What’s That Sound? Kate Bush’s curious use of Didgeridoo
“That’s what all art’s about – a sense of moving away from boundaries that you can’t in real life. Like a dancer is always trying to fly, really – to do something that’s just not possible. But you try to do as much as you can within those physical boundaries.” – Kate Bush
The English singer-songwriter and record producer Kate Bush spent her entire career trying to dissolve the physical, mental and socio-cultural boundaries that constricted her real life, through her boundless music. A seeker of the unknown, she experimented with different eclectic styles and sounds that made her music elusive and magical.
Her albums exhibit a wide range of creative work that evolved with time. Bush once said, “Albums are like diaries. You go through phases, technically and emotionally, and they reflect the state that you’re in at the time.” There is a notable change in the albums which were self-produced. The 1982 album The Dreaming was her first independent project, and she made sure to use her freedom to the fullest making the album melodramatic, surrealistic and difficult to categorise. Though the album sold much less than its superhit predecessors earning only a silver certificate, with time, its genius was slowly recognised by the music industry.
Bush’s experimental streak found expression not just in the lyrically diversified themes but also in the inclusion of indigenous tribal instruments. Folk instruments such as mandolins, didgeridoos, uilleann pipes were used along with a variety of polyrhythmic percussions to create a unique soundscape. To understand the speciality of such usages, let us revisit the title track of the album.
‘The Dreaming’ is a song about the destruction of lands by white settlers that belonged to the Australian aboriginal community, all in search of weapon-grade uranium for yet more destruction. The track’s title was derived from an anthropological theory named Dreamtime/The Dream which explained the religious and cultural worldview of the aboriginal people of Australia. A slightly uncomfortable fact of this song is that the infamous TV personality and convicted paedophile, Rolf Harris, collaborated with Bush on several projects after this, played the didgeridoo in the song. The didgeridoo, of course, is a long, hollow wind instrument which when played with vibrating lips produces a continuous droning sound. It’s a traditional instrument invented by the aboriginal Australians that dates back more than 40,000 years. Most commonly, it is made out of tree trunks, especially eucalyptuses, that are hollowed by the termites. Though it was primarily used in traditional Australian songs, it later seeped into popular music. Bush is largely responsible for diversifying its usage and for introducing it to the western music scene.
The singer came across the instrument during her vacation in Australia, immediately after which she started working on The Dreaming album. With the inclusion of the didgeridoo, she included the marginal culture of the aboriginals into the mainstream Western culture. So, it not just some random and innocent use to add an authentic flavour to the track; rather, a political tool presented as a voice of protest against the illegal destruction of the aboriginal-owned land.
Though well-intended, and with the benefit of looking back in 2020, by taking the responsibility of voicing the aboriginal community’s grievances on their behalf, by virtue of being the white coloniser and by choosing the coloniser’s language to express the indigenous people’s concerns, Bush is found to be guilty of cultural appropriation.
Of course, from a musical point of view, it was ingenious of her to use the didgeridoo which perfectly flavoured the song’s theme. But it would be an act of ignorance on our part to focus on the musical aspects while disregarding the crucial political connotations associated with it.