Traditional Aboriginal musical instruments
Fell in love with the music and the dance? Now learn more about the instruments behind it.
The bilma, or clapping sticks, are a part of the oldest songs of the Aboriginal people, often used as the rhythm for chants and melodies. Clapping sticks shows are frequent around Alice Springs and Darwin, and you can be sure to catch plenty of them at one of our annual festivals.
If you missed the festivals, the next best stop is the Karrke Cultural Experience Tours, held in the beautiful Watarrka National Park. These tours impart wisdom about not only the music and dance of the region, but how the land was used by the Aboriginal people for bush tucker, medicine and even to make musical instruments. Sign up to make your very own clapping sticks so you can keep the beat going when you get home.
First developed right here in the North of Australia about 1,500 years ago, the didgeridoo’s distinctive buzz is an enduring part of the songs and ceremonies of the Aboriginal people. While the instrument has an important role in Aboriginal culture, these days it can also be played casually around the campfire for guests as the unofficial soundtrack of the Top End.
If it’s not enough to just hear the music and you want to get involved in it, guests are in the right place. Didgeridoo lessons are offered across the NT, so whether you’re staying in Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs or even camping around Uluru there’s plenty of opportunities to learn.
In the Dry Season, some of the finest in the country are manufactured at the Didgeridoo Hut and Art Gallery in Humpty Doo, less than half an hour outside Darwin city. Owned and operated by Indigenous Northern Territory artists and musicians, visitors have the opportunity to meet the maker of their instrument and hear the stories behind every piece sold. Just remember, these instruments are generally over a metre in length – so you might need to clear some space in your luggage.
Music & dance in Aboriginal culture
Song and dance are a vital, vibrant part of Indigenous culture today, both in exploring new musical styles and celebrating the traditions of old. This passion for dancing and traditional music has been a part of Aboriginal life throughout history, as the stories of ancestors are passed down. The music and ceremonies our guests can experience in the NT contain the preserved history of one of the oldest civilisations on the planet – and there’s nowhere it’s more celebrated than up here. To learn more about the history of the region’s music, visit one of our cultural centres, catch a show or check out one of our captivating musical tours.
Body paint is also a part of these ancient Aboriginal traditions, as dancers use vibrant colours as a part of the storytelling in the songs. Drawn from the flowers and the clay of the land, this body art was traditionally applied by a dancer’s family, and could only be changed by a relative. Along with the music and dance itself, the paint was a showcase of the performer’s ancestors, spiritual beliefs and relationship with the land.
Part of the reason for music and dance’s cultural significance is the role it played within the traditional Aboriginal tribe. As well as revered rituals such as bereavement and Dreamtime ceremonies, tribes used songs to celebrate seasonal changes and events such as weddings and initiations. Specific tribes had very different styles of music, and our guests are sure to find out plenty about the myriad of tribes that have populated the Top End during their stay.
Dance rituals and ceremony are as meaningful and significant to Aboriginal culture as the music itself, and the NT is the best place to see one up close. Experience the colours and energy for yourself with a Lirrwi Tourism tour or the Culture College on Arnhem Land has a specialised tour for students.
Smoking ceremonies have been a traditional custom amongst the Aboriginal peoples for thousands of years, as native plants are burned to ward off evil spirits and ensure a prosperous future for the land and its inhabitants. Ceremonies promote spiritual well-being and physical health by combining traditional instruments and dancing.
If you’re lucky enough you might also experience a smoking ceremony as part of a Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country. Often held before an event or activity, a Welcome to Country is a way to show respect to the traditional owners of the land. Recognising their cultural heritage, beliefs and connection to the land.
Like the painting, sculpting and literature of the Aboriginal people, music and dance is traditionally a storytelling medium, used to pass down stories from generation to generation. This means that the ceremonies can often be sacred events for the local people.
Much of the traditional belief system of the Indigenous Australians relates to ‘dream tracks,’ which are paths across the land or sky that ‘creator-beings’ followed during the ancient Dreamtime. These songs often describe the actual geography of the land and are the source of Aboriginal creation myths, as well as being the basis for the traditional names of everything from the rocks and trees of the land to the birds and animals they lived alongside.
Guests can get a glimpse into this tradition at a number of the arts festivals across the Northern Territory. Other places to learn more about the fascinating Dreamtime stories include the Crossing Country Cultural expedition or day tour through Gove Gululu.
Because of their role in Indigenous traditions, the many festivals listed above are likely our guests’ best chance to see a traditional Aboriginal dance ceremony that may otherwise be unavailable. Staging these customary songs in elaborate ceremonies is still a crucial part of Aboriginal culture, religious beliefs and social collaboration, which we in the Northern Territory are proud to help preserve. The ongoing importance of these ceremonial rituals and stories to Aboriginal culture means that invitations are generally required for outsiders to be present, however you can catch displays of this music and dance at the many cultural centres across the Northern Territory.
Although these ceremonies are usually kept private, several cultural centres across the territory have the unrestricted rituals on display if you’re interested. First stop should be the Winanjjikari Music Centre, a modern production house and a cultural centre preserving the culture of the land. You can check out a range of their talented musicians on Spotify or ABC Radio National online. The centre is also a superb opportunity for visitors to come and see a Corroboree ritual, chat with the artists behind it and learn more about one of the most enduring cultures on the planet – all to the sound of an authentic Northern Territory soundtrack.