Music Down Under

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April, 2000: Australia

The Aborigines of northern Australia use the termite-hollowed branch of several species of Eucalyptus to craft a unique musical instrument they call the "didjeridu" (sometimes spelled "didgeridoo").

  Eucalyptus spp. Photo ©1999 Erica Kipp.

Eucalyptus, a genus with about 450 species, belongs to the Myrtaceae, a family of dicots with both a tropical and a subtropical representation. Members of Myrtaceae are hardy, fast-growing evergreen trees. Subepidermal glands on their leaves and other organs contain ethereal oils, giving Eucalyptus its characteristic scent. The flowers are bisexual (both male and female reproductive organs represented on the same flower) and arranged most often in cymes and sometimes racemes. (For inflorescence types, see figure 8.7, Stern, Introductory Plant Biology.) Although the Myrtaceae family is chiefly distributed in America and Australia, the genus Eucalyptus is most concentrated in Australia. As a result, many organisms closely associated with Eucalyptus, such as the giant Australian termite, are only found within range of the plant.

Termites feed mainly on wood or other materials containing cellulose. Because cellulose is indigestible to many living organisms (including humans), the cellulose-eating termites live symbiotically with a protozoan. The protozoan lives in a termite's gut and secretes digestive enzymes that help break down the cellulose into a more usable form for the termite. (Cellulose is a component of the cell wall and can be composed of up to 10,000 glucose molecules strung together end-to-end.) The giant termites of northern Australia build hill-like nests as much as 20 feet high. They are also responsible for hollowing out the branches of Eucalyptus, creating numerous internal channels. The Aborigines first locate large termite hills and then search for potential didjeridus on Eucalyptus trees nearby. Genuine didjeridus are termite-hollowed Eucalyptus branches properly sealed and seasoned to last a lifetime. Manmade didjeridus, including those crafted by machine, from human-hollowed branches, or from less sturdy bamboo, cannot duplicate the tonal quality of the naturally formed, termite-hollowed branches.

  Some traditional-style didjeridus. (Photo courtesy of Indigenous Creations.)

Today's Aborigines, descended from the original inhabitants of Australia, make up only about 1.5% of the Australian population. They are believed by most anthropologists to have migrated from Southeast Asia at least 40,000 years ago. Aboriginal men play the didjeridu for ritual ceremonies and to accompany clan songs, singing, and dancing. The didjeridu is decorated with animal, plant, or natural objects symbolic of a clan or family emblem. The mouthpiece is formed from beeswax gathered from the native stingless black bee. A didjeridu may be anywhere from 3 feet to 5 feet long and is played in a seated position. The player inhales air through the nose while blowing into the mouthpiece, a method known as circular breathing. This allows constant playing without a break in the music for breath. Another clansman sometimes plays the "bilma," or clicking sticks, to accompany the festivities. Together, these two instruments give Aboriginal music its characteristic tone.

Other economically important products come from Eucalyptus. Used chiefly for timber, it is also the source of Eucalyptus oil, which is derived from many Eucalyptus species and is a well-known flavoring agent, expectorant, and antiseptic. The Myrtaceae family also yields cloves (the unopened buds) and clove oil from Syzygium aromaticum.

Although the Australian Aborigines are few in number, the didjeridu is gaining in popularity. It can be found for sale in several venues, including the Internet. Beautiful sounding and aesthetically unrivaled, the didjeridu is a true work of art.

References, Websites, and Further Reading

Heywood, V.H. 1993. Flowering plants of the world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mabberley, D. J. 1997. The plant-book. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99. 1993—1998 Microsoft Corporation.

For more information and a photograph of the didjeridu.

Site with photos of many species of Eucalyptus, including wood grain and pests.

Photos of didjeridus.

Stern, Introductory Plant Biology, 8th Edition

Chapter 2: The Nature of Life
Carbohydrates, pp. 22—23
Waxes, p. 23
Enzymes, p. 26

Chapter 3: Cells
The cell wall (and cellulose), pp. 33—36

Chapter 5: Roots and Soil
Mutualism, symbiosis, pp. 73—74

Chapter 6: Stems
Illustration of the anatomy of a woody twig, p. 85

Chapter 7: Leaves
Internal structure of leaves, p. 108
Illustration of internal leaf anatomy, p. 110

Chapter 8: Flowers, Fruits, and Seeds
Diagram of a flower, p. 130
Structure of flowers (including inflorescence types), pp. 129—32
Diagram of different inflorescence types, p. 131
Differences between dicots and monocots, p. 129
Chart comparison of dicots and monocots, p. 130

Chapter 17: Kingdom Monera and Viruses
Mutualism and symbiosis, p. 280

Chapter 25: Ecology
Termites (under "Methane"), p. 475

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