Pacific Asia Museum

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46 North Los Robles Avenue
Pasadena, California 91101
Open Wednesday through Sunday 10am to 6pm
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USC Pacific Asia Museum

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Music and Ancestors in Papua New Guinea


This large slit drum came from the lower Sepik River area. The Sepik River meanders about seven hundred miles near the north coast of New Guinea. Art from this area is rich and diverse, reflecting the region’s history. Ritual life here centers on the men’s house, and ancestral worship is a prominent part of these observances. The spirits of the deceased family members or important tribal figures have been understood to have a great influence on the living. In order to ensure their continuing guidance and protection, images representing ancestors as well as motifs related to their affiliation decorated architecture and ritual implements such as masks, cult figures and musical instruments.

Music has been an integral part of ceremonies and celebrations in the Sepik region. Percussion and wind instruments were used to invite the attendees’ attention and to accompany dancers, but more importantly to embody the voices of ancestral spirits. Since these instruments were closely associated with the ancestral spirits, much effort went into their decoration. What we may consider aesthetic elements were very likely applied to enhance their ritual efficacy. When not in use, drums such as this were stored in the men’s house to preserve their spiritual power, keeping them separate from women and children.

This large slit drum was played by beating its body with wooden pounders, often accompanied with smaller hand drums called kundu. Please listen to the sound of this drum and visit the museum’s Intro Gallery to see an example of kundu.