Dr. Didg Comes Up for Air | AspenTimes.com
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Dr. Didg Comes Up for Air

Stewart Oksenhorn

The didgeridoo is, to American ears, an exotic instrument. An instrument of the Australian Aborigines, most commonly made of the hollowed-out trunk of a eucalyptus tree, the didgeridoo has had no place in American music. Its resonating, airy sound stands out from guitars and keyboards, and even other wind instruments.

Graham Wiggins, one of the primary champions of the didgeridoo in Western pop music, doesn’t want to bring too much attention to the exotic nature of the instrument, or even the uniqueness of its sound. Wiggins – better known as Dr. Didg, leader of the band of the same name – just wants to use the didgeridoo to make some unusually good music.

“I get annoyed when I hear that the rest of the band is just this backdrop to the didg,” said Wiggins, who is joined in Dr. Didg by guitarist Todd Wright, drummer Scott Eisenberg and the most recent addition, bassist Brad Schirmer. “I want the didg on a par with everything else. It just brings a different rhythmic aspect to the music.”

Judging from the CDs released by Dr. Didg – including two albums, “Serotonality” and “Out of the Woods” on the Hannibal label – Wiggins has hit his mark. The instrumental music stands out as a unified whole, funky and hypnotic. Wiggins’ didgeridoo sounds – often altered by electronic effects and played as a taped loop through a tune – gives the music an otherworldly quality, but Wright’s guitar work has an exotic touch to it as well, and Eisenberg’s drumming induces a trancelike state. Often, it is easy to forget that the central instrument is the didgeridoo, and get lost in some unique, up-to-date groove music.

Creating a band context around the didgeridoo, however, was far from Wiggins’ first interest in the instrument. In his youth, the now 38-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native was a pianist, playing in a jazz band and composing music. But he chose not to pursue jazz as a career; opting to study physics at Boston University. Still interested in music, Wiggins went to a world-music demonstration in Boston, and got his first taste of the didgeridoo – a local musician blowing through a cardboard mailing tube. The physicist in Wiggins was mystified, and hooked. He started picking up hollow tubes and blowing, trying not so much to master the instrument, but to get a grasp on the physics of the didg and the circular breathing technique that produces the sound.

Two years after that first didgeridoo experience, Wiggins set out for the motherland, the northern part of Australia. Wiggins wanted to learn about the didgeridoo – how it was played by the Aborigines, in what musical context it was used.

“I was trying to find out how to meet up with some Aboriginal musicians,” said Wiggins, whose other hobbies have included 3-D photography and the physics of smoke rings. “They said, you’re a physicist; you’d probably be interested in this paper on the physics of the didg.

“I wanted to bring a physics study to bear on the didg. I could have pursued a Ph.D. on the physics of the didg. The didg flies in the face of all theories on musical physics. According to the theories, it should destroy all sound. That became my focus: Why does the didg produce all this sound?”

Wiggins continued his studies at Oxford University, where he eventually earned a degree in solid state physics. When the money from his National Science Foundation grant began to run out, Wiggins turned again to the didgeridoo, this time as a musical instrument.

“I was pretty desperate for money,” said Wiggins. “So I started playing on the street for coins. It was a sensation from the start.”

When Wiggins hooked up with fellow busker, guitarist Martin Cradick, the street corner act became even more of a sensation. It also got Wiggins thinking more about putting the didgeridoo at the center of a band. Wiggins had seen that, in the Aboriginal tradition, the didg was used primarily as an accompaniment to singing. When Wiggins played his didgeridoo for the Aboriginals, they were perplexed by the concept of solo didgeridoo music. But the collaborations with Cradick showed Wiggins that the didg could have a place in a band. He and Cradick eventually formed the folky, world-music group Outback, with drummer Ian Campbell and percussionist Sagar N’Gom.

When Outback split in 1993, Wiggins went looking to put the didg in a more modern context. Raised on rock and jazz – with the Grateful Dead and John Coltrane given highest status – Wiggins wanted to find a way to make the didg jam and groove. Still based in England, he formed the first incarnation of Dr. Didg, with drummer Campbell and guitarist Dave Motion. Eventually, Dr. Didg found its way into the jam-band circuit. Wiggins has sat in with the likes of Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, the Slip and the Radiators.

But the jam-band highlight for Wiggins came on Mardi Gras eve in 1993, when Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, a devout musicologist, invited Wiggins to jam with the Dead. Wiggins blew his didg during the free-form “Drums and Space” segment of the Dead’s set, but was disappointed that his turn was terminated before guitarist Jerry Garcia returned to the stage. Still, it remains as a peak experience for Wiggins.

“That was mind-blowing, ” he said. “They were my biggest musical influence anyway. My keyboard playing came from trying to play things like `Dark Star.’ It was a huge, huge event.” Wiggins went on to record with Hart on “Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box,” and later with Hart’s percussion ensemble, Planet Drum.

Last year, Wiggins relocated back to the States, and shuffled the Dr. Didg lineup. The band’s latest tour brings them to Hannibal Brown’s for a gig on Saturday, March 10. And Wiggins continues to use the didg as an unusual entry into the groove.

“It was never my goal to reproduce Aboriginal music. My approach to the didgeridoo is to express my musical ideas,” said Wiggins. “I used the didgeridoo to fit the rhythms I was hearing and playing on piano. And now I have a style of the didgeridoo that is definitely my own.”

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