Sounds of Time — New documentary Baywara profiles Djalu Gurruwiwi, spiritual custodian of the Didjeridoo and guardian of thousands of years of stories.

How would it feel to know you were the last link in a chain that stretches back 60,000 years? As the spiritual custodian of the Didgeridoo, Djalu Gurruwiwi is entrusted with safeguarding the knowledge passed down through song by the oldest continuous culture on the planet, the Aboriginal Australians.

Director Ben Strunin has been working on documentary Baywara for over five years at Djalu’s tribal home in Arhnem Land, Northern Australia and on tour in Europe as he shares the wealth of his civilisation’s culture with the rest of the world. Ben has just launched his Indiegogo campaign to fund the final and most interesting part of the film; to take Djalu back to his spiritual homeland of Raragala Island, also know as The Hole In The Wall. Artist Ghostpatrol and musician Gotye will accompany Djalu on the journey to collaborate with him in creating art and music to help him fulfil his mission to serve as a bridge between the ancient world and the modern.

Huck caught up with Ben to find out more about the project and Djalu’s ancestral knowledge.

How were you introduced to Djalu and when did you decide to make a film with him?
I was on a research trip with Kate the producer for another film about Australian indigenous rock art in a place called Oenpelli in Arnhem Land. We met a super enthusiastic English guy called Colin who was there sourcing instruments for London’s only Didjeridoo gallery. When I was back in London a few months later, he called me to say he was bringing the spiritual custodian of the Didjeridoo, a man called Djalu on a tour of Europe.

I ended up meeting Djalu, not in his native Arnhem Land, but at Heathrow airport at five in the morning and jumped straight into a stretched limo together with his wife Dhopiya and two other Indigenous musicians. His manager Jeremy told me the only way to broach the idea of making a film was if I talked face to face with Djalu and shook his hand; he would know if it was right and this was his way.

As we drove through central London Djalu explained his philosophy and intent to me in his native tongue. Admittedly, I was confused but Jeremy helped me get a grasp on what was happening and eventually told me the good news that Djalu had given the all clear to make the film. We committed to the project together almost immediately and I spent the next month on the road filming with Djalu and co. travelling all over Europe.

I was really thrown into the film and I mean that in the best possible way because it was a truly revelatory journey. Over the past few years I’ve visited Djalu and his family in Arnhem Land a number of times, but everything we’ve done together has related to that initial meeting.

How does someone become a ‘spiritual custodian of the Didjeridoo’?
Djalu is the leader of the Galpu clan who developed the Yidaki, which most people know as the Didjeridoo. It was then spread throughout all the different clan nations of Australia and altered along the way into different shapes and sizes. Didjeridoo is a phonetic renaming of the instrument by the English. It’s the equivalent of an Aboriginal man coming to Europe, picking up a violin, playing it and called it a “Wa-Wa-wa”, completely ignoring its real cultural name. The custodianship of the Yidaki has been handed down through many generations to Djalu, which makes him an authority on the instrument and a keeper of much of the sacred knowledge channeled through it.

What’s your background in documentary filmmaking?
I started filming my mates back in Australia skating and their general day to day idiocy, then went to art school and got immersed in the film department. I helped on other people’s productions before I decided to make a film about the junky window washers who pestered everyone at the Punt Road lights in Melbourne. Over time I got to know a few of them pretty well and a couple of the guys had really fascinating and unlikely stories.

I followed them into some weird circumstances and I began to understand the power of documentary to expand your awareness and take you out of your comfort zone; even if that meant how to buy smack in a Collingwood housing project. My friend lost all the tapes and I never finished the film, but my love for documentary filmmaking just grew and grew.

What were the challenges in presenting this story to a wider audience?
I saw Djalu’s charisma and incredible power to engage with a fairly broad audience on a level that went beyond mere musical appreciation, but certain esoteric phenomena and knowledge doesn’t instantly translate into an easily accessible story or a compelling film.

The languages that cross esoteric and cultural boundaries are music and art; they connect the most unlikely of people and transmit knowledge. Djalu and I both have a background in music and art so that’s where we connect in real life and on film. Sound and vision give you an accessible porthole into another world.

With the final segment of the film, which we’ve gone to Indiegogo to fund, we’re aiming to demonstrate Djalu’s generosity of spirit and willingness to collaborate with non-Indigenous people. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Ghostpatrol and Gotye end up making with Djalu when they visit his spiritual homeland of Raragala Island and how the experience affects all three of them.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility to Djalu?
I feel blessed that Djalu has given me so much time and energy and so feel responsible to reciprocate that time and energy in representing his story to a standard that does him and his people justice. He’s a special person doing great things in the world and so the bar is set high.

Djalu is a very positive and fearless man but there’s no denying that his culture is facing major hurdles to sustain itself into the future. I know that he sees this film as a way to help that culture stay strong. A documentary is not the only way to do that and there are other films about Djalu and his culture, but I want to get this right and hope to introduce a new audience to the ways of his people.

What are the major things you have learnt from making the doc?
Patience. Staying true to your roots and following through with an idea even when it might seem hopeless. Not being distracted by all the extra noise we are constantly pummelled with on a day to day basis. Djalu’s passion, determination and focus under severe extraneous pressures are really inspiring and they make my troubles seem relatively insipid.

How do you hope your documentary will have an impact?
It’s ambitious but I hope that people will both be entertained and feel the integrity of what Djalu represents. People should understand that the knowledge contained in ancient Yolngu songlines is applicable to the modern world and everyone’s way of living. Its not a hippy sentiment; these songs and music also contain tangible pragmatic survival information and instructions on how to live harmoniously in the world.

Djalu’s culture is very much alive and it is not redundant. It’s just that the media tends to insinuate that ancient cultures belong in the past and have no place in the modern world. This is not an anthropological analysis of a dead culture; we can all engage with and learn from it today. It follows that we should value what Djalu is sharing and do our bit to promote, share and enjoy it.

Find out more about the project and support the Baywara Indiegogo campaign.