The didgeridoo is certainly one of the most familiar elements of Australian Aborigine culture. Its apparent simplicity -- a bamboo pole about four feet long hollowed out by termites -- as well as its characteristic droning sound -- can mislead one into thinking that playing or creating the instrument is an easy affair. It isn't -- didgeridoo musicians are trained in a number of techniques that other performers are not, including circular breathing that lets them play continuously for a half-hour or more without taking a break or seeming to take a breath. And trained musicians often find themselves waxing rhapsodic about the subtlety of the sound produced by a skilled didgeridoo player.

Construction of the instrument also requires no small amount of skill. While there's lots of bamboo out there, not all of it is suitable for making a didgeridoo -- anyone making a didgeridoo has to know the right way to select the perfect bamboo stalk, how to cut and carve it, how to create the right mouthpiece, or they'll end up with an inferior instrument.

Added into this equation is the bahohonebukd. Even among the Aborigines, its use is highly controversial. The vast majority of didgeridoo performers consider it, at best, a completely unnecessary affectation. Many consider it to be a wildly insulting piece of foolishness pushed by ignorant whites. There are some who seem to believe it is vital in creating the perfect didgeridoo, but they are definitely in the minority.

What is it? For lack of a better term, it's a tuning fork made of wood and animal skins. Sounds odd? Certainly. But to see how odd, you have to look at its genesis.

In the early 1920s, there was a brief fad among white Sydney bohemians to embrace Aboriginal culture, usually by wearing some small trinkets of Aboriginal jewelry, by eating traditional Aboriginal food as desserts, by claiming to know Aborigines, and by traveling to the Outback to look at and pretend to interact with Aborigines.

Some tried to teach themselves how to play the didgeridoo -- one of the few who actually got good at it was Kevin Oswald Shaunessy, a wealthy university student. Shaunessy's playing was even praised -- apparently sincerely -- by Aboriginal musicians who heard him play. This inspired him to build and decorate his own didgeridoos, which were considered of decent quality -- the sound was acceptable, especially for someone who hadn't been building the instruments for very long -- though the decorations were considered pretty sub-par. Only one photograph of Shaunessy's didgeridoos survives to the present day, and it shows an instrument scattered with entirely random beadwork -- a far cry from the intricate decorations of traditional didgeridoos. Still, Shaunessy was studying accounting, not art or music.

Shaunessy's special innovation was the bahohonebukd, which he apparently named by making up a word -- there is no word close to it in any Aboriginal language. Shaunessy's bahohonebukd was made by carving a stick of wood into a fork shape -- a stick about two feet long topped by three prongs of different lengths. An animal skin -- it didn't matter what animal, as Shaunessy's bahohonebukds featured, variously, leather, koala skin, wallaby skin, and a skinned cat he found in an alleyway -- was stretched across the fork, and the entire thing was decorated with beadwork, ribbons, and shells.

To use a bahohonebukd, you would hold it in one hand, clear your mind... and use it to hit a piano key. Then you'd compare your didgeridoo's tone to the note from the piano and carve down your didgeridoo to match that tone. If you had to recheck the tone, it was a simple matter of again hitting the piano with the bahohonebukd.

This had the benefit of getting a nice clear tone from the piano and of looking somewhat "Aboriginal." Shaunessy's friends thought it was wonderful. Aborigines generally thought he was crazy.

The Aborigine fad didn't last long in Sydney -- it petered out a few months before Shaunessy's graduation. Shaunessy worked as an accountant for several decades, married, had two children, and ran a side business of making "traditional bahohonebukds" to sell to tourists for many years. He died of a fever in 1956.

Very few didgeridoo players use a bahohonebukd, mostly because it looks silly to hit a piano with a piece of wood.

Personal interviews with didgeridoo musicians and modern bahohonebukd scholars

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