Wednesday, June 23, 2010
One shop in particular featured an eclectic mix of really cool stuff (such as a vintage edition of a book of paintings by New Zealand artist Peter McIntyre), but I was totally unprepared for the sight that greeted me - a beautiful hardwood hand-carved didgeridoo. Surely, I thought, it’s merely a decorative piece. It could not possibly deliver a quality sound.
I picked it up, running my fingers down the serpentine carvings. I positioned the bell end of the instrument on the floor, drew in a breath and blew. I wasn’t expecting much of a sound, particularly with warm-up breaths. But the didge proved exceptionally responsive. A promising tone issued forth. I gathered myself, got an airflow going, and experienced a wonderful warm resonance. Even with the carpet absorbing the sound, there was no escaping the fact that this baby sounded as good as it looked.
I looked at the price tag. $150. I owned two didges that cost me twice that. The carvings alone made it worth the price. The person minding the shop was filling in for the owner and knew nothing about the didge, but was expecting the owner to call in about an hour.
What do you call it? he asked. How do you spell it?
A didgeridoo is probably the oldest wind instrument in the world, basically a hollowed out tree trunk. On a simple level, it delivers a deep rich pulsing drone, augmented by vocalizations and tonguing variations, which is about my level of playing. A skilled musician can wail the crap out of it.
Aboriginals from Australia’s north coast fashion theirs from stringy bark eucalyptus. The instrument is central to their cultural and spiritual traditions. Over the last decade or two, the didge has caught on in the west, and we now see the instrument fashioned out of all manner of material. I have one Aboriginal didge. My first two didge purchases were crafted by a local.
I lived in Australia for five years about 20 years ago. Back then, didges did not interest me. Three and a half years ago when I moved to southern California, suddenly didges made sense.
The didge in my hand was clearly western. Maybe I would learn more in an hour or two. I found my night tables and other items, set them aside with the didge, and told the guy behind the counter I would be back. Time to see a friend for lunch. When I returned, I was told the owner didn’t know anything about the didge, either. Then I was presented with an offer I couldn’t refuse: The didge was mine for $100.
I got it into the car, along with my night tables and other purchases. I had business elsewhere in town later in the day. Time to play with my new toy. I found a nearby city park, headed to a secluded corner overlooking a valley, positioned myself beneath a tree, and started familiarizing myself with the instrument.
No technical tricks. Just experience the sound, that wonderful pulsing drone. Soon, I was in my own world - John World - not part of this world, very much part of this world:
“In the beginning was the Word ...”
All things originate from vibration.
I looked up. A man I hadn’t seen before was approaching. Oops! I was obviously disturbing him. Time to apologize and find another spot.
This is his mother’s memorial, he told me.
Oh, crap. Now I better run.
And he was really moved by the sound ...
His words gushed out: His mother had died two months earlier. She loved the view from this section of the park. Some of her ashes were scattered here.
What do you call that instrument? he asked, his voice choking. Could I keep playing?
I told him I would dedicate “this” - whatever came out of my didge - to his mom. I got the air going. I got the piece of wood vibrating ...
Thank you, he sobbed a minute later. Thank you.
Over the next 30 minutes, he walked this way, then that way, positioning himself at various outlooks, staring out into the valley, then returning to my spot, holding his phone near the bell of the instrument, talking to his friends, leaving messages to his friends, leaving messages to himself.
Connections, healing, healing, connections ...
It was time to go, back to that other world, the real world, not real, yet real. I cradled my new didge, not just a didge, just a didge. Carefully, I placed it in the back floor of my car, in a gap beneath the night tables. I got behind the wheel, found my street - and turned the wrong way.
Ha! John World.