Australia: Didgeridoo concert cancelled


Didgeridoo concert cancelled

A concert featuring Australia’s most renowned didgeridoo player William Barton was cancelled in Broome after local Aboriginal leaders said that the instrument was “taboo” in the town, and that taking the ancient instrument into the classical genre was “disrespectful”, reported several Australian newspapers

  William Barton

On 22 May 2007 the ensemble Windstrokes which features the acclaimed didgeridoo player William Barton playing together with three Western classical musicians were about to perform in the outback oasis Broome, the largest town in the Kimberley in Australia’s North West. 300 tickets had been sold in advance for the concert.

The leading Queensland musician has played the Aboriginal wind instrument, the didgeridoo, for more than 20 years, and he is the only didgeridoo player to have performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In this concert which had been promoted as “a collaboration of indigenous and non-indigenous music and reconciliation”, he was to perform together with the three classical musicians Claire Edwardes, Mel Robinson and Iain Grandage.

In the afternoon, just a few hours before the evening performance was about to begin, the local lawman and Yawuru elder Neil McKenzie made a statement to ABC television saying there would be “potential consequences” if William Barton played. Some of the local Yawuru elders had claimed that the concert was disrespectful to their culture. “The ancient Aboriginal instrument should be banned in Broome because it featured in ceremonial performances and was not even traditional to the Broome area,” said Neil McKenzie.

The organisers of the concert felt they were forced to call it off because of Neil McKenzie’s threat, even though the ensemble had been in contact with local Aboriginal leaders regarding the Broome performance for quite some time before arriving in the area. It was only one week before the concert was to take place that a group of Yawuru elders made a statement that, according to their laws, the didgeridoo was taboo in Broome. The instrument should only be played if it is part of a traditional performance, they said. The organisers had two meetings with the elders, and, while opinions were mixed, quite a few said that William should be welcomed so they decided to go ahead.

Didgeridoo ban hurts local band

The controversy casts uncertainty over the instrument’s future in the town’s vibrant music industry and popular tourism attractions such as the monthly Staircase to the Moon concert. A successful Broome band, Groovy Lips & The Yang, says its livelihood has been threatened by the decision to limit the use of the didgeridoo. The members of the band fear they could be put out of business if the apparent new ruling is enforced.

Paul Boon from Groovy Lips hopes his band can negotiate a way forward.
“For us, they’re going to deal with an indigenous person and a non-indigenous person so our argument is going to have a foot on each side of the fence which is I think an important process of reconciliation.” he said, according to The Message Stick on


The ‘Readers’ Comments’ which are attached to Elizabeth Gosch’s article about the incident reveals some of the issues which lie underneath.

    “…It is quite understandable why more recently such ‘traditional’ laws have been tightened up. Across the globe as societies lose their autonomy, they empower themselves by strengthening their hold on such traditions. It’s a natural reaction to the impact of white society – look at it this way. As more immigrants from mulitcultural backgrounds find their home in Australia, some anglo-saxons who feel disempowered and scared re-enforce ‘Australian values’ to counter a threat (no matter whether such a threat is real or whether there is such a thing as ‘Australian values’).”
         wrote KJ of WA at 12:05pm on 24 May 2007.

    “…A local community should be able to define its character anyway they choose, including banning the use of didgeridoos in certain context, or banning wearing a hat between 8 am to 11 am, for example. The fundamental problem with the cancellation of the concert, was what appeared to be an ambivalent definition of the policy until the last minute. They should have said from the very beginning whether the Didg concert could have proceeded or not, rather than offer a change of heart at the last moment.”
         wrote ‘Frankie Sierra of USA’ at 2:52pm on 24 May 2007.

    “…The Didg is a difficult instrument play, and it has a great and distinctive sound, I have the greatest respect for anyone who can master this instrument and make sure it has place in the future as music evolves. Not letting the people of Broome, and the world, hear the sounds of a Didg means they miss out on something truely wonderful, and that would be a real shame.”
         wrote ‘Andrew of Qld’ at 8:09am on 25 May 2007.


Sources / The Australian – 24 May 2007:
‘Broome bans didgeridoo’

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