We started walking and talking together as you do and I mentioned my interest in the instrument. Hell, I've played the fucking Glockenspiel and Timpani; how much weirder could a didge be? What Alan didn't mention was his fame. He was just "Alan, Alan Dargin", some guy I'd met crossing the street to get to the beach and go for a nice, relaxing afternoon walk calmly only a few months before the Olympic games would transform one of Australia's most famous and pristine beaches to a shithole with dozens of pylons out in the water. there were already protesters rightfully pointing out that Olympic beach volleyball had been played in fucking Atlanta parking lots only three years earlier. I felt for them. Hell, I almost feel for London. Almost.
Anyway, we talked about Germany and the Olympics and the mag 3.1 earthquake that had happened only a few days before. We talked about music and kids (which he had and we didn't) and Bondi. We talked about breakfast and I told him the name of a guy at a particular restaurant on Campbell where they made the bestest EVAR eggs Florentine with Turkish toast. I asked Alan more about the didge and he told me everything, how it's made, how it's played, the history, the, not as an Abo with all the spiritual stuff but simply as a musician (although he did mention a bit of the culturally significant bits). He explained circular breathing and I let him know I'd learned how to do that back when I was a nipper playing trumpet and then trombone, using the technique to blow a single note for the duration of a music class on a challenge from the teacher.
I mentioned that I'd considered buying a didge and Alan immediately whipped out a business card. He had no interest himself in the shop downtown, he let me know, but they're the only shop around which only sell real Abo-made kit, from instruments to wall hangings to whatever stuff you want to buy. He wrote down the name of the woman I should speak with and told me to tell her Alan had sent me. And oh yeah, they have some beginner didge courses and the first one's free if you buy a didge there. Every Tuesday night. Or was it Thursday? Didn't matter; we'd be gone by then, back to New Zealand for a week before flying home to New York Fuckin' City. We parted company as Alan headed home.
The next day my ex- and I drove downtown to the shop and met up with the woman Alan had named. I showed her the card and she immediately stopped treating me like a tourist. I knew the whole spiritual thing about didges so I asked her how you test the sound if you can't actually blow into one, which you can't unless it's already yours, and then no one else (except your brother or son once you've died or something like that) can. She showed me how to push up the beeswax seal at the mouth and then tap the end with the palm of your hand to hear the timbre of the instrument.
Holding these hollowed-out eucalyptus branches up to the light you could see the rivulets where the termites had eaten out the softer bits. These were true didges and not some lathe-turned tourist crap similar to the long plastic horns seen at hockey games in the 1970s. The intricate dotted paintings outside were also clearly hand-made and unique to each piece. She explained the significance of certain patterns and animals as my wife sat there both fascinated and annoyed; the former due to the culture and the latter because all the instruments I already had at home (2 E-6s, a 4-string and a 5-string bass, an acoustic 12-string, a sax, a couple keyboards) were apparently not enough.
In the interests of keeping marital bliss and harmony, I allowed my wife to make the final decision of which didge to buy. She was more into æsthetics whereas I only cared about the sound. So I'd tapped every didge there multiple times and narrowed the selection down to five. She picked the blue one, natch. Blue. A colour only seen in the sky or sea but dammit she wasn't going to go all red desert on me. Fine. I took the blue one. I also grabbed a nice pair of talking sticks.
And as we walked toward the till, my wife's attention was distracted by a throw rug she thought about picking up. To our left, in walked Alan.
"G'day, Doggie! So you did come down."
"G'day Alan. Yep. Taking this one and the sticks."
"Good on ye," he replied, then talked for a minute with the woman about his teaching schedule.
Alan said something about catching a bus as we were paying for my latest noisy toys. told him I could drive him back up to Bondi if he wanted. Many thanks, an extra discount, and ten minutes later we were driving back up the hill. In talking on the way he mentioned it was a shame I couldn't attend a class. He had to go home before picking up his son. He was divorced, the marriage broken due to demon drink. He'd got better and was taking care of the kid as he could whenever he was in Sydney, basically October through March.
And then as we approached his home he asked what I was doing later. Nada. My wife wanted to hit the beach and I don't do sand and water. Alan said he could bring his didge with and meet up at the bluff overlooking the beach. His kid would be able to run around and amuse himself and he'd be pleased to show me how to play.
