Blowing wood

Learning a 40,000-year-old instrument, one breath at a time.

"Plllbbbth!"

I look around, a little embarrassed.

The four other participants in Jeremy Lembo's workshop are getting some rich "waowaowaowao" sounds coming from their didgeridoos. But my sound is a flat, sputtering raspberry.

"It isn't easy," says Lembo, who teaches a workshop on the long wooden wind instrument inside Ybor City's International Bazaar every month. "It's not like a hand drum where you can pick it up if you have half a decent sense of rhythm."

Lembo describes the basic technique — again: First, put your lips together, but not too tight or too loose. Then, press them into opening on the didgeridoo and blow.

"The harder you push, the less you have to pinch," Lembo explains. "In order to play it well, you really have to build up your face muscles and train your cheeks."

Lembo, sitting on a hollow wooden box, leans over and grabs one of the 12 didgeridoos ("didges," as he calls them) lined up behind him. He stares ahead, puffs out his cheeks and blows into the glossy wooden pole, producing a long droning sound much like a nest of idle bees. Then he improvises. By rapidly sucking in and blowing out again in various spurts, he sounds like a cross between a beat-box, tuba and kazoo. The rest of the class and I stare along with shoppers browsing International Bazaar's wares.

"You have to feel it more than play it," he says and gets back to the task at hand: trying to teach us newbies the art of the didgeridoo.

The didgeridoo is said to be man's oldest wind instrument, dating back more than 40,000 years. Credit is commonly given to the aboriginals of Northern Australia, who made didgeridoos (or "yidakis") from termite-hollowed bamboo or eucalyptus trees for shamanistic ceremonies.

But the didgeridoo has quickly spread across the world as a recreational instrument. Yanni and Jamiroquai have popularized its use; hippie buskers have introduced it to drum circles.

Lembo's history with the instrument began at the age of 3 while watching a PBS special on aborigines. He filed away the memory until a 1998 trip to Peru, where he saw a "dirty hippie" with a didg hanging out of his pack. Lembo watched as the man sat down on a busy sidewalk, pulled out his didg and "played some damn good didgeridoo," drawing a large crowd instantly.

When Lembo returned to Florida, he searched several music stores for didgeridoos to no avail, eventually finding a catalog that sold traditional didges.

"This whole world started exploding out," the Longboat Key resident says.

By listening to old recordings of aborigine music and a few modern players like Jeremy Cloake, he slowly taught himself the instrument. Within a year, he began making didges himself out of bamboo, agave and fiberglass.

"It came almost out of necessity," Lembo says, explaining a quality didgeridoo can cost upwards of $300. "That's a lot of money for a poor musician to afford."

Two years ago, International Bazaar invited Lembo to teach his craft at the store. He's taught five to 10 students every month since.

"We used to play and get kicked out of Centro Ybor all the time," he says. "Now I'm paid to play here."

A half hour into the class and most of us have mastered the standard didgeridoo drone sound, the equivalent of learning your first guitar chords. First-timers like me practice on a three-foot-long PVC pipe. The only returning student is Jennifer Gedeon, who recently bought a didg that stands almost as tall as her.

"I saw a band, and one of the band members played it," Gedeon says, describing her first didg experience. "I was like 'What is that?' I was amazed."

In the second hour, Lembo introduces us to circular breathing — the technique of exhaling through the mouth while breathing in through the nose that allows a player to produce a continuous tone without a break. It separates the novice from the professional.

To illustrate, Lembo takes us outside with bottles of water. We line up on the sidewalk, and Lembo instructs us to spit out water while breathing in through our nose. Over the next 10 minutes, we spit on ourselves trying to master circular breathing.

While we catch our breath, Lembo demonstrates a few other didg techniques. My favorite: "the dingo," played by rolling your tongue inside the didg to create a low, growl.

This seemingly simple tube of wood is not without controversy. In recent years, some Australian aboriginals have attacked non-aborigines' use of the didgeridoo as exploitation of their native culture. Lembo has not been immune to the debate. He has been criticized for taking money for workshops, playing didgeridoo gigs and allowing women and children to play the ancient instrument (some aboriginal clans do not allow women to play).

"[Some aboriginals] think we're making millions over here," he says. "We're not."

Last year, Lembo and two of his fellow didg players, Darren Liebman and Lindsey Dank, ignited a firestorm after they dressed in loincloths, mud and body paint for a play and Red Cross fundraiser. After discovering a photo on the group's website — dragonflyrhythms.com — several members of the didg and aboriginal communities blasted the group for profiting off of "black face."

"We wound up getting a lot of attention," Lembo admits, adding that they formally apologized and took the offending pictures off the website.

"We take [the culture] very seriously," he says. "And we are spiritual people. We understand where they're coming from, but at the same time, they don't know us."

Lembo says the band and workshops do much more positive things for the aboriginal community. Several times a year, Lembo, Dank and Liebman perform Didgeridoo Down Under, an Australian-themed music education and entertainment program for schools. They perform for all grade levels throughout the Southeast United States.

"People have problems with us playing didgeridoos, but the didg is global," Lembo says. "We're not really stealing the culture; we're spreading the culture."

After the class ends, I ask Lembo my last, most pressing question: The didgeridoo is great for meditation and drum circles, but can the ancient instrument rock?

"Hell yeah, brother," Lembo says. "It can rock. It's just whether or not you can do it."

And with that, he busts into another improvised jam.

Jeremy Lembo teaches a didgeridoo workshop the third Friday of every month from 7 to 9 p.m at International Bazaar, 1600 E. Eighth Ave., Tampa. Cost is $25 and includes a free practice didgeridoo. For more information, visit didgrevolution.com.

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