While some Western didj players like to move around -- and some athletic young didj players can dance and play with amazing energy -- something seems to be lost in translation between the static ceremonial circle of the aborigines and a high-energy didj performance that keeps the eyes in the beta state of watching a show, but does not lead the mind into the dreamtime. This raises a kind of dilemma that's perfect for our point in time today. Do we want the Aquarian excitement of the show, or do we want the Piscean depth of the dream?

Issues of sound therapy etiquette may apply as well, While protocols of permission are easy enough to work out in more structured sacred music and sound healing events, and experienced players know the general rule -- blow sound directly into a limb or joint, or the spine, but be less direct with the head or the font of the torso, especially the chakra column -- having didjes move around the Circle may seem invasive to some who'd rather approach the source of the sound, if they like, than have it come to them. Coordinating didjeridoos and dancers is a challenge in any case, as many people who hear several didjes played at once are more likely to zone out, stop and receive the sound than they are to keep moving. And there are limits to the stamina of even the strongest didj players; while the hands of seasoned drummers can keep going for an hour or more, the lungs of didj players usually can't, so like most musicians, didj players are better at playing sets with breaks in between than they are at playing for the length of a movie.

The technical issues seem to work out easily, as there is always something to be said for the majestic, thundering sound of the didjeridoo; what Aaron Copland once wrote about the incomparably noble sound of eight French horns applies also in wilder, woolier terms to the sound of eight or more didjeridoos. One who doubts this need only look at the faces and bodies of people who enter the portal of a ritual space after having passed slowly through a corridor of twelve didj players who bathe each once with sound just before they are smudged with smoke on their way in. The Hawaii Fire Tribe continues to experiment with ways to incorporate didjeridoos into the sacred space of the fire circle, and the medicine theatre of the dream.

6. Sound Medicine Circles

The basic idea, as shown here (photo courtesy of Don Ewing) in a medicine circle held in Honolulu in summer 2006, is simple. The "receiver" lies in the center, surrounded by others who create a powerful field of sound and intention.

Bowls of quartz crystal or metal, like the ones played here by the author (center right, in red), can be placed precisely in relation to the receiver's chakras, while others in the circle play bells, drums and shakers, or tone with their voices -- or, when resting, continue to hold the intention of the receiver's complete wellness.

Didjeridoo players like Spanna (top left), one of Hawaii's best didj makers and players -- he's gotten superb results with lightweight, beautiful-sounding didjes made of the wood of the agave cactus -- often position themselves at the "lower" end of the circle so that they can blow their didjes near or directly into the receiver's feet, a sensation that the receiver usually finds pleasant and relaxing. The experience of feeling the sound go in one's feet, up the chakra column and out the crown must be felt to be believed.

Some of the "givers" may use crystals, aromas, reiki and other media to enhance the effects of the medicine circle, though this is best done judiciously, so the receiver won't be overstimulated to the point of overload. Practice makes perfect. When receivers and healers work in states of high concentration, fully mindful of Jonathan Goldman's key premise that Sound + Intention = Healing, then astonishing results can and do occur.

Perhaps the world's most active player in this scenario is Daniel Brower, whose Circle of Sound network organizes synchronous sound circles throughout the world on the solstices, equinoxes and other power points in the calendar.

7. Where to Look for More Information

    The web is filled with didjeridoo sites, mainly of aboriginal art shops that sell didjes. And many great didj players have created CDs, and have played and recorded as guest artists with world music groups. The two didj artists who are featured here are noteworthy not only as gifted musicians, but as artists who have used the didjeridoo as one of their main tools in comprehensive systems of sound therapy. One very good place to begin exploring the science of didjeridoos and didj music is with master sound healer Kimba Arem, who has taught many people, including the author, to play the didj.

Kimba has been a musician since age 7 with classical training in piano and flute.  She received a B.S. in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona in 1993.  While attending acupuncture graduate school studying Chinese Taoist Medicine, she was introduced to sound therapy.  She has since developed her own practice, from extensive subtle energy training in sound medicine, herbology, Reiki (master level), crystals, flower essences, and aromatherapy.  She also works with light and color, and has incorporated these diverse elements into a multi-dimensional approach to healing with her sound therapy practice in Kaua’i, Hawai’i. In a session she uses multiple forms of subtle energy techniques, a “vibrasound” bed and a hemi-synch light machine, yet the primary focus is on playing various indigenous and classical instruments in the human energy field, to accompany these other modalities. Her main instrument is the didjeridoo, but she also plays Native American Flute, Celtic flute, Tibetan and crystal bowls, ting shas, tuning forks, a harp, and recites various therapeutic mantras from different cultures. She is the founder of Heartherapy, an organization dedicated to educating and assisting the planet in gentle awakening through sound.

Kimba travels internationally doing peace concerts, conferences, sound therapy and workshops.  She has released eleven sound therapy CDs, and has played music for events with teachers and musicians such as Alan Cohen, Jonathan Goldman and James Twyman, and has produced a double CD set on sound therapy with Dr. Andrew Weil and Sounds True.

Svemir Vranko is a musician, peace activist and body worker from Croatia, now living in Austria. He is founder of the Creative Living Society in Zagreb, Croatia, and co-founder of the Integral Living Society in San Francisco, California. Among his many peace activities was a rare and successful project of conflict resolution through music during the Bosnian conflict of the early 90's. He sings, plays guitar, didgeridoo, Tibetan bowl and flutes and uses musical instruments and singing in sound healing sessions. He also offers workshops in Vision Dance, Sound Healing and How to Create and Play Didgeridoo.

Svemir and Tomislav Ocvirek formed Senzar and released their Senzar CD in 1998. He also played in the Rhythm Tribe drum band, who played many concerts for peace in Croatia, and has released Om Didje, an exceptionally beautiful CD of didjeridoo and other instruments for meditation and healing.

Since December 2005, when he was one of the featured guest performers at the Music Medicine concert and workshops in Cairo, Egypt, he has created and hosted an increasingly successful Music Medicine program over Radio Agora in Austria.

Interested in learning more about instruments such as the didjeridoo? How about the guitar? Ever consider starting a band? Need to get yourself a brand new electric guitar and need better quality instruments for an upcoming show or concert? Do you need state of the art, affordable drums or guitars for lessons? For all of this and more, Visit zZounds

Sacred Sounds Main Page   Quartz Crystal Singing Bowls

Copyright 2006 Dan Furst. All Rights Reserved.