Xavier Rudd: Life Lessons From the Didgeridoo

by Jasmine Pahl

“I wonder, if you were a cow, and you were watching this, what would you think?” muses Xavier Rudd, his Aussie twang softened by world travel and time spent living in Canada. And he’s right, the scene would appear odd to the bovine eye: a tanned, tribal-tattooed guy with a shock of sun-bleached hair perched atop a rustic crate, staring down the cyclops eyes of two filmmakers and a photographer. It’s an offhand but in-character observation for the 37-year-old whose world-view and work is informed by a deep connection to nature.

Rudd was in Vancouver playing two sold-out shows with his new band, The United Nations, to promote Nanna, his eighth studio album. Between shows, he shared his thoughts on a subject he’s most qualified to teach: the didgeridoo. Through his groundbreaking use of the ancient instrument in modern music, Rudd has singlehandedly created an unlikely cohort: a legion of didgeridoo fans. (After the solo Rudd performed to open the first Vancouver show, one male fan was heard shouting, “More didgeridoo!”)

Rudd settles on a stool, barefoot, projecting sincerity and calm along with the slight ferocity of a man who is most at home in the wild. He’s arrived bare armed as if, even on a cold October day, he’s hesitant to disconnect from the elements. For the next 40 minutes, he speaks with scholarly consideration — turquoise eyes steely as a warrior — occasionally breaking into an easy-going, throaty laugh that, just for a moment, makes him seem like an ordinary dude.

Lesson #1: Challenge Assumptions
Rudd doesn’t think of the instrument as a didgeridoo at all. “Didgeridoo is a name that white people gave it when they came to Australia, from the sound that it makes. Its traditional name is yidaki,” he explains. “An ancestor named Yidaki found it when he was hunting in Arnhem Land in the top of Australia. The wind blew through a termite-hollowed log [Modern didgeridoos are made the same way — Ed.] and Yidaki wondered what the sound was. He picked it up, knocked the dust out of it and played the first note, which transcended time. And 60,000 years later those rhythms are still played.” Message received: from here on out we’ll be calling it a yidaki.

Lesson #2: Find The Source
About 10 years ago, Rudd was surprised by a visitor, an elderly tribesman from Arnhem Land, the aboriginal territory where the original yidaki was found, and one of Australia’s last largely untouched wilderness areas. The tribesman was a descendent of the ancestor Yidaki. Through a translator, he told Rudd he’d been guided to find him as part of his dreaming, which in shamanic cultures is a belief system that articulates the relationship between the spiritual and natural worlds. Together, the two men journeyed to the location where the first didgeridoo was found.

Rudd was adopted by the tribe and honoured with a ceremonial yidaki to travel with. “My wa-wa [translation: brother] only spoke in Yolŋu so I didn’t really understand, but I could feel him. He talked to country a lot; he talked to spirit a lot. I could always play [the yidaki], and I wondered why, but it made sense when I ended up going up with him. Every time I play it, I go back to Arnhem Land and see images of my time there. It’s not like I purposely think about that. That’s just what happens, and that’s what I believe is the spirit.”

Lesson #3: Breathe 
The yidaki is played using a technique called circular breathing, the player breathing in through the nose while simultaneously exhaling through the mouth. “Playing yidaki for me is a meditation. It’s incredibly deep breathing but also it’s a structured process where you’re circulating air. For me, anyways, it’s a far deeper form of meditation [than sitting].” He describes how the yidaki vibrates up into our bodies through the soles of our feet, miming his hands upwards and making a “boosh!” sound, like of a rockslide in reverse. Later, when he fills the space with the yidaki’s haunting resonance, we feel it buzzing up from the earth and rising out the crowns of our heads.

Lesson #4: Listen
Asked what he’s learned from the yidaki, Rudd gazes off into the distance, considering his answer for a length of time that most people would find awkward. “As a human, I think, [playing the yidaki] was my dreaming. It was predestined for me. I have a lost indigenous heritage on my father’s side and I feel like it was my ancestors’ way of calling us back. It called me since I was a little boy and as I got old enough to carry the knowledge and understand it, I was called home. All this stuff came without choice, it just came and it was a path that I followed.”

Rudd describes the culture he was called back to not as a tribe or a nationality but as a relationship to life. “It’s about listening to the land and being patient and being ready to absorb our dreaming or our path or our destiny slowly, with patience, being ready to absorb that when it’s time and not chasing it.”

Lesson #5: Be the Flow 
Shadows are lengthening on the walls of the studio when Rudd answers our final question: “What is the yidaki’s message for the world?”

“It’s the flow. There’s no gap, there’s no space — it’s one continuous drone. It’s connectedness. It’s reminding us all that we’re all one; every part of this earth is equal. We’re no different than any leaf on a tree. We’re all part of creation and that flow that was meant for creation is still there.” He smiles and continues, “You can hop out of it, but it’s nice to remember that it’s still there, and we’re a part of it. We’re not just on the earth, we’re of the earth.”

With that, Xavier Rudd heads off to work.

Jasmine Pahl writes for lululemon at a standing desk while drinking something green out of a mason jar. She loves sleeping in the woods and practicing improv comedy and almost certainly owes money at the library. Follow her on Twitter.