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Travels with Charlie

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Playing woodwind instruments has long been shown to assist those with asthma; now playing the didgeridoo is also found to help

I first met Charlie McMahon in Australia’s bicentennial year when he played at a dinner I was hosting. Charlie is a “whitefella” who, ironically, lived most of his early life around Blacktown in New South Wales. His virtuosity on the didgeridoo gained him international attention both playing with his own band, Gondwanaland, and with Midnight Oil in the 1980s and 1990s. After the dinner, a memorable moment was captured when he was jamming with Galarrwuy Yunupingu — two didgeridoo exponents at the height of their musical powers.

Charlie first became intrigued with Aboriginal culture at the age of 4, when he saw the Charles Chauvel film, Jedda. As a child on his uncle’s farm, Charlie developed his talent for playing the didgeridoo by practising on water pipes of various lengths. This was translated to learning to play the actual instrument in his early 20s, at a time when he was graduating from the University of Sydney with an Honours Arts degree in 1974. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, who played the title role in Jedda, is a fan of Charlie’s contemporary music.

Charlie’s adolescence ended abruptly when, at 16, he lost his right hand and forearm while making what he describes as a “rocket”. Hence, Charlie has had a prosthetic…