From the moment I arrived in Papua New Guinea (PNG), more than 20 years ago, I was mesmerised by the unique, beautiful and complex traditions of PNG’s people. As I travelled throughout the country, I witnessed how music and dance is ingrained into the culture of its people and embedded into their very souls.
The Hiri Moale festival of Central PNG celebrates the voyages of the Motu people and their trade with the Gulf region. The Motu Koitabu people survived harsh conditions, monsoon rains from December to April and tinder dry conditions during the rest of the year, by sailing on the South East monsoons hundreds of kilometres to Kerema in Gulf Province, returning two months later on the North Westerlys carrying sago and betel nut in exchange for clay pots. Today, the festival is celebrated annually in Port Moresby remembering the old traditions with canoe races and rituals performed by the tribes of trade.
Bougainville’s bamboo dancing or ‘thong slapping’ dance, as it is commonly called, is truly unique. Men drum out tenor, soprano and baritone notes to an island tune while women and men sing traditional songs reminiscing about fishing, canoeing, harvesting and feasting. It is truly uplifting to watch and to me, captures the essence of PNG.
The Madang festival, which is on this weekend, brings together the Islanders, Coastal, River and Mountain people in a magnificent celebration. Traditionally called a Sing-Sing, attending a festival, like Madang, is one of the best ways to experience the traditional culture of PNG. To be a spectator at one of these extravagant events is incredible, as you are engulfed in a complete sensory overload.
Sing-Sings are held all over PNG and bring together various tribes from around the country to share their unique culture through dance, costume and music. Seeing the elaborate colourful costumes is a spectacular reflection of PNG’s natural beauty. Men and women are adorned with brightly coloured feathers, almost as impressive as the actual bird of paradise, or wearing shells, beads and striking greenery, you can’t help but think of the rumbling mountains of the highlands or the coral reefs of the coast. So impressive are their costumes, that when the cacophony of singing and dancing commences, it’s hard to know where to look.
I find the traditional dances of Trobriand Islands some of the most exciting and visually appealing performances. The islands themselves are probably best known for their romance, seduction and beautiful inhabitants and one can see these attributes reflected in the dances. Dance is viewed by the Islanders as an enjoyable experience and is often performed for the sheer pleasure of it, including dancing at celebrations or for courtship rituals. The Trobriand Islands is fascinating in that it follows a matrilineal society and this plays a pertinent role in the Islands courtship dancing. If you are able to visit the islands after yam harvesting season, you will be treated to the courtship dancing across the villages. This dance takes place for weeks and weeks afterwards, where the men practice their moves outside of the villages and then come together with the women at dusk to dance the night away. It is incredible that ‘matchmakers’ interpret each specific dance move so the men and women can find suitable partners.
The people of the Trobriand Islands are known for being very beautiful and when you see them dressed in their traditional layered grass skirts, adorned with shells and feathers dancing to the gentle melodies, you can really see how they have earned this reputation. The women also paint their faces with symbols to represent their clan, which serves to help the men identify suitable partners. When I visited the islands, it was clear the people have gone to great lengths to preserve and pass down their traditional dances and you will often see the young children performing with just as much zeal and passion as the adults.
The traditional dance of Manus Island is a very distinct part of their culture. Listening to the fusion of garamut drums and chanting while the dancers quickly move their feet and bodies really makes one feel alive. For an almost mystical experience, the Bainings Fire Dance from New Britain is exceptional to watch. In this particular dance, men acting as ‘creatures’ dance in a complete trance-like state, singing and chanting in and around fire until it dies out.
One of the best-known Sing-Sings is the Goroka Show. This show in particular offers that rare glimpse into some of PNG’s extraordinary cultures. Around 100 tribes gather at this festival, which is held once a year. I am always taken with Asaro Mudmen, who wear these incredible ferocious looking masks and are painted with mud. Legend has it that these men were forced into the Asaro River during battle. When they decided to escape at dusk, the enemy witnessed these mud-covered men walking out of the river and believed they were spirits. The Asaro people have kept this tradition alive and are still applying mud today.
I feel privileged to have experienced so many cultural traditions throughout PNG. By performing and sharing their music and dancing, the people of PNG are keeping their culture alive. This is such a pertinent thing to do, especially as traditional song and dance is passed down from one generation to another.
It’s uplifting to experience PNG’s traditional cultures and celebrations which are played out through dress, dances, songs, ceremonies, stories and dramatic performances, and is increasingly one aspect which continues to draw so many people to this special part of the world.
Gudmundur (Gummi) Fridriksson, is the CEO of Paga Hill Development Company (PNG) Ltd, overseeing the development of Paga Hill Estate, a world-class, master planned estate located in the heart of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gudmundur first arrived in Papua New Guinea over 20 years ago and is passionate about sharing PNG’s natural beauty and diverse cultures with the world. Find out more about Gudmundur Fridriksson on his website:http://www.gudmundurfridriksson.com/ and about the Paga Hill Estate development at http://www.pagahillestate.com