At 4pm Alan and I sat cross-legged on a hill, under some trees, overlooking Bondi Beach. He had a didge which looked beat to hell but sounded incredible; I had a brand new, very blue, pretty piece of eucalyptus which I couldn't make much sense of. I first tried buzzing it the way you'd play a trombone. Alan couldn't stop the massive belly laugh as he asked me how many seconds I thought I could keep that up for. With a huge hole at both ends and no back pressure the answer was about "seven". And with that Alan began to teach me. You only buzz the side of your lower lip, you keep your cheeks full of air so you can push out with them to keep the buzz going as you breathe air in through your nose.
With the basic tone and circular breathing out of the way, Alan began to show me some of the ways to make various sounds, from trilling the tongue to "piping" at the end, to "words" you would sort of say as you blow, the most important of those being "yikka-too-yikka-tee" which is what he used to get the very familiar dih-dih-DOOOH-dih-dih-DAAAAH didge rhythm.
Alan's son would interrupt from time to time but we sat there on the hill as the sun went down, playing the didge until my lips first went numb, then painful, then numb again. Alan smiled. He told me it made him happy to teach someone who was so clearly interested in learning. After the sun had gone over the horizon the temperatures dropped quickly. I was barely able to talk anymore from all the lip buzzing and my wife was expecting me to get back to the hotel some time before midnight so we could eat dinner. I drove Alan and his son home and we exchanged numbers in case he came to NYC.
Four months later in the middle of summer I was coming out of the 57th St. station in the New York Subway when I heard a familiar sound: a didge being played with the wiki-wahhh--wiki-wahhh--wiki-wiki-wahhh chanting, a very Dargin style. It was some hippie-looking American dude with a hat out and some CDs along with a laminated flier explaining that he plays for 20-30 minutes at a time, here are the answers to most of your questions, if you stick around I can talk when I'm done. I waited.
He did indeed study under Alan. And we talked about Sydney and Bondi and playing didge together with Alan even though I'd only done it once. His name was Steve and he said he would play in the Times Square 42nd St. Station the next day if the hip-hop dancers weren't there. I showed up with my didge and talking sticks. Steve and I played together for about an hour, both basically spitting out Alan's rhythms and styles, making them our own, bringing in some beats from the rap style which was currently so populer. There's some seriously good money to be made busking if you play something no one else does, be it a didge, a hurdy gurdy, or anything else that 100 other mooks out there aren't trying. Double the cash if there's some story you can tell the audience.
And that was one of the last things I ever did with my didge in public. I'd occasionally play it at home, keeping up what little skill I might've had, skills since lost to sinus problems. But oddly all my sinus problems disappeared in Australia. All of them. And so I'd planned to go back to Sydney but for one reason or another -- girlfriend, wedding, sickness, Iceland -- I never made it. I did bring it out once to Tollwood and played with a guy running an Australian stand back in 2004. And that was it. I don't think I've even pulled my didge out of the carrier since then.
And then early this morning -- I guess it was about 5am -- I couldn't sleep and so headed to the computer. Over at Reddit was a link to Kickin Kookas, supposedly a techno didge player. Not bad, but it made me think of Alan again and I knew there had to be at least a couple vids of him by now. There were, and when I clicked on them I was treated to the familiar yicka-too-yicka-tee and dih-dih-DOOOH-dih-dih-DAAAAH rhythms. I was instantly transported back to a pine tree on the bluffs overlooking Bondi Beach, learning to play from some welcoming stranger who was just happy to play and share his love of the instrument and feeling behind it. It was like someone who loved the blues getting a free day-long lesson from Robert Johnson or Buddy Guy. I clicked on "related videos". It was when I hit the third one that I saw a comment saying "RIP". Control-K, click to wiki, "Alan_Dargin".
Alan Dargin (13 July 1967–24 February 2008) was a didgeridoo player from Wee Waa, New South Wales, Australia. He started learning the instrument at age five, being taught by his grandfather. His signature instrument was over a hundred years old and was made from a species of eucalyptus known as the Bloodwood tree.
One more chance lost. The trip put off each year until it was too late. Bondi has, according to reports from mates, been more or less restored since the Olympics. The eggs Florentine brekkies are still the mutt's nutz. The people are friendly. But Alan's no longer there. Based on many comments at Gootube his demons had caught up with him again. A hæmorrhage it may well have been but the drink, just as with my cousin two years ago -- is what got him. A phone call to an old acquaintance confirmed it.
Another missed opportunity, another senseless loss, a great musician gone... and more than a year before I found out about it. The country is beautiful (even if the politics are insane), but I don't really have any good reason to go back DownUnda now. My next vacation will probably be up north in the tundra. Who knows? I may take my didge with me.
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