During the run up to the festive season there was an interesting news story which might have gone largely unnoticed owing to the usual frenzy that accompanies the Christmas celebrations. The story concerned actress Nicole Kidman’s appearance on the German television program Wetten, dass....? to promote her latest role in the feature film, ‘’Australia’’. While televised promotional appearances by Hollywood celebrities out to hawk their latest movie projects are commonplace, this particular appearance resulted in immediate media attention for all the wrong reasons.
The interest resulted from Ms. Kidman’s attempt to play the didgeridoo, a traditional instrument of the Aborigines of northern Australia, on the aforementioned programme. Although the reports appearing in the press indicated that Ms. Kidman’s performance was far from that of a virtuoso she nevertheless blew into the instrument during the televised appearance. “Why is this newsworthy?” you might ask. The answer is that while this might have seemed to be nothing more than harmless hi-jinks on a talk show it created quite a backlash from Aboriginal leaders in Kidman’s native Australia. The furore centered on the fact that Aboriginal custom forbids the playing of the ancient instrument by women, claiming that it will result in infertility. Richard Green, Aboriginal actor and screenwriter, in reacting to Ms. Kidman’s televised didgeridoo performance stated, "It bastardises our culture. I will guarantee she has no more children. It's not meant to be played by women as it will make them barren." Mr. Green was not alone in his criticism of Ms. Kidman’s action and other Aboriginal leaders characterised her actions as ill-advised.
This incident appears to be the latest example of the tension between traditional cultural expressions and mainstream media and culture. In September 2008, the BBC News website reported on another incident involving the didgeridoo arising from the publication of a book teaching girls how to play the didgeridoo. The BBC reported that Harper Collins, the publishers of the book, Daring Book for Girls, apologised for causing offense but asserted that there was a ‘’divergence of opinions’’ within the Aboriginal cultures on whether girls could play the instrument.
Clearly the didgeridoo is an integral part of the religious and cultural expression of Aborigines of northern Australia with strict guidelines as to its use which includes the widely held belief that the instrument is strictly prohibited for women. Unlike Harper Collins there has been no official response or apology to the aboriginal communities from Nicole Kidman but it seems quite likely that Kidman was unaware of the beliefs and cultural significance to the Aborigines of the instrument and as one Aboriginal leader puts it, “I presume she doesn't know, otherwise she wouldn't be playing it.”
Was there an obligation on Ms. Kidman to educate herself as to the belief system of the Aborigines as it relates to the didgeridoo before deciding to play it? In fact, is there a general more wider obligation on persons who are not a part of an indigenous community to educate and inform themselves about the beliefs and practices of an indigenous community before engaging in or utilizing any aspect of that culture? Is there any way that the Aborigines or other indigenous communities faced with similar incursions on their traditions by the mainstream media and culture prevent acts which they view as inappropriate? Would the current discussions at the WIPO IGC be useful in aiding indigenous communities in preventing incidences such as these? One wonders if its not these sorts of mainstreaming of indigenous culture without regard to the traditional beliefs and customs of those cultures which has led to the sense amongst indigenous communities that their culture is under attack and requires the type of protection which is being discussed at the WIPO IGC.