When he first tried, Malakai found playing the yidaki very difficult.

The ancient instrument is more commonly known as the didjeridu.

Playing it requires circular breathing – a technique which ensures the yidaki can produce a continuous tone without interruption.

"You blow through your mouth and breathe in through your nose," the Gunaikurnai teenager explains.

"Every day I would sit down, grab a glass of water and straw and practice."

A close up photo of Malakai blowing on the yidaki

Malakai says learning the instrument was difficult.(Takeover Melbourne: Marc Eiden)

And while circular breathing is tricky to learn for anyone, 14-year-old Malakai also suffers from asthma.

The asthma used to force him to take breaks when playing his favourite sports, basketball and football, but it has since improved.

"It would feel like having difficulty breathing and make it hard to run around," he said.

Malakai grew up watching his uncle play the yidaki in Gippsland but never had the chance to learn it himself, until he came to boarding school in Melbourne.

When Malakai first began learning to play – on a school camp with a group of fellow Indigenous students – it was with a low-cost version, using PVC pipes from Bunnings.

The hand of an Indigenous woman can be seen delicately painting a wooden yidaki.

A yidaki being painted during the Garma Festival at Gulkula in north-east Arnhem Land.(
ABC News: Michael Franchi

The yidaki is a traditional wind instrument belonging to the Yolngu people in north-east Arnhem Land.

"Yidaki" is a Yolngu Matha word referring to the instrument crafted from the branch of a tree hollowed by termites. It is deeply connected to the culture and ceremonies of the Yolngu people.

The instrument is understood to have existed for thousands of years.

After colonisation, the use of the yidaki spread beyond northern Australia and became well known by the generic term didjeridu, which is not believed to be an Indigenous word.

A recent South Australian Museum exhibition focused on the yidaki, with Yolngu elders co-curating the show with the museum's head of humanities, John Carty.

"It's become an instrument that's been shared between Aboriginal groups as a way to recreate connections between Aboriginal traditions," Professor Carty said.

'It felt easier to breathe'

Malakai plays the yidaki at a performance wearing a suit and tie

Malakai plays the yidaki at a concert with his fellow students.(Supplied: Melbourne Indigenous Transition School)

Malakai's mum said asthma used to keep her son awake at night. His teacher said he would have to sit out during PE, especially last year when COVID was rampant.

"Everyone got COVID at certain points, and there was a period where Malakai had his asthma really bad, where he would start PE but then have to sit out," teacher Jayden Cooke said.

Mr Cooke is a Wonnarua man and teacher at the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School – a specialist year 7 and 8 boarding school which helps young Indigenous kids from regional Victoria and the NT adapt to life in the city.

He leads a cultural music program.

What started off with PVC pipes at camp has kept on for more then a year, with Malakai and a group of seven young students forming the Yidaki Boys and playing gigs – including twice at the MCG.

a group of MITS students holding yidakis and wearing shirts and ties standing with teacher Jayden Cooke

The Yidaki Boys group ahead of a performance. (Supplied: Melbourne Indigenous Transition School)

"It's a way to connect," Mr Cooke said.

"At our school, people come to us with a whole variety of cultural languages and experiences.

"Some kids are from remote areas in the NT, who speak languages, know ceremony, stories and everything.

"Some kids come to us who aren't so strong in culture and haven't been lucky enough to have grown up around it."

"It's okay to know nothing about your culture, you can come here and you will learn together.

"Some kids who might not know much about their culture can come here and play didjeridu and feel connected – it's a good avenue to get that connection."

a group of young high school boys and their teacher practice the didjeridu

Teacher Jayden Cooke (left) rehearsing with the Yidaki Boys group. (Supplied: Melbourne Indigenous Transition School)

Malakai said learning with the group made him feel happy – and it was the first time he ever had a chance to learn from an Aboriginal teacher.

It also provided an opportunity to learn about colonisation and Aboriginal history.

"It felt even more special that I get to learn from someone else Indigenous," Malakai said.

As Malakai's circular breathing and yidaki playing got better – he noticed something else.

"It felt easier to breathe," he said.

He found he was having fewer asthma attacks – he can't remember having one this year.

His mum said he barely carried his puffer anymore.

"When I take deep breaths in now, I'm not getting breathless, I can do it heaps," he said.

Malakai sits on a tall chair and plays a long wooden yidaki

Malakai practicing the yidaki by himself at school. (Takeover Melbourne: Marc Eiden)

Research finds breathing exercises can help asthmatics

Evidence shows that breathing exercises – including the sort associated with yidaki playing — can improve asthma symptoms and quality of life.

Respiratory physiologist Graham Hall said people with asthma and other lung conditions experience "dysfunctional breathing" which contributes to the feeling of breathlessness.

"What usually happens is they start breathing faster, and then taking smaller breaths, and that can get progressively worse, so you start panting," he said.

Teacher Jayden sits next to Yidaki Boys group as they practice the didjeridu

Malakai felt his breathing improve after about a year of learning how to play the yidaki.(Supplied: Melbourne Indigenous Transition School)

"Breathing exercises, can be used as a way of teaching people how to control their breathing.

There are a handful of different types including the Papworth Method, the Buteyko breathing technique, yogic breathing and deep diaphragmatic breathing.

"Things like singing and didjeridu playing can achieve that kind of breathing training, because they require a focus on how you are breathing in and out," Professor Hall said.

A small number of studies have examined the possible role of didjeridu playing in asthma management.

However, these studies only look at the instrument in combination with other interventions – so it is not possible to say definitively that playing the instrument can improve asthma.

 a group of museum goers look at yidakis displayed in a glass case at the South Australian museum

Yidakis on display during an exhibition on the instrument at the South Australian museum. (Supplied: SA Museum)

More broadly, Professor Hall said a recent Cochrane review – a gold-standard review of relevant evidence — found breathing exercises were beneficial in asthmatic adults.

"[Breathing exercises] don't treat the underlying cause of asthma … but it allows people to get control of their breathing and their quality of life improves."

He said exercises work better for some asthmatics then others and more randomised trials and studies with children were needed to understand who could benefit the most.

There are health benefits to cultural connections

While yidaki playing may not be culturally appropriate for everyone, First Nations children and adults have a higher incidence of asthma than the general population.

Professor Hall said boosting cultural connections could have health benefits.

"If people become more connected with their day-to-day lives, they feel happier, their mental heath is better, their wellbeing is improved, their experience of chronic disease is also improved," he said.

Malakai's teacher Jayden Cooke said he noticed not only the changes to Malakai's asthma, but the confidence of the whole yidaki playing group.

the Yidaki Boys group playing didjeridus on stage at richmond football club

The Yidaki Boys performing at the Richmond Football Club. (Supplied: Melbourne Indigenous Transition School)

He said the Yidaki Boys used to be very nervous before a gig.

"But now they play the didjeridu and walk out with their chest pumped out and they'll be high-fiving and feeling really good," Mr Cooke said.

"They get really proud – they stand a foot taller."

Malakai said he had the chance to bring the instrument home to his family in Gippsland.

"I built up enough courage to share my new skills with the mob," he said. 

"The yidaki has brought me closer to culture, and it's made me even prouder to be a Gunaikurnai man. "

The ABC's Takeover Melbourne program gives a voice to young people across Greater Melbourne. If you would like to find out more about Takeover Melbourne, go to the Takeover website.

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