Down Under’s Didgeridoo
Brian Charles went to Juilliard as a young man to train as an oboist, but on a trip to Australia he became charmed by a more ancient instrument — the didgeridoo. “It allows the performer freedom to express music in whichever way moves them,” he says. The didgeridoo’s tones can be changed by changing the position of the tongue, closing the mouth and singing, humming or screaming while you play. Its unique sound intrigues even in contemporary times — Charles has played the didgeridoo on TV commercials, video game sound tracks, avant-garde festivals and at private performances. The musician/composer also presented the instrument at schools around his Conway home (kids learn how to make one from discarded gift wrapping tubes or plumbing pipes) and he gives workshops and lessons at his North Conway Music Shop. Charles says the repetitive nature of the didgeridoo’s sound and the ancient traditions behind it draw people to it for a variety of uses — including meditation: “It is a compelling sound for those willing to listen.”What is a didgeridoo?
Perhaps the oldest musical instrument made by mankind. It is simply a hollow tree branch blown through with lips vibrating.
What attracted you to it?
I toured Australia with a classical orchestra and was introduced to the sound firsthand by David Hudson. David is an Aboriginal Australian performer and became my mentor. I studied shortly with a woman called “Mother of Dreamtime” and beyond that — I did as generations of players have been instructed to do: go wander into the woods and let the trees teach you how to play.
How old is the didgeridoo and what was it used for early on?
Perhaps 40,000 to 60,000 years old, with Aboriginal cave paintings from that time period depicting its use. It is probably used exactly the same way today as when the first people played it.
How would you describe the sound it makes? Is it music?
Imagine the sound a rock might make, if it could sing — that’s the didgeridoo. There are many forms of music, and while the raw sound of the didgeridoo does not sound like a Lady Gaga pop tune, they have more in common than most people realize.
It only makes one sound, right?
If light makes one color, than didgeridoo makes one sound. The varieties of tones are like the refractions of light seen through a prism. The sounds and effects are wide ranging in their organic richness.
Circular breathing apparently has allowed at least one person to play the same note for more than 50 minutes. Could you do that?
I have played over four hours at a stretch without challenge in a performance that called for it. It is common for didgeridoo players to play uninterrupted for hours on end. Just 50 minutes? Humbug.
Is it true that playing it helps reduce snoring and sleep apnea?
According to the science I have read, yes. It certainly is good for your lungs and overall health — I routinely out-blow the testing device used by doctors to measure lung health.
You give workshops — why do people want to learn how to play it?
The didgeridoo is just plain fun to play. The myriad “reasons” are many, but the basic vibration and low tones make people happy.