Didgeri­doo mas­ter Wil­liam Bar­ton has spent the past 20 years mar­ry­ing the tra­di­tional with the clas­si­cal and the con­tem­po­rary, writes Mered­ith Booth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Wil­liam Bar­ton

Kalka­dunga man Wil­liam Bar­ton has played in a vast va­ri­ety of land­scapes since learn­ing on his un­cle’s C-sharp didgeri­doo — made from a coolabah tree — when he was a boy. For the past 20 years, the didgeri­doo vir­tu­oso has melded the dron­ing rhythms he first heard from his el­ders in the dry coun­try around Mount Isa, western Queens­land, with the sub­tle clas­si­cal sounds played by or­ches­tras in the world’s great con­cert halls.

He says the qual­ity of the world’s most an­cient wood­wind in­stru­ment comes from what­ever land­scape sur­rounds him at the time.

“I cleared a bit of space on a frozen river in southern On­tario in Canada when they had that big cold spell and played on the ice. I liked the res­o­nance,’’ he says.

“I’ve got a photo of Mum and I when I was 11 years old, it’s a bit blurry on the old film. We’re out bush near Mount Isa … be­side a water­hole and so I al­ways tell peo­ple it’s like you can be in a place like Carnegie Hall, or some of the great con­cert halls in the world — Russia, play­ing with the Mari­in­sky Theatre Or­ches­tra — I’m not blase to it but ev­ery mo­ment is in­spi­ra­tional be­cause I know where I come from.

“You’re fill­ing that space in that earth cham­ber, that cathe­dral, church, con­cert hall or land­scape that sur­rounds you but you’re al­ways lis­ten­ing.”

Af­ter more than two decades on tour — some­times with only a week of the year in Aus­tralia — Bar­ton is giv­ing two per­for­mances at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val this month and will later so­journ to the Barossa Val­ley to com­pose and add to an im­pres­sive clas­si­cal didgeri­doo reper­toire that has in­cluded col­lab­o­ra­tions with Aus­tralian com­posers Peter Sculthorpe, Sean O’Boyle and Matthew Hind­son.

His first ap­pear­ance is an homage to his for­mer men­tor Sculthorpe with the Aus­tralian String Quar­tet in an event called Cham­ber Land­scapes at the re­gional au­di­to­rium Ukaria, which over­looks bush­land near Mount Barker, 30km south­east of Ade­laide. Com­mis­sioned by the Ngeringa Arts and Klein Fam­ily foun­da­tions, Bar­ton will per­form his new piece, Square Cir­cles Be­neath the Sand, with the ASQ on Mon­day and Tues­day.

Ap­peal­ing to a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence with a one-off per­for­mance also on Tues­day, Bar­ton will join other in­dige­nous artists to cel­e­brate the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1967 ref­er­en­dum to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion to in­clude Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in the cen­sus and al­low for com­mon­wealth laws for Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple.

The com­mem­o­ra­tion con­cert, ti­tled 1967 — Mu­sic in the Key of Yes, which pre­miered at the Syd­ney Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary, in­cludes songs that de­scribe the in­dige­nous Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence of that time, per­formed by Bar­ton and Thelma Plum, Leah Flana­gan, Rad­i­cal Son, Adalita, Yir­rmal, Ur­sula Yovich and Dan Sul­tan.

Bar­ton en­joys many forms of mu­sic, but his mother, Del­mae Bar­ton, an opera singer and a mem­ber of the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions, is a towering in­flu­ence.

A de­scen­dant of the Bid­jara tribe, Del­mae would take the young Wil­liam out into the bush, singing to the land­scape, but he also fell un­der the tute­lage of his fa­ther and his un­cle Arthur Petersen, an el­der of the Wan­nyi, Lardil and Kalka­dunga tribes of western Queens­land, who gave his own didgeri­doo to the then 11year-old boy.

“Dad taught me a lot to go out bush and cut down the didgeri­doo ... Dad didn’t play, he knew how to make them. My un­cle [Arthur] was a law­man, a med­i­cal man — when he passed away they gave me his didgeri­doo, which is un­usual be­cause they nor­mally break it up and bury it with the spirit of the yi­daki [the Yol­ngu word for the in­stru­ment],’’ he says.

“I showed en­thu­si­asm and I really wanted to learn. I wagged school and I just im­mersed my­self in the spirit and the soul of the in­stru­ment.”

By the age of 12, Bar­ton was work­ing in Syd­ney, play­ing for Abo­rig­i­nal dance troupes; by 15 he was tour­ing over­seas. It was af­ter a tour of the US that he de­cided to be­come a soloist and be­gan to study dif­fer­ent kinds of mu­sic.

He re­united re­cently with one of his teach­ers, yi­daki mas­ter Djalu Gur­ruwiwi, 88, who still plays at lengthy cer­e­monies in his na­tive Arn­hem Land. It was Gur­ruwiwi who taught Bar­ton more com­plex phras­ing and gram­mar of the in­stru­ment dur­ing a visit to Arn­hem Land in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory in 2006, says an­thro­pol­o­gist John Carty, who has cu­rated a cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion of yi­dakis at the South Aus­tralian Mu­seum.

“That’s the thing with Wil­liam,” Carty says, “he’s taken that in­stru­ment into clas­si­cal ar­eas that has never been done be­fore. He’s a pioneer and it’s a rev­er­ence that’s been born out of a re­spect for the Yol­ngu.”

The mu­seum’s Yi­daki: did­jeridu and the sound of Aus­tralia is fo­cused on the Yol­ngu peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ship with the in­stru­ment, ac- knowl­edged as the most so­phis­ti­cated and com­plex tech­niques used in its play.

“From my dis­cus­sions with Wil­liam, to un­der­stand the ori­gins of Aus­tralian mu­sic you have to go to Arn­hem Land and learn from Djalu. He’s like Miles Davis crossed with the Dalai Lama,’’ says Carty.

“There is a resur­gence, most def­i­nitely, be­cause cul­tural iden­tity and lan­guage are a very im­por­tant thing for peo­ple,’’ Bar­ton says, adding: “We need to find more didgeri­doo play­ers. In­dige­nous peo­ple of Aus­tralia, they’re in­ter­ested and we’ve got pro­grams, like the Aus­tralian Youth Or­ches­tra where they have that out­let if they’re keen enough and they work hard enough.”

Bar­ton wants to cre­ate a sus­tain­able fu­ture for the didgeri­doo and clas­si­cal mu­sic. “I know there’s that con­nec­tion to that broader au­di­ence through that realm, but there are young­sters com­ing up through the ranks — which is great.”

will per­form in Cham­ber Land­scapes at the Ukaria Cul­tural Cen­tre, Mount Barker, on Mon­day and Tues­day; and in 1967 — Mu­sic in the Key of Yes at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val Cen­tre on Tues­day.

John Carty and Wil­liam Bar­ton at the South Aus­tralian Mu­seum

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