EVEN FOR TUCSON, which values a certain degree of eccentricity, it's a curious distinction: how did the Old Pueblo become the didgeridoo capital of the Western Hemisphere? For here in the Southwestern desert, thousands of miles from its ancestral birthplace, the Australian didgeridoo, that hypnotic aboriginal humming instrument, has found a second home.
Regarding the spread of the didgeridoo outside of its native land, Australian Peter Hadley, who's completing his Ph.D. in musicology at Wesleyan University, says that "Tucson is a big cluster of activity, and then Seattle and the Bay area." And he adds, "Some of the American players are very, very good."
"There's a broad range of people interested in the didgeridoo," he claims, "from Rainbows [the alternative lifestyle Rainbow Family of Living Light] to computer programmers. Some people use it for relaxation at the end of the day. For other people, it's an important part of their lifestyle."
The didgeridoo (a.k.a. didjeridu, or didge) goes back 40,000 years, its adherents claim. Traditionally, the long resonant tubes were made from eucalyptus trees hollowed out by termites. The instrument's primal sound is used ritually and helps the aboriginal culture stay in touch with the DreamTime, a shamanistic reality beyond the physical realm. In an irony by the universe, this sublime and mystical sound is made by making the ignoble "raspberry" sound into the beeswax mouthpiece. The continuous tones are created by a technique called circular breathing, where air is sharply inhaled through the nose while simultaneously being expelled from the mouth. The technique typically induces an altered state of consciousness in the player, some of whom can buzz along for hours without stopping to take a regular breath.
So how did Tucson -- long on termites and alternative realities but short on eucalyptus and aborigines -- become a focal point for this obscure instrument?
Enter Allan Shockley and the Northern Sonoran DreamTime Pipe. In 1989, local artisan Shockley was importing traditional didges. He'd learned about them from an Australian nomad traveling through Arizona. But the expense and quality of authentic outback products were a concern. The hardwood often split over time.
Shockley and a friend, Mark Woody, began experimenting with the sturdy stalks of the agave cactus to make a didge indigenous to North America. While Woody's interest waned, Shockley perfected the techniques that have made his DreamTime Pipes, as he calls them to differentiate from the traditional didge, some of the best instruments in the world.
"I knew my instruments, in the upper harmonic range, were superior to almost any didgeridoo, because of the progression of the stalks, the density and thinness of the walls," Shockley says. "The major difference is the didgeridoo, being a hardwood, contains the sound so tightly. In a DreamTime pipe, they're thick at the top and thin towards the bottom. The wave going though there starts to move the wall and that facilitates the volume and the progression of the sound. It's the natural quality of the agave."
He manufactures 300 to 400 DreamTime pipes each year, having sold some 4,000 globally so far for $100 to $400 and up, depending on quality, shape and ornamentation. His clients range from alt.culture amateurs to aborigine didge masters like David Hudson, to a New York City neurosurgeon and a dean at MIT.
Along the way, Shockley began offering workshops in circular breathing, combining Kundalini yoga and aboriginal techniques.
"It sounds complicated, but it's very simple," he says. "I've taught thousands of people how to do this. I don't just teach didgeridoo playing, I teach all kinds of stuff that reflects the importance of bringing the breath back to the center of the body."
He estimates that there are some 400 didge players in the Tucson area, the highest concentration per capita in the world, outside of Australia.
Rose, a 53-year-old woman, is part of Shockley's surprising influence on demographics.
"He's one of my teachers," the Catalina resident explains. "I was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few years ago. I was told that if I could oxygenate my system, I would have a better chance of recovering. I thought a didgeridoo would be a great wind instrument, so that's why I started playing and now it's just a part of my life."
Rose has been playing for two years and currently owns three didges. "I plan on having quite a big collection," she smiles.
Allen Smith, according to Shockley, is one of the best local players. Smith and his wife Audrey, who also plays, perform dual didge music. They offer sonic massages as well, setting up resonances deep within the body as they play over the person.
"We're interested in healing as much as just the fun and peacefulness of playing," Smith says from their west Tucson home. "It's part of our continuing understanding of spirituality and vibration being in everything. The didge doesn't fit too many of our cultural labels, so people have a chance to experience sound vibration in a new way."
Smith, who plays every day and is working on his second self-produced CD, makes his own agave didges and teaches new players. The most common mistake, he says, is trying too hard -- especially with breathing.
Adds Audrey, "We think we can't breathe that way. It's more of a permission to allow yourself to do it, as opposed to thinking about circular breathing."
David Crowder, a middle-school science teacher from Boulder, has traveled to Tucson to take part in Shockley's annual Interdimensional Didge Dance Party, an event that draws didge aficionados from around the country. A player himself, Crowder has hooked up with others via the Internet, where extensive resources for the instrument can be found. He says flippantly that the biggest mistake you can make with a didge is to step on it really hard. The other problem is sand or hair on the mouthpiece. Shockley has that covered, too, selling a natural cypress antiseptic for cleaning the opening.
World/trance musician Stephen Kent, an Englishman who studied in Australia and now lives in San Francisco, is one of the best didgeridoo players in the world. He was also in town to perform at the Interdimensional Party.
"Tucson is definitely one of the focal points in North America," the didge virtuoso acknowledges, "largely because of Allan Shockley."
"The didgeridoo is almost its own orchestra because of the harmonics," Kent says. "As a solo instrument, it offers so much depth. There's this misconception because it comes from what people think of as a primitive culture. This is an incredibly sophisticated instrument. A good player can make multi-layered textures so you have five or six different things happening at once. It's not just about blowing down a hollow log."
"I think in some way, as you play the didgeridoo as a non-aboriginal, you can plug into something that is deeper than just playing music. It's really an experience of your own interior. You learn about who you are from the inside out, and it comes out through the didgeridoo. I've noticed that people, if they are open to it, can go into a deep state of trance listening to it. I think that's amplified if you're playing it. If you oxygenate your body with such a high degree of meditative practice, which is what this is, then it takes you into another level of consciousness. It's really playing you."
Shockley adds, "The didgeridoo is not the instrument; the instrument is the body. The didgeridoo is a speaker."
"Very few people think while they're playing the didge," he says. "It's a body process and it stops the internal chatter immediately for most people. You become sound."