If I told you that you could overcome your weak tendency to produce fart noises from a long wooden tube in just an hour and a half — and replace it with a soulful, meditative drone instead — would you take up the didgeridoo?
In Greenpoint, a small cohort of world music enthusiasts is putting New York City on the map for didge culture, and they were gracious enough to let me struggle with one of their sacred instruments for an evening.
AJ Block, the director of Didge Project, has been teaching a series of didgeridoo classes at the Sacred Arts Research Foundation on Green Street this fall. He opened this particular session with a question, which more or less amounted to: “what’s still iffy to you about producing a rich, continuous sound that requires you to more or less breathe in and out at the same time, while varying the pitch in rhythmically sophisticated ways?”
Everything. All of the questions.
Still, it was encouraging to see the dedicated others who had been showing up and doing their breathing exercises at home, asking questions about the “cheek-cheek-abs” rhythm, and professing breakthroughs in circular breathing (the technique required to produce an uninterrupted drone).
As Block confirmed to me over the phone, the didgeridoo is indeed fairly closely related to yoga, which also places a lot of emphasis on the breath. Circular breathing is not too far off from pranayama, or kapalabhati.
“With the didge, you have an element of sound added to it that works up your energy and moves your qi or kundalini,” he said. “And when you finally get the sound to be continuous, you get a drone that’s also found in all sorts of Indian music. There’s definitely a connection between yoga and didge.”
Block, who was a jazz trombonist in high school and college, says he didn’t think much of it when the didge was first introduced to him.
“I couldn’t even really play it, but I had a friend who was really passionate about it, and the sound just spoke to me and captivated me,” he said. “I started taking it everywhere with me, and it really started opening doors. As I got better, people would ask me to come play and teach. And eventually I said, ‘we need to organize something beyond just going here and there and doing workshops.”
Block actually didn’t have a strong sense of purpose when he first moved to New York City — he just felt like it was time for him to start something. In his mind, New York gave him the opportunity to eventually get Didge Project off the ground in 2008 with fellow musician Tyler Sussman: an umbrella organization for their varied didge initiatives, which all worked, in some way, to spread the gospel of the didgeridoo.
Now, Didge Project is on the verge of expanding into all forms of world music education and providing a cohesive space for people to dive in.
“Bridging the gap between music and spirituality is a big part of our mission, so [introducing people to] ceremonial music, sacred music, really highlighting all sorts of sounds from around the world that are not in the traditional Western music orchestration…it’s not really out there as a whole field,” he said.
Though didge circles are not something that happen regularly here — yet — New Yorkers are gravitating toward the instrument for a variety of reasons, one largely being our “no chill” pace of life. Some find it meditative, others just like the sound; some people are already musicians, and many are actually looking for a natural alternative therapy to sleep apnea. According to Block, roughly half the people in the class last week have sleep apnea, and as far as altnerative therapies go, the didgeridoo is actually clinically proven to mitigate symptoms by building the muscles of the tongue and throat.
Block, who has been studying the didge for 7 years and wind instruments overall for 17, is already realizing his dream of seeing the movement grow before his eyes.
“Every person I encounter and speak to is memorable — just seeing people learning the instrument, and then taking it into their communities and lives and sharing it and growing as individuals — that’s the most touching for me. I have a student who’s a yoga teacher. She knew nothing about it but she studied with me for a year, and now she’s playing in all her yoga classes and people ask her to go places and bring the didge. Same with Jerry Walsh, who works with me. Now he’s performing all over the place and teaches and plays at yoga studios. [It’s been pretty cool] seeing the community grow. The individuals who play it are gaining opportunities because of their involvement.”
For anyone who’s sufficiently sold on the didgeridoo, Block and his colleague Adam Maalouf will be holding a fully immersive World Rhythms Retreat this Saturday, Dec. 12, at The Ark.