The Music of the Iatmul People
In the fifty years since the first description by Gregory Bateson of the cultural life of this Middle Sepik group of people from Papua New Guinea, several scholars and museum collectors have drawn attention to the unique quality of Iatmul wood-carving and pottery and have seen in these works of art remarkable reflections of the belief system of the Iatmul. The fact that little attention has so far been given to the music prompted this present study which looks at the way in which music functions in the lives of the Iatmul, considers its range, variety, structure and inventiveness. There is a detailed analysis of three large instrumental repertoires from two of the most populous Iatmul villages as well as an analysis of some miscellaneous shorter pieces. Special attention has been given to any evidence of symbolism in the music or in the instruments and to the place that music holds in the belief system.
With the Iatmul, most ceremonies honouring the ancestors give a very important place to music. The moiety and clan divisions at the basis of the social structure are reflected in the distinctive musical repertoires of the clans. The most important event in a boy's life, his initiation, is not only celebrated with music but marks the beginning of an intimate acquaintance which the boys are required to have with the art and practice of music. As he goes through life other important achievements, especially the building of a house or canoe, will again be marked by musical celebrations and finally his death will be similarly honoured.
Although women are excluded from the ceremonial music-making of the village, they understand the important place which music has in the culture and accept their passive role in this matter. The death of a woman is as likely to be honoured by a ceremony with music as the death of a man. Women take part in non-ceremonial music such as work songs, and in recreational music, and sometimes dance to the music played by the men at ceremonies.
The main melodic instruments used are two to three metre-long bamboo flutes without finger-holes, sometimes together with shorter flutes which have a finger-hole. Flutes are almost always played in pairs, the two players blowing strictly alternately for much of the time. In the village of Aibom there is a unique group of seven flutes which play a series of set pieces, the ensemble being led by an hour-glass drum player. The main rhythmic instruments are the big slit-drums in the men's ceremonial houses. These are also often played in pairs, with one man having two drum-sticks to each drum. Though their main function is to provide rhythms on ceremonial occasions, these drums may also be used singly to communicate with men working away from the village. Other instruments played by the Iatmul include panpipes, wooden trumpets (rarely), jew's harps, bullroarers, water drums, hour-glass drums, musical bows and various kinds of percussion. An important place in most of the ceremonial music is held by a sub-clan leader chanting long texts concerning the migration of the clan ancestors from their place of origin to the site of the present villages.
At least in some of the Iatmul villages the playing of both the flute pieces and the drum sequences has reached a high level of virtuosity. In many cases the performances show not only a confident approach and serious attitude marked by concentration and good sense of ensemble, but impressive skills in commanding tonal and rhythmic intricacies. The repertoire of pieces is an extensive one and is formally taught by rote to the boys just after their initiation; subconsciously they already know many of the melodies and rhythm, having heard them in the village since they were children on their mothers' backs.
The three instrumental repertoires transcribed and analysed show that the Iatmul have an understanding of the need for a well-defined structure in each case. The musicians have to be completely familiar with both the overall structure and the detail of each part of it, and the Iatmul recognize the important function of melodic and rhythmic motifs in building such musical structures. There is little encouragement to compose new music in the society; it is claimed that the ceremonial music has always existed in its present form, having been handed down from father to son through many generations.
It is to be hoped that every effort will be made by the Papua New Guinea Government to honour and promote the indigenous cultural life of the people of that country, especially when manifestations of the cultural life are as strongly distinctive as they are with the Iatmul.