Musical Termites

Updated for 2023

Is it possible that an insect makes a musical instrument? Incredibly, the answer is yes. The Didjeridu is a wind instrument made from a Eucalyptus branch hollowed out by termites. The hollowed-out branch is the beginning of a wind instrument. The didjeridu is native to the Aborigines of northern Australia, where it has been played and used in their ceremonies for 1,500 years.

There are approximately 40 different Aboriginal names for the didjeridu, such as yidaki and yirdaki. Non-Aborigines typically call the instrument a didjeridu, but spell it in many different ways, such as didgeridoo, didgeridu and didjeridoo. Some anthropologists have even called it a drone trumpet because of its soft, melodic low tones.

Didjeridu harvesters go into the woods and tap on branches to find those that have been hollowed out by white termites. The artist who will design and paint the didjeridu first removes the bark and scrapes or chisels the ends to improve the sound. Beeswax is used to cover the mouthpiece so that the players do not get splinters.

The traditional colors used to paint the didjeridu are yellow, black, red, brown, white, green, tan and reddish brown. Traditional designs vary by tribe, but they typically include paintings of native animals, insects, plants, dots, cross-hatching and stripes. Didjeridu-like instruments are made today throughout the world with many different kinds of materials, such as agave cactus, bamboo, PVC pipe, yucca, clay, cans, and glass.

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The didjeridu is played using circular breathing, a way of breathing in which the musician continuously breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth at the same time. Players imitate the sounds of nature and the rhythms of the land around them, such as animal calls and cries, insects buzzing, bird wings flapping and heartbeats thumping. Aboriginal players make the sounds of many of the animals native to the Australian bush, such as the dingo, the kangaroo, the kookaburra, and the emu. A didjeridu can imitate the blowfly, cricket, crocodile, bullfrog, cave crow, bush pigeon, raven, dog, lizard, and the famous “Australian Elephant.”

Some Aborigines tell the story of sugarbags, or small Australian bees, humming in a hollow log, which led them to the didjeridu. Others say that the sounds of the bees makes them think someone is playing the didjeridu.

Although young girls are allowed to play the didjeridu for fun, they are still forbidden to play in ritual ceremonies and funerals. Aborigines do not like foreigners playing the didjeridu, but many people throughout the world now play it in both traditional and new creative ways.

Josh Siegel is a student in the Thornton Jr. High School Honors Academy. He is a very good didjeridu player and is one of the few adolescents who play the didjeridu in the San Francisco Bay Area. His didjeridu teacher is the famous Stephen Kent, who is a professional at this instrument and plays didjeridu concerts around the world. Josh got interested in the didjeridu when the Australia exhibit opened at the San Francisco Zoo in 1993.

Josh learned to play the didjeridu by first blowing through a straw into a cup of water. This experience taught him to circular breathe. Next he used a PVC pipe as a didjeridu, which taught him breath control. Then Josh graduated to a “real” didjeridu. He may go to Australia, where he will be taught by the man who made his didjeridu, Djalu Gurruwiwi. Josh has been playing the didjeridu for almost four years and plans on continuing for a long time.