Gravesend’s King of the Didgeridoo
09:31 10 January 2013
When others picked up a guitar, Paul Cook turned to the didgeridoo. Anna Dubuis finds out about Gravesend’s very own “didge” maker.
Think didgeridoo player in this country and it may summon images of a dreadlocked hippy clad in tie-dye clothing and devoted to all things New Age.
Gravesend’s Paul Cook doesn’t fit that stereotype. He didn’t get into playing the didgeridoo after a journey of self-discovery in the Australian outback, but from listening to ’90s acid jazz band Jamiroquai who often used the unconventional instrument.
Twenty years on he is considered among the best players in the UK and has been making didgeridoos for the last 10 years. He is soon to launch his own didgeridoo festival.
Explaining his inclination to pick up a didgeridoo, the 40-year-old says: “I had friends in bands that played guitars but I couldn’t get used to playing it. I went to the Glastonbury festival and bought a cheap bamboo didgeridoo.”
While today a wealth of YouTube tutorials can turn curiosity into practice, back then it was a case of teaching yourself and a key part of that is mastering circular breathing to produce a continuous tone.
Paul describes the tricky process of learning to breathe in through the nose while simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth.
To a novice it sounds impossible but with circular breathing Paul has been able to play the didgeridoo for up for 45 minutes non-stop without taking a normal breath.
“When I first met people who played the didgeridoo they were the hippy kind who were very mystical about circular breathing. Their attitude was ‘it just happens, man’. But eventually someone explained the basics of it to me and after about two weeks I picked it up,” Paul says.
Breathing becomes part of the rhythm and Paul plays a “one, two, three” rhythm to me, creating a deep “wharm” sound.
There are two main noises to a didgeridoo – the drone, the noise made by lip vibrations, and the toot, a trumpet sound made by pursing your lips.
Paul’s speciality is in break-beat, influenced by his preference for dance music, which involves stopping and starting the drone to create a more choppy rhythm. Even with 20 years of experience, he says there is always more to explore.
“Most people think it is just a funny noise but there is much more to it. It is thought of as a one-note instrument but it creates a lot of overtones and frequencies and you use your voice as well,” he explains.
He now makes and sells homemade didgeridoos, both out of British wood that he splits, hollows out and glues together, and out of Australian Eucalyptus where termites have eaten out the inside of the wood.
Given the nature of their composition, every didgeridoo will have a different sound, depending on the density of the wood, its thickness, the interior shape, length and how much it is tapered at the end.
His homemade creations cost anywhere from £135 for an English split-wood version to £1,150 for a giant Eucalyptus “didge” called the throbbing beast.
As well as playing and making didgeridoos, he and a fellow player formed North Kent Didge Club where new and experienced players can learn and develop new skills. Keen to go one step further, he is holding the Elementary Didgeridoo Festival in August where international didgeridoo acts will be performing in the picturesque surroundings of the Brecon Beacons in Wales.
He hopes it will add to the sprinkling of didgeridoo festivals in the UK but will be “bigger with more wow”, and entice more people, since, he says, the most common type of person to get into the didgeridoo isn’t your stereotypical hippy but is “truly anyone from the middle-aged builder to the retired mum”.
North Kent Didge Club meets every fourth Saturday of the month at St Barnabus Church in Istead Rise. Visit didgetallpaul.co.uk or call Paul on 07795 557945.