Papua New Guinea
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Wallaby Skin Drum of the Gogodala

Musicians Vault 4.2


THE kundu or drum is common throughout Papua New Guinea; they come in different shapes and sizes.

The biggest kundu (skin drum) was found at Kini Village near Balimo in the Western Province. Called Diwaka, it was seven metres long and 20 centimetres wide. The drumhead was made of wallaby skin called Iso, held down by rattan and glued with rosewood sap called Udiri Edo.

It was beat with a hardened sago stick while placed on the floor. The sound it produced could be heard up to a kilometer away. In the days of the Gogodala long houses, the Diwaka was kept out of sight of women who must not touch it.

The Gogodala genealogy and clan system is based on the canoe. In the specimen modeled by Wawaya Bonawi, the Kini village court magistrate is the insignia of the canoe that owns the Diwaka, More of same is seen in the next picture.

Diwaka was only used for special occasions such as Aida, the rite of passage for boys and was held by select persons.

Its beating signaled the start of Aida. The canoe or clan structure of the Gogodala symbolizes life as a journey.

Kewin – the Goliath Kundu of the Southern Highlands

The biggest of them all is Kewin of the Southern Highlands; it was cradled by a dozen men and the thirteenth man beat it.

Kewin was designed like a kundu as opposed to its nearest rival (in terms of size), garamut, the slit log, found commonly in Sepik and some New Guinea islands. Kewin was unique because it was the largest musical instrument of its kind and held by so many people; whilst the garamut sits on the ground, Kewin was not. The noise level though is the same as that of the garamut and can be heard over some distance.

We say ‘was’ because there was none in Mendi to be inspected. Typically, Kewin was around 10 meters in length and had a large mouth that was covered in dog hide.

Unlike most average kundu which feature lizard or snake skins, the Southern Highlanders solved Kewin’s peculiar mouth by turning to man’s best friend.

The drum maker was known as Kerr and the role was inherited. The skill, the values and beliefs behind it were kept by individuals in clans who were respected by the tribe.

Kinsmen put on a party when Kewin was completed to celebrate the maker’s ingenuity and to welcome the new Kewin. This was because it took up to a year to produce a Kewin and the maker was rewarded with pigs and kina shells, the traditional currency.

Used only on special occasions such as peace ceremonies to end a conflict or during wake, Kewin was kept out of sight in the men-only hut.

Women were forbidden from touching it as the sound would be lost. Kewin was also guarded from enemy raiders for the same reason.

It was made from a strong wood called Ugur. In the Stone Age it took two days to fell the tree and additional two days to cut it to length. The Kerr then solicited the help of three men to take the Ugur out of the forest to the men’s hut.

Hole-boring was chiefly through burning assisted by the use of a mango-like fruit from a tree called Tongem.

The fruit was baked in the fire until it was glowing red and dropped into the hole to be fanned by blowing through a bamboo pipe.

The body of the kundu was thinned and smoothened with sharp fragments of rock and finished with pig fat to give it shine.

Yari Tebo of Tubiri, Mendi tribe, gave the name of his language as Murum. He was given the knowledge of Kewin by his grandfather, Puinuwe of Tubiri. One could not be found in the Mendi area.

During the research persons spoken to around the township of Mendi did not seem to recognize the name Kewin and showed some difficulty relating to it. In this case, Tebo was well-instructed by his grandfather and because he saw The Second World War, that placed his age at around 80 years.

The end of The Second World War marked 74 years in 2016 so this would be the generation hosting the decaying of culture. The coming of The Second World War and the missionary influence had a lot to do with the decay which means the oldest people around were the 1940s generation.

Unless the next generation born in the 1950s take over, the beginning of the end has started for many cultures.

The ever-widening gap is exactly the way the decaying process takes hold and this is exacerbated by the lack of interest by the younger generation in keeping up with the old ways.