Printer Friendly Version

Don't Knock Wood

Musical Wood
Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik River</br>Iatmul</br>Hand Drum (kundu), 20th century</br> Wood, rope, pigment</br>Minneapolis Institute of Arts</br>The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund
  Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik River
Hand Drum (kundu), 20th century
Wood, rope, pigment
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund


Look closely. You will discover that this entire drum is made of a single piece of wood!

The Iatmul (yaht-mool) people of Papua New Guinea believe that they were born from a great ancestral crocodile, Wagen. In their lore, Wagen continues to carry the earth on its back, creating earthquakes and rivers by swishing its giant tail. Wagen, one of 20,000 ancestral animals of the Iatmul, appears on this hand drum, which was used in ceremonies to celebrate ancestors and remind the community of its origins. Wood instruments like this one usually include fantastic carved designs that refer to an array of creatures and ancestral beings.

Look for several carved representations of a crocodile on this drum. At each end of the drum is a carving of the open jaws of a crocodile. These open jaws remind the Iatmul of the sky and the earth, which in this drum are linked by another crocodile used as a handle. The carved and painted geometric designs, including rows of small spikes on the sides, represent the skin and teeth of the crocodile ancestor.

Kundu drums are used in events and ceremonies that include not only music, but also dance and theatrical performance. The drum sound represents spirit and ancestor voices. One ceremony celebrates young males' passage from boyhood to manhood, which also includes a performance in which the men represent Wagen by dancing in a long line. Some Iatmul groups even make huge basketry masks of the great crocodile. The young boys then pass through the crocodile mouth to mark symbolically the death of their childhood, and birth into adulthood. The kundu drum is beaten in rhythmic accompaniment to the songs and dances of the initiation.

While making a drum, the Iatmul carver speaks special words to invite ancestral spirits to enter the work and thus give it power in the community. When spiritual power is transferred to newly carved drums, the old ones lose their former value.

spacer related images 1.  + 2.  + 3.  + bracket spacer
1. This rattle, once owned by an important Haida leader, takes the shape of Raven, who, according to many Northwest Coast creation stories, stole the sun from its hiding place and put it in the sky. Canada, Haida, Rattle, 19th-early 20th century, cottonwood, leather, abalone shell, haliotis shell, and pigment, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund
2. The Ch'in is probably the world's oldest musical instrument that continues to be played today. This ch'in, made from a single piece of wood covered by hundreds of layers of lacquer, shows many animals, both mythical and real. China, Ch'in (Zither), 5th century BCE, lacquer over wood core, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Asian Art Deaccession Fund
3. This wooden female figure, made for a malagan ceremony that celebrates the deceased in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, is playing the katoviso, a type of panpipe. The pandan leaf hat and skirt made of snakes indicate the sculpture celebrates a female ancestor. New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, Female Figure (Malagan), c. 1890, wood, pigment, shell, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of funds from Myron Kunin


March 2012