Dreamtime drones

12 min read
10 Mar 2017
12 min read
1254 words
Art & Culture
Salil Subedi, the most well-known didgeridoo player in Nepal, talks to VMAG about how the didgeridoo has turned his life around and helped him forge a unique career

What inspired you take up the didgeridoo?
I was a young man, searching for his calling, hopping from one thing to another. That search eventually brought me to didgeridoo during one of my assignments to cover an event of an Australian band—with some unusual lineup of instruments. That’s how I was first introduced to the didgeridoo. I don’t think I realised the spark it had lit in me. But I want to believe that the moment I touched it, my life had already changed. A few years later, as I was passing by a shop on Freak Street, I came across a bamboo didgeridoo for sale. Then and there, in 2002, after almost five years of my fated encounter with the didgeridoo, I finally got my very own, that too made in Nepal, for Rs 500.

Tell us more about the instrument. 
Didgeridoo, an Australian Aboriginal wind instrument, is deeply rooted in Aboriginal tradition and is known for its rich tone. The best instruments are made out of eucalyptus wood hollowed out by termites, and they are later handpainted with natural dyes. As I researched the history of the instrument, I was amazed by the wisdom and the culture of the Aborigines. Aborigines consider themselves guardians of nature, and I think in this time of global crisis that we live in today—civil wars, environmental problems, political changes, etc—their ancient wisdom might actually provide the answers to these problems. We need to be aware of our surroundings and be responsible for what we’ve been taking for granted. There is so much beauty in the wisdom that ethnic communities, tribal people and the Aborigines have preserved and passed on since thousands of years. Their understanding, their wisdom, for me, is art. All these are realisations that didgeridoo has led me to. It encourages me to explore further and take my quest farther than where I have reached now. I have seen this instrument bring people of varying traditions and cultures together. Whenever I conduct my workshops, I teach my students to make their own didgeridoo and then play along however they want, wherever they want. The bond it creates and the doors it opens is difficult for me to explain.

So how did you get into theatre and the performing arts? 
I grew up in Kaldhara, and my parents used to take me to Vajra Hotel to watch plays there, so I’ve grown up appreciating art. Later, I was involved with radio shows—reciting novellas and working on other similar projects; one day, some young lads I knew, who were working with radio and theatre, told me that Sabine Lehmann was looking for me because they were short of one actor in the Mahabharata play they were doing—I was given the title role of Krishna. Although I had performed in a couple of plays before, my career in theatre took off from this play onwards. Later, I found ways to mix didgeridoo in everything I did. I would play the didgeridoo for street plays. But it was only with the play Ghanchakkar, directed by Sunil Pokharel, that I used the didgeridoo for a work staged in a proscenium theatre, at Gurukul.

“Art, music and culture cannot be suppressed with fanatical beliefs— indeed, they are the keys to unlock such restrictive thinking"

Didgeridoo, theatre and music 

Words, music, the body, theatre—all these things define me. And when I know it’s suitable and relevant to do so, I like to design my performances while incorporating all these aspects of me. When I made the drastic career-change—from a journalist to a performing artist to a didgeridoo player—I’d shocked many people, but ever since, I have always managed to work with all these elements together.

How did you find about the healing properties of the didgeridoo? 
The therapeutic value of didgeridoo’s sound can be regarded as being similar to the sounds of the instruments and chants of Tibetan Buddhist monks, which are believed to enable spiritual healing. The principle of instruments like singing bowls and didgeridoo is basically similar. The vibrations they produce go beyond physical healing. Rather than simply healing your ailments, these vibrations allow you to focus your senses on your problem areas. A sound-healing session helps point you to your problem areas— that is, sound healing is not a permanent solution. Once you’re aware of your problems, you have to work towards mitigating it yourself. Also for a player, the didgeridoo helps with their breathing. The didgeridoo is played using circular breathing, a technique in which you inhale and exhale at the same time. I used to be a smoker before, but after I started playing the didgeridoo, I realised I needed to deal with some health and psychological issues. So I quit smoking, changed my life goals, my career—everything—and began my healing process.

Do some people criticise you for focusing on a foreign instrument, rather than a Nepali one? 
Art thrives more when it is faced with crisis, I believe. So you learn to accept those derogatory remarks and channel it to enhance your creative flow. And I actually think how remarkable it is that the didgeridoo has transcended the limits of time and physical boundaries and found a niche for itself in this faraway country. This seemingly hollow piece of wood has showered me with the kind of respect and admiration I had never hoped for and has taken me to places where I never thought I would travel to or meet people whom I otherwise would have no connection with. Art, music and culture cannot be suppressed with fanatical beliefs—indeed, they are the keys to unlock such restrictive thinking. Preserving art and traditions while allowing them to thrive is what makes them priceless.

Any future plans? 
I am not too enthusiastic about being a soloist. And after Trikaal (I was one of the founding members of the band) disbanded, my solo projects have rarely seen much progress. But now, I am slowly, but steadily, working on my first solo album. This will be my attempt to present my interpretations of the didgeridoo, its sounds and more. I hope it will be something to look forward to.