Interview with… William Barton

William Barton doesn’t just play the didgeridoo; he makes it sing like the kookaburra, he makes it hop like a kangaroo, he makes it dance like a hip-hop artiste, he makes it scratch like it was a DJ’s turntable.

The talented young didgeridoo player — considered one of Australia’s finest — was in Chennai recently for a special concert, ‘Songlines of Australia’, as part of his tour of India (including a performance at the Hockey World Cup in Delhi), organised by the Australia-India Council.

The concert might have been in the plush environs of the Asiana Hotel, but for an all-too-brief half-an-hour, Barton transported the audience to the rugged Australian bush, conjuring a vivid soundscape of its bird songs and of the wind rustling through its trees.

“The didgeridoo captures the raw resonance of the Australian outback through its deep tones,” he said during an interview earlier in the evening (there was plenty of time to spare since the concert started nearly two hours late). “It’s the branch of a tree that comes alive when you put your breath into it.”

The instrument has been an integral part of ceremonies of the native tribes of Australia for centuries, accompanying the ‘song man’ as he sang the ‘dream-time story’, the Aboriginal legends of the seasons and rituals. Barton carried on this storytelling tradition of the instrument during the performance, telling tales through the didgeridoo, and of the didgeridoo.

He told old-world stories by recreating the sounds of dingo dogs and kookaburras and of ‘papa, mama and baby joey kangaroos’ hopping (his free hand ‘animating’ the sounds with lively finger actions). And then, he segued seamlessly into very contemporary stories of hip-hop dancers (his fingers doing a little dance on the side) and an amazingly-creative piece on a ‘Hitchhiker’s Nightmare’, where the didgeridoo mimics the sound of vehicles whizzing by the hapless hitchhiker as he walks on and on and on…

“Songlines (the song-style of a particular family group) interconnected the different tribes in the old days; in the modern context, these songlines can connect us to the Western world,” said Barton, who has collaborated with jazz, heavy metal, hip hop, rock ‘n roll artistes as well as a number of the world’s leading philharmonic orchestras, and performed at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. “I’m passionate about connecting the world through the universal language of music.”

His own musical influences growing up in Mount Isa, Queensland, included everything from opera (his mother was a self-taught singer) to AC/DC (like any other head-banging teenage Aussie boy). But the greatest influence was his uncle, an elder of the Waanyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga tribes, who taught him to play the didgeridoo at the age of seven. He died when Barton was just 11, but his legacy lives on with the young man in his music, and in the 60-year-old didgeridoo that he keeps with him.

“In traditional law, when an elder passes away, his didgeridoo is broken up, but they let me keep it as a special case,” Barton said. “I don’t usually travel with it because it’s getting old, but I take it to special gigs — out on the Australian bush, to Carnegie Hall, the London Philharmonic, and now to India — so the history is captured in it.”

He told other traditional stories too — of how he learnt to make his own didgeridoo from his father, for instance: “The didgeridoo is hollowed out naturally by termites, so you go out into the bush, find the tree you need, cut it, remove the bark, then make a mouthpiece from beeswax — after tapping out the termites first, of course!”

And his music said the rest, as he played on the electric guitar (his ‘second musical voice’) and the didgeridoo simultaneously, heavy metal riffs and soulful intros somehow merging perfectly with the deep-throated percussive notes of the didgeridoo. Fusion with Indian music is up next on his to-do list, but we’ll have to wait until next time to hear him tell those stories.

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