In 1992, Aphex Twin released “Didgeridoo.” It was a strange name for an electronica-driven track designed, according to its creator, to be too frenetic for dancing.
The didgeridoo, the traditional instrument of the Australian aborigines, is, after all, one of the world’s oldest instruments. It is also one of the simplest. Traditionally, didgeridoos — eucalyptus branches hollowed out by termites — were found rather than created. The sleek column of wood, sometimes polished or carved, appears to be the antithesis of the messy collection of electronic gear behind most club music.
But they are not so different to the discerning ear. Like an analog synthesizer, the didgeridoo creates harmonically rich sounds. Buzzing around the drone of its fundamental or key note are overtones, allowing the instrument to sound almost if it were playing more than one note at the same time.
From this perspective, the new album from Japanese didgeridoo player Goma isn’t so strange either. Out of the oldest of instruments, he has made the most modern of music.
Only on very close listening can one hear the intake of breath, the click of the tongue against the mouthpiece and the quivering vocal chords that make up the rich layers of sound that Goma coaxes from his instrument. The album is called “Million Breath Orchestra,” and that is exactly what it sounds like.
“I guess I come from the digital generation,” says Goma during a recent interview at a friend’s cafe in Meguro. Before taking up didgeridoo nearly eight years ago, Goma (real name Hiroki Morimoto) was a hip-hop dancer and DJ.
The opening track of the album belies the club influence that marks the rest of the record. A primer of the classic didgeridoo style, its sound is somewhere between the white noise of a car factory and the chanting of Tibetan monks.
Other tracks better reflect Goma’s less-orthodox approach. On “Flamenco Swimming,” the humming vocal work combined with crashing beats is like Bobby McFerrin mixed with a human beatbox and then pushed to an extreme bpm. On later tracks, the tempo is more relaxed. “Sunset” almost sounds funky.
Goma’s album is only the latest expansion of the didgeridoo repertoire. Peter Gabriel and Jamiroquai have used it, and Australian fusion group Yothu Yindi has garnered a following in world music circles. Goma’s work, however, perhaps because it is solo and not an accessory to other instruments, seems more extreme.
Thus, after four years of self-study in Japan, he approached an opportunity to learn from aboriginal masters in Australia in 1998 with some apprehension.
“When I was first exposed to the proper, Aboriginal didgeridoo style, I couldn’t play for a month because it was totally different from the way I played,” he says.
“I couldn’t play in front of them either. Then one day I got up the courage. I thought they would say, ‘No, that’s not didgeridoo,’ but they said, ‘Wow! We’ve never heard that sort of sound.’ “
His subsequent year and a half of study with aboriginal teachers in the bush around Darwin was a little different from typical music lessons.
“Mostly I was learning about the spiritual aspects of the instrument,” says Goma. “Later I studied technique.”
For aborigines, the music of the didgeridoo is less an art in itself than a conduit to Dreamtime, the ongoing creation story that is the center of aboriginal ritual and myth. For Goma, the challenge was fitting the ritualistic, transcendent possibilities of the instrument to his own particular background.
“I had to think about where I was from, where my god was coming from,” he says.
Even the key technical skill in playing the didgeridoo has mystical consequences. Circular breathing, the means of keeping a continuous flow of air through the instrument to maintain a steady sound, is an element in many Eastern religious and healing traditions. Tibetan monks use it in their chants to help access a higher metaphysical plane. Qi Gong practitioners rely on its healing power, and yogis use it as a means of filling the body with life-giving prana energy.
Goma seems to have benefited from circular breathing’s nonmusical attributes as well. At 28, he looks, except for the faux afro, like a junior high school student. He also admits to a certain spiritual high when using the technique.
“I feel as if I can access another, higher personality,” he says.
In the digital era, the closest most people get to this sensation is on the sweat-soaked dance floor. Like Goma’s didgeridoo, it’s just another route to ecstasy.
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