by Harold Gallasch
It was to be a night like no other. It all started with a late afternoon drive from Kerevat, and the Lowlands Agriculture Experiment Station where I had been working for some years since 1968 as a coconut agronomist or didiman (agriculturalist or farmer).
In my small VW “beetle”, I had driven up to the top of the plateau near Vunadidir, then down the winding, corrugated, gravel road to Kainagunan, near Gaulim. The drive took about an hour. It was as dark as pitch when I arrived, sometime around 7:30pm. The village was in darkness. Several elderly men came across to me. Yes! They would allow me to watch the celebration, but I would have to wait until all was ready.
Around the central ‘square’ in the village the grass thatched huts were dimly outlined against the overpowering blackness of the surrounding jungle. Beside several of the huts were small mounds of coals, glowing dull red – the cooking fires used earlier in the evening. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light I could see that there were indeed still some people resting on benches under the houses. There was the occasional scuffling of children. Sometimes the low murmur of voices wafted across to me. The people had feasted that afternoon. Pigs had been killed; meat, taro and rice distributed amongst the families. This had been cooked on the small fires and now all were resting. The village remained quiet. All were at ease after the long day. In spite of appearances, the people of Kainagunan were not preparing for sleep. There was a quiet hush of expectation.
At around 8:30pm I was invited to follow one of the elders as he left the village and walked out along a path to the gardens. Some distance from the village he slipped off the well-worn trail, ducked under the spreading leafy stems of some ‘gor-gor’ (wild ginger plant) and picked his way through dense bush regrowth. By the flickering light of a small kerosene lantern he made his way to the men’s bush shelter. I followed, stumbling over roots hidden in the darkness, being dripped on by the cool condensation off the bushes, slipping and sliding on the bare, greasy, clay soil.
But the bush clearing was a hive of activity. All the young men and boys from the area were readying themselves for the dance. In the light of lanterns I could see an array of kavat masks lined up under one lean-to style shelter. Several had already been brought out and positioned on posts while two teenagers were engaged in fastening a bustle-like array of croton leaves behind the head. When worn, the kavat mask sits above and forward of the face and is counterbalanced by the bundle of croton leaves hanging down the back of the dancer.
Under another shelter two large vung vung masks, now hidden behind a lacework facade of pandanus leaves, were undergoing final preparation. While no one seemed in a hurry there was constant activity. Earlier in the day a number of the boys had been in school uniforms. Now they had stripped off their clothes. While one lad stood still, another was scooping up handfuls of a black paint mix and smearing it over the whole body of his companion. A brown body became black, black as the night, black as the jungle from which it would appear. Another teenager was chewing bush honey in his mouth, then, after taking a swig of water, was spraying the mix over the black body. This had the effect of giving a shiny gloss brightness to the black paint. Green tangket leaves were tightly tied around the lower legs. The mushroom-like penis cover was fitted, held in place by a thin vine from the bush. Several men, however, opted to have the bark cloth tail of the ‘Imeichi’ pinned through the flesh at the base of their back. ‘We used to use big thorns’; they told me, ‘but now we prefer to use large safety pins’.
I was then led by the secret path back to the village, and I slipped in amongst the houses and sat down.
The village was much as I’d left it an hour or so earlier. But soon several children emerged from the shadows dragging large bundles of dry brush. These were dumped on the coals of a small fire, centrally located in the village square. The brush smouldered, then burst into flames. Other kids and young women followed, building up the blaze till the flames leapt up 4m, lighting up the square and outlining the dwellings around the periphery. Bang! Bang! Bang! Like gunshots; sharp explosions as bamboo in the kindling exploded.
Meanwhile a group of older men and boys had coalesced to one edge of the clearing. They had dragged on large slabs of hardwood, then arranged themselves behind them and squatted down, each member holding a one to 1½ m length of dry bamboo. There was some tentative thumping of the open end of the upright bamboo onto the hardwood slab. It yielded a deep, resonant ‘bump’, ’bump’, sound.
There was an intense silence of expectation. In the flickering firelight there were now maybe 150 pairs of expectant eyes peeping out from under the huts. Other people had gathered in small clusters at the edge of the fire light. Then the lead singer of the ‘orchestra’ started to chant in a clear voice, cutting the cool mist laden night air like a knife. Immediately a score of the drummers started beating, slowly at first then increasing in tempo, the cadence rising and falling – then fading away to silence, an eerie silence.
Great bundles of brush wood replenished the fire. When it was at its zenith the chanting and drumming increased in tempo, as if in great urgency. Sweeping in from the blackness of the night, of the jungle, came the apparition of a bush spirit, a large white face outlined in red and black, large eyes to see in the darkness. As it came closer the disembodied face, shrouded behind with croton leaves, was propelled on black legs, pounding in time with the drumming, racing forwards, reversing, then stomping ever closer, the head swaying and pirouetting, until it was directly in front, challenging the drummers. A still greater crescendo reverberated from the slamming of timber, the chanting at lower pitch. The kavat dancer, stomping in a frenzied madness, worked his way back and forth before the ‘orchestra’ then, energy flagging, sidled away to the edge; children screamed in fear and ran to escape. In one last, swift burst of fervour, the masked apparition turned, raced and jumped into the centre of the bonfire. There, for a few long seconds it stomped and twisted, burning sticks and embers scattering in all directions. Its final energy consumed, the dancer; in a slow swaying gait, this time with the now slower beat of the drumming, made its way to the periphery of the fire light. There it stayed, swaying in time to the slow, regular beat of percussion.
