Kirk Huffman recently posted an edited version of his article titled, “The drum is the voice of the chief: slit drums and language in northern-central Vanuatu” that I would like to share. The original, longer article can be found in Explore magazine (Australian Museum, Sydney), vol. 37, no. 2, Summer (December) 2015, pp.10-13.
The slit-drum, or tamtam, is an instrument in Vanuatu that can also be used for communication. Slit drums are frequently played in ceremonies and are regarded as possessing magical attributes and are vessels to receive messages from ancestors and sacred spirits. The drum comes to life as an actual character through the sound that it gives out. They produce a variety of deep, resonating sounds. Each has its own particular tone, independent of the drummer’s style of playing. The pitch will rise as the slit widens.
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 Center produced a special radio program about slit drum/tamtam messaging/’telecommunications’. The late Chief Willy Taso (from Wuro/Craig Cove, West Ambrym), the then Cultural Center Fieldworker from West Ambrym, was the main individual interviewed – and recorded beating slit drum/tamtam and blowing shell trumpet messages – for the program.
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 recognize 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 do regularly and as they did during Cyclone Pam in March 2015 and Cyclone Hola in March 2018!).