Creating a Buzz: Didgeridoo Culture in Oregon


Nate Gartrell, EDN

Click Here to Hear Spencer Discuss Meeting Australian Didgeridoo Legend

When Tyler Spencer discovered his passion, it happened completely by accident. He was a bored teenager in the 1990s, and while beat-boxing into a metal tube, he happened to produce a trumpet-like drone note.

“I remember the resonance of it kind of tickled my nose,” Spencer said. “It was a weird feeling, but I kept playing.”

Tyler Spencer displays two of his didges, in his Eugene recording studio

Thinking he was onto something, Spencer showed his father, who commented that the sound was similar to that of an Australian didgeridoo. Spencer wasn’t familiar with the name “didgeridoo,” and it piqued his interest. There was just one problem.

Where Spencer lived, Eugene, halfway around the world from the didgeridoo’s birthplace, hardly anyone had heard of the instrument. And nobody could tell Spencer how to play one, or where to buy one, or even where to find a recording of one.

But Spencer didn’t let that slow him down.

“I made one out of a pine fence post,” Spencer said, with his father’s help. “It was out of necessity, because there was nowhere else to get them.”

Developed from eucalyptus trees by Aboriginal Australians, the didgeridoo is a long, typically-wooden wind instrument, which produces a low, rumbling drone. While most instruments are played with the hands, didgeridoo players change key by contorting their lips and tongues, and sometimes by beat-boxing into their “didges.”

“A lot of playing didge is about muscle memory, and repetition,” Spencer said. “You have to practice rhythms, over and over, until they become ingrained.”

Spencer knows this because he’s made a career out of the passion he developed as an adolescent. He plays gigs, both as a solo didgeridoo act, and with groups, such as the trio Ruins of Ooah. He’s also put out several didgeridoo CD’s, and makes and sells didgeridoos through his store in Newport, Primal Tones.

Spencer and a mentor, Djalu Gurriwiwi, crafting a didge in 2004

But more important to Spencer is that he’s been able to play a small part in helping bring didgeridoo culture to Oregon. Nowadays, in contrast to Spencer’s teenage years, didgeridoos have found a niche in the Pacific Northwest, especially Oregon, Spencer said.

“Oregon has turned into sort of a ‘Mecca’ for didgeridoo in the United States,” Spencer said. “Maybe there’s something about the culture here in the Northwest that’s drawn to that sort of tone.”

As evidence of the didge’s growing popularity, Spencer pointed to Oregon’s InDidjInUs gathering, an annually-held festival that celebrates didgeridoo culture and features players from all over the world. It was developed by Chad Butler, who is another member of the small handful of didgeridoo makers based in Oregon.

“That’s been a big part of why our didge community is strong,” Spencer said of InDidjInUs.

The Northwest has even developed its own didgeridoo style, which became evident to Spencer during a trip he made to Australia. Spencer described the trip as essentially a didgeridoo pilgrimage, and it allowed him to immerse himself in traditional didge culture.

We’re making our didges out of different materials. We’re tuning and shaping them differently,” Spencer said of Northwest didge players. “In Australia, there are contemporary players who are making great music, but it’s mostly painted-up Aborigines who go about it traditionally.”

The experience was eye-opening, Spencer said, and later trips to India and parts of South America showed him that he could use music to bond with others, even when a language barrier existed.

“Everywhere I go, I always bring a didge, because it’s a talking stick,” Spencer said. “They say music is a universal language. I think it is; the didge has allowed me to connect with a lot of people around the world.”

Spencer frequently does shows in Oregon, and is scheduled to play at this year’s Tayberry Jam, in Saginaw.

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