As the slow beat drummed on, kids scampered around collecting and restoring the remnants of the fire. Soon it was blazing again.
As the tempo of the drumming increased a second masked kavat dancer materialised from the blackness. The mask varied in size, shape and design, but the two stark, glaring eyes were ever present. A similar routine followed. Then another wild apparition entered the firelight. There was a gasp from amongst the watchers. This ‘spirit’ was carrying a large ‘moran’ (rock python) grasping one hand to the head, the other to the writhing tail. It was a little over 2m long. The same introduction to the ‘orchestra’ followed, but after doing his solo performance, back, forward and around the fire, in line with the tempo from the drumming, the dancer slowed his movements and sauntered across to where a group of women were sitting. He deposited the python in a jumble of coils at their feet, then danced away to join the line of swaying masks, gradually lengthening on the edge of the fire glow. Accompanying several of the dancers as they made their entrance to the arena, were men carrying large baskets of taro, with several chunks of pig carcass on top. These gifts of food were also presented to the women. This was a ‘thank you’ offering. While the young men had been secluded in the bush, for all the preparations, these women had been supplying and preparing food for them.
Another pensive hush, as a low, mournful sound droned out across the clearing. Another long drone, not unlike the dying rattle from a didgeridoo. Emerging from the blackness into the warming glow of the fire was the large structure of a vung vung dancer. Whereas most kavat masks have a large duck like beak, in the vung vung this beak is replaced with a 1.5m long length of hollowed bamboo. Blowing through this tube results in a long, mournful drone – the voice of the spirits. But the audience cannot see the mask, or drone tube, as the whole is covered with a latticework of vines, covered and stitched with sections of flat pandanus leaves. What seemed to glide into the fire light was a complex designed lattice work, some 4m long by about 2½ m high. Every minute or so it emitted that same, long, drawn out mournful cry. The size of the structure limited its antics, but it, too, did a solo dance routine in front of the pounding ‘bamboo drums’. As it circled the fire, one middle-aged man jumped up, grabbed an infant from the arms of its mother and delivered it to the mouth of the ‘drone pipe’. There was that eerie, spine chilling, mournful spirit voice. The child was kicking and screaming hysterically. It was held in place for another long, drawn out drone. Then the crying infant was returned to be comforted by its mother. ‘This teaches young children to obey their parents’, I was told afterwards.
More kavat dancers appeared, each one after a lull in the pounding, each one accompanied by a buildup in tempo to a crescendo, then back to a monotone. Three more vung vung dancers also made their appearance that evening. The line of sauntering, swaying masks had extended around the periphery. There were now 22 of them. Each was different, stark, pristine.
Then suddenly, with no warning, every dancer was wildly gyrating, pounding, running, crisscrossing the arena, jumping through or pounding in the fire. Some picked up flaming fire branches and hurled them towards the watchers. Some were circling what was left of the bonfire, other kavat dancers were jostling together stomping their feet in front of the pounding ‘orchestra’. There was a cacophony of song, showers of sparks were flying in the air. The watchers in the darkness huddled together and watched in awe.
After the fervour of the first five minutes the dancing moderated as the weaving ‘Spirit Figures’ circled clockwise around the fire. Some of the figures left the fire light – they vanished into the darkness. Others kept dancing, to and fro before the ‘orchestra.’ With a retreat in the tempo, some of the dancers sauntered out of the fire light. The spirits were returning to the depths of the jungle. The spirits of the plants, of the insects, of the animals or their bones were gradually drifting back to their abode in darkness. Many of the village people had already drifted off to sleep. All the small children had long since given up their scampering around in excitement and lay on a mat on the ground, their head resting on their mother’s lap. A thin cotton towel had been thrown over their bodies to ward off the chill night air, and perhaps also to keep the spirits of the night at bay.
On several further occasions that evening the scattered fire was rebuilt. The thumping of the bamboos again picked up in vigour, and with the rising to a tempo the drumming recalled some of the kavat dancers to the bonfire. A number of them appeared to be almost in a trance-like state as they methodically stomped, shuffled vigorously backwards and forward, and with much jumping into the fire, kicked blazing embers in all directions. On and on it went interminably, a subsidence and then a resurgence. Only the toughest were enduring. Finally only three of the masked dancers were left, shuffling around in the black embers and dust. Then they too vanished into the last of the darkness. Some birds were heralding the new day. Very soon the first light of dawn seeped into the sky. It was back to being a normal village at sleep.
Certainly, a night to remember!
There was for me the long drive home in the ‘tu lite’ of the new day.
Photographs are representative of ceremonies staged by the Uramot Baining at Malabunga and Gaulim villages, the Kairak Baining at Iveri and Kynagunan villages, and the Sibali Baining of Luskem and Vungu villages.