You might not expect an ancient Aboriginal instrument from Australia to find its way to Alaska. But walk around downtown Ketchikan on a warm day and you may hear 15-year-old Kinani Halvorsen playing her didgeridoo. She’s played the unusual instrument for three years.
Kinani remembers the response she got from a boy in her 7th grade band when she played her didgeridoo a couple years ago: “What the heck is that?” [he said.] And his jaw literally dropped.” ‘Cause you wouldn’t expect that sound to come out of a little tube thing like this.”
The tube thing is actually not so little. Kinani is a tall girl, and the didgeridoo is a tall instrument. It comes up to her shoulders, at about 5 feet.
You can’t play any Katy Perry or Macklemore on something like this. So why is a high schooler here in Ketchikan playing this ancient Aboriginal instrument?
It all started with an Australian substitute teacher in Kinani’s fourth grade class at Houghtaling Elementary School.
“He brought in his didgeridoo and I thought, “Wow! That is coolest thing I’ve ever seen,”” Kinani remembers.
Fast forward a few years. It’s 6th grade, and Kinani has been playing the trombone for a year. She walks into McPherson’s, a local music store, and there on the shelf, is a didgeridoo.
“It’s really interesting to hear and see someone play such an intriguing thing like the didgeridoo,” Kinani said. “And it’s a memory that really sticks in your head. So when you see one, and you’re like hey, maybe I could play that, it’s a want you really get.”
“I said no, no, no,” Kinani’s mom, Krissy Halvorsen, said. “Because she likes to pick up things like that and of course, they end up in the closet or elsewhere.”
Kinani swore to her mom that she wouldn’t throw the instrument in the closet. She brought it home and started practicing. Her older brother, Keelan, was upstairs.
“I rushed downstairs because I thought it was a wild animal,” he remembers. “I saw her with a long tube and was even more confused.”
Kinani has been playing her didgeridoo for three years now. She’s had to teach herself, because there isn’t anyone else she knows in Ketchikan who plays the didgeridoo.
“She’s definitely improved a lot,” Keelan said. “It went from a semi obnoxious noise, to be honest, to something we all enjoy hearing.”
The didgeridoo is over 1,000 years old. It’s still used to accompany song and dance in the Arnhem Land region of Australia.
“What really motivates me to keep playing is it’s such a unique instrument,” Kinani said. “Unless you’re in Australia, you really don’t get a chance to see, hear, or play something like this.”
Kinani is in four bands. Three at Ketchikan High School, and one other outside school, called Soundwaves.
“We haven’t had occasion or any particular reason to hear her play it in here, because this is a big band that is mostly saxophones, trumpets, trombones, rhythm section,” said Roy McPherson, the director of the Soundwaves band, where Kinani plays trombone.
The didgeridoo is nowhere to be seen at a recent Soundwaves practice. But in a couple weeks, that’s going to change. Kinani has a didgeridoo solo in the band’s April show, during “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book.
And she’s going to keep trying to play her didgeridoo in different settings. She’s attending the Sitka Fine Arts Camp this summer.
“And so I’ll bring it and I’ll talk to whoever is running the class and I’ll say, “Hey I have a didgeridoo, is there anything I should bring it in for?” she said.
And if Kinani keeps spreading the sound of the unique instrument, maybe she’ll get fewer “What the heck is that?” responses, and more people saying, “Oh, that’s a didgeridoo.”