Slit Drums of Vanuatu

Happy New Year!

I thought I would start off the new year by sharing an interesting article about slit drums in Vanuatu written by Kirk Huffman, who was the former Curator of the Vanuatu Cultural Center, and is currently a Research Associate at the Australian Museum. His article, The drum is the voice of the chief: slit drums and language in northern-central Vanuatu, was published last month in Explore magazine (Australian Museum, Sydney), vol. 37, no. 2, Summer (December) 2015, pp.10-13. Below is a heavily edited version of a longer and more profusely illustrated text on the same topic:


Weather-worn slit drums, Port Vila, Vanuatu

Many younger ni-Vanuatu from the northern and central islands may not necessarily be too aware of the ease with which certain types of messages could be widely communicated by slit drums (and conch shell trumpets) using various levels of coded beats or blasts. Such communications could even be passed between nearby islands when certain weather conditions were right. When the government set up the international telecommunications satellite office building on the upper part of Independence Park in the early 1980s, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre produced a special radio programme about slit drum/tamtam messaging/’telecommunications’. The late Chief Willy Taso (from Wuro/Craig Cove, West Ambrym), the then Cultural Centre Fieldworker from West Ambrym, was the main individual interviewed – and recorded beating slit drum/tamtam and blowing shell trumpet messages – for the programme. 

If you are a young ni-Vanuatu from one of the islands and cultures with slit drums (either vertical or horizontal) and want to know more about traditional ‘telecommunications’ before the arrival of phones and mobile phones, ask your father, your uncle, your grandfather or your chief. Both tamtams and mobile phones each have certain benefits: drum and shell trumpet messages for the general public can be spread very widely very rapidly (if people know the codes) and you don’t have to pay to recharge them! Certain types of private messages, however, are best not spread by tamtam (e.g. it is not necessarily advisable to try and arrange a secret meeting with a girlfriend by tamtam – many people might turn up, so things could get a bit embarrassing…). The important thing is to recognise that these traditional communications systems have existed for many many centuries and that there are various levels of them – from simple to complex messaging, even to messaging that has ‘codes within codes’.

These traditional systems are not necessarily as rapid or as easy for anyone to use as the new phones and mobile phones, but within their limitations they are more reliable, sustainable and cheaper (actually, they are free) than the new technology. However, it needs chiefs to ensure that there are people within their villages who actually know the coded systems, to send messages or to understand messages coming in….otherwise it will be a situation of the deaf talking to the deaf…so learn the codes! Use the new phones, but don’t throw away your traditional ways of communication: you may need them the next time all the modern things break down (as they did during Cyclone Pam in March 2015!).

Arrangements are under discussion for a longer version of the article to eventually be published.

About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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