In May 2018, as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project, I was back in Madang Province in Papua New Guinea. There, James Leach and I ran a 3 day workshop with members of the Reite community at the Bismark Ramu Group compound just outside Madang Town, followed by a week’s stay in Reite village on the Rai Coast. We were invited to be part of several important ceremonies, the biggest of which was a 3 day event to mark the re-founding of Marpungae village. This had, until a couple of generations ago, been an independent village next to Reite, but whose population had subsequently dwindled down to just a handful of people. They had been invited to merge with Reite and intermarried, growing into a thriving hamlet. Now they had decided to re-establish their independent status with a big ceremony, including performances in the bush of the Tamburan (sacred instruments/voices of the ancestors); a large food distribution to all their relatives, and culminating in an all-night singsing.
I’ve edited together a video of sections from the start (in the dark, late at night) to the end (after dawn the next morning) which conveys some of the intense, passionate energy of the dancing, singing and music – slowly revealing the elaborate costumes and decorations made especially for this event as day breaks:
The following is an extract from my field diary :
“Banak [Gamui] and I set off back to Sikarani to relax before going on to Marpungae for the singsing. When we arrived, the household was in full throe making bilas (ceremonial decorations) for the singsing. [Our host] Katak’s family were to be a leading part of the second singsing group (the Marpungae family being the first group).
The previous night Katak had been replacing the skin of a drum with a whole monitor lizard’s skin, leaving it to dry overnight. Pina [Sisau] and some others had also been adjusting other drums with little cones of a wild beeswax substance placed on the skins. Banak assisted as Katak removed the excess skin and adjusted the drum to get the right tone. Meanwhile the children prepared other things (they had been dying grass skirts and making bilas for days).
James [Leach] returned and we ate a little supper before heading down to the new Marpungae village site where we arrived about 9pm. Then there was a bit of waiting around as people got themselves ready – I watched Kerrep finish making a headdress, then sat with Katak as he made his own bilas (and mine) – all from leaves, plants and other local flora. They use a lot of porpor and gorgor (coriander and ginger) and the smell was both beautiful and strong. In my clumsy Tok Pisin I chatted with Katak about Scottish ceilidhs, although I’m not sure it made much sense to him! When the men all disappeared into the bush to get ready (covering themselves in red coconut oil paint, putting on their bilas and loincloths) I sat with James at Tariak’s house (and was fed, again, with taro cooked in a mushroom sauce – really delicious!). After a bit more waiting around, at about 11pm we began to hear the Tamburan (sacred instruments/voices of the ancestors) being played down in the Haus Tamburan by the village’s main clearing – so we hurried down to get good seats! It was pitch dark and very hard to see anything at all, except for the incredible sound of the Tamburan droning and the singing and drumming.
The men and women have very different styles – the men drumming and chanting, with the women overlaying a higher pitched chant. It seems that there are many different songs, but I can barely tell them apart, especially as they are all, of course, sung in Tok Ples. The first half hour or so was held in complete darkness before they lit a coconut torch and danced it around the group, lighting up everyone to see. The first sight was thus extraordinary! I hadn’t realised that they were so close and the visual effect was both astounding and unexpected. As people then began using torches to illuminate the group, and with the occasional flash from a camera, I could see the stunning costumes and decorations – many wearing heavy structures that held up poles carved with intricate stories (this was, I believe, what Takarok [Yamui] had been working on for days, which is why he hadn’t been around much). The poles were probably 10 feet tall and extraordinary. There were lots of children in both male and female groups, including some very little girls (from maybe 3 year old and. up).
The first group (from Marpungae) performed on their own for perhaps an hour, then all went dark again as the second group (the Reite relatives) approached, singing their own songs. Eventually the two groups merged and another torch was lit to illuminate them all, and at last we could see the whole large number of people dancing: in a circle, men in the middle, women circling them. The Tamburan continued to sound (I assume from inside Haus Tamburan) and to drone beneath the singing and drumming in an intensely mesmeric way. Across the night I found myself, at various points, falling into the rhythm and losing sense of time, then being brought round again by a lull or a change of song or beat. This combination of almost total darkness and music had such a profound effect, continuing right through the night until dawn, and then after.
Banak had joined in with the second singsing group. Sangumae had made his bilas,: head gear, loincloths, grass skirt and armbands, plus pig tusks etc, and he was there with the others covered in full red pigment and coconut oil paint. We finally got to see him in all his fine as he stepped out briefly for buai. Orengi (Katak’s wife) also dropped in and out of the group as her knee injury is still not fully recovered. The event was really social – lots of chatting and laughter, joking and fun, as well as serious – a real community festival!
As light began to emerge (about 5am) the Tamburan finished and “went away” – to be returned to the secret places in the bush. James also told me that the carved bilas poles would be used once only for this singsing before being taken to sacred places in the bush to rot away.
The singsing continued well into the dawn as we could finally see everyone and everything. Some of the children were still dancing and performing – 6 or 7 hours later (including Pina’s sion Sebastian and Katak’s youngest son). Many of the audience, from Asang, Yasing, Sarangama and Serieng had already left so it was mostly close Reite and Marpungae people left for the last hour or two. Both Catherine [Sparks] and I were pulled into the dancing for the last hour (respectively for the women’s and men’s groups) – being decorated with bilas and headdresses. Urufaf [Anip] put a pair of his pig tusks around my neck to wear – a big gift – and Katak gripped my hand all the way through the dancing and singing. There were all so excited that we had joined in, they started up with some special songs: first “Catherine Singsing”, then “Giles Singsing”, and then “James Sunup”. At the bitter end of the long night’s celebrations, Uru’s elder brother Peter led the remaining group up to where Tariak’s [Uru & Peter’s mother] and Uru’s new houses are. There we danced the last songs before breakfast was cooked for everyone. It was probably about 7am by now – many of the people had danced continuously for 7 or 8 hours straight so there was immense adrenalin in the air. After breakfast we headed slowly back to Katak & Orengi’s house for a refreshing waswas (wash in the river) before a long sleep.”