Modern master puts his spin on ancient instrument

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Didgeridoo player William Barton makes a bold impression as travels the world to promote the instrument’s heritage. Didgeridoo player William Barton makes a bold impression as travels the world to promote the instrument’s heritage.

Sometime in late elementary school, you learn about the didgeridoo (occasionally spelled didjeridu). It’s a funky instrument played by half naked Aboriginal people in the Australian bush. It’s more than a thousand years old. It doesn’t actually sound all that great.

Then, while attending a Phish show, you come across another didge. It’s pressed to the lips of a spacy hippie sitting at the edge of a drum circle. It somehow makes sense in context. But it still doesn’t actually sound all that great.

Now, you’re standing in the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art museum in Charlottesville. A hulking 32-year-old man in a frumpy collared shirt, khakis, and work boots is balancing a didgeridoo on a museum table. He starts in on the droning, the instrument’s signature sound. But there’s something different about the way he plays the didge. It’s tonal— this one is naturally tuned to C, to be exact—but it comes across as more of a rhythm instrument than a horn.

The musician, William Barton, is widely regarded as one of the best didgeridoo players in the world and, as an Aboriginal Australian, is the face of the modern didgeridoo (oxymoron be damned). Barton tours the world on the strength of his ability to play a piece of wood hollowed out by termites and white ants, and this week he’s in Charlottesville for two public shows, one on February 19 with the Charlottesville High School Orchestra String Ensemble and a second on February 22 with the UVA McIntire String Quartet as part of TEDxUVA.

Back in the museum, one of only two in the world devoted entirely to Aboriginal art, Barton taps away at the side of his instrument while huffing and puffing across its mouthpiece in rapidly shifting cadences. Then he really goes for it, breaking into a didgeridoo-amplified beat box punctuated with deejay hand motions and dropping a “check this out” through the horn that sounds like it could well have been auto-tuned. It’s like Doug E. Fresh just stepped out of an Aussie time machine.

This is “didge fusion.”

“I try to connect one of the oldest Aboriginal instruments to Western music,” Barton said. “But it’s still important for me to respect the traditions of the instrument.”

The phrase didge fusion is subject to interpretation, according to Barton. In his own music, it typically refers to the use of the wooden horn alongside classical symphonic Western arrangements, such as full orchestras or string ensembles. Barton’s played with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, among others, over the years. His solo work typically features him finger-picking a classical guitar while playing a didgeridoo affixed to a stand, not unlike Bob Dylan strumming away at his Gibson with a harmonica mounted on his neck.

The idea, Barton says, is to take the Aboriginal tradition and put it in a slightly more modern context. Hopefully, the effort will introduce the music of his ancestors to wider audiences.

“I’ve played the didgeridoo all over the world,” Barton said. “I was recently in Paris to play. I came in one night and left the next day.”

That’s not to say Barton has made himself rich through his craft, although he said he makes a “pretty good way of it.” It’s more about doing what he loves and playing music with some of the world’s best musicians. Along the way, he’s managed to rack up a number of awards, including the Australian version of the Grammy.

According to Barton’s mom, who’s traveling the States with him on his current tour, didgeridoo excellence is something he’s been on track for since his youth. Barton was taught the didge by his uncle before he’d turned 10, and he soon found he was naturally gifted enough to translate that ability into playing other instruments.

“He heard the rhythms of the Earth and the sounds around him,” Delmae Barton said.

When Barton steps onto the stage this week, he’s likely to take a few people by surprise. The first striking thing about him is his speaking voice. Small minded as it may seem, when a native Australian playing an instrument five times older than the United States of America drawls away in perfect Aussie-accented English, it’s somehow disarming. Having grown up in the city of Mount Isa in Queensland, Barton carries himself more like a shy American than an heir to a 40,000-year-old heritage.

Then there’s the music. Whether you like the didgeridoo or not, it’s Barton’s virtuosity on the strings that steals the show. According to the didge master, though, the last thing he would want to do is steal any show. He said even when he’s playing one of his own compositions, as a musician he’s only trying to help the others around him sound their best. It’s a communal approach to making music that would surely make didge traditionalists proud.

“William’s presence is the most effective way to teach students about indigenous Australians and their unique cultural heritage,” said Margo Smith, director of the Kluge-Ruhe Museum. “By collaborating with William, our student musicians are creating something that crosses cultures and reaches deep into our shared humanity.”

Barton performs at UVA’s Culbreth Theater Wednesday night and Nau Hall on Saturday.

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