Object: Drum

E/1972/4/4
Drum, kundu
Papua New Guinea: Sepik River region
Materials: wood, lizard skin

The Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea is the home of many indigenous peoples who use their surrounding environment and resources for transportation, food and creating art. Carving wood is an integral part of these cultures due to the vast amounts of tropical trees and vegetation along the river, and is the basis for constructing things such as canoes, shields, ritualistic items and drums. This item is a drum known in New Guinea Pidgin as kundu, and is characterized by its hollowed interior and unique striking surface.

The hourglass shape of this kundu is the most common, but conical or cylindrical drums are also used. The carved handle on the side is another frequently seen feature as it makes the drum easier to play when standing, but is not a distinct attribute of this type of instrument. The low, resonating tone that the kundu produces when played is created from the lizard skin stretched over one of the open ends. Two methods are employed to adjust the pitch and tone of the drum beat. If the sound is lower than desired, the lizard or snake skin is held in front of a fire which causes it to tighten and raise the pitch. In order to lower the pitch, small globs of beeswax or other sticky sap-like substances found in the surrounding tropical forests are applied to the drumhead. The added weight lowers the resonant frequency, and thus lowers the pitch it produces. This creative approach to tuning allows the drum to be the exact pitch that the drummer desires.

Kundu drums are traditionally used during rituals, such as manhood initiation ceremonies or funerals, where it is played either alone or accompanied by other instruments like pan-flutes, rattles and other percussion equipment. Kundus are, like many things in Papua New Guinea cultures, associated with the supernatural world, and the sounds produced by the drums are representative of ancestral and spiritual voices. Today, these instruments are often created for and sold to tourists, with many of the historic drums now in museums and art collections around the world. [Kristina Sokolowsky]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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