Living Music: Garamut Drums of the Middle Sepik River

Slit Gong Drum (Garamut), late 18th-19th Century
Govermas village, Blackwater River, Middle Sepik River region, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Garamut wood; 19 x 17 x 77 in.
Anonymous Gift
Music plays a role in every human culture on earth, and often musical instruments are culturally just as rich as the sounds they produce. In honor of National Buy a Musical Instrument Day, we’re highlighting an object from the Bowers Museum’s Collections that won’t be found in a music store near you: a garamut, or slit gong drum from the Middle Sepik River Region of Papua New Guinea.
The process for crafting the garamut and the power it is imbued with varies widely depending on where in Melanesia it is made. On Vanuatu, the towering drums are oriented vertically as opposed to the horizontal design of the Middle Sepik River. Even the mythology of its creation is dependent on region. To the east of the Sepik River among the peoples of the Rai Coast, garamutare said to be hollowed by invoking kaap sawing, nefarious spirits manifested as wood birds, and then filled with kaap simang who give the instrument its voice. For the indigenous people of Middle Sepik Region, the garamut is a being in and of itself. The best way of understanding the significance of these slit drums is that the people of Papua New Guinea often say “a garamut is a man.” The drums have individual names and are believed to be so powerful that they can take on new shapes and roam about in the night, and even kill people or make them sick.
Detail of  2004.64.1.
Men who make garamut never make them for themselves; they are constructed for new brothers-in-law who have paid their bride price in full. Just as taking a wife is considered an aspect of reaching maturity as a man, the construction of the garamut parallels the way boys are made into men. This highly sacred process is intrinsically linked to the spirituality of the village. Once crafted, slit drums are used on several occasions, but like their construction garamut may only be played by initiated men. They are most often used for ceremonial purposes. Because this drum comes from the Middle Sepik Region, it was almost certainly used for this purpose, likely even played alongside other slit drums.  However, villages will also use their garamut to communicate with each other from afar through a complex code of beats and rhythms. Very few Papuans fully master this code, but many can understand beats for their own name or commands like “hurry up!”
The garamut in the Bowers collection features a crocodile design at either end with a humanoid figure perched on the snout of the larger crocodile head. The crocodile is an important motif along the Sepik River. Seen as a symbol of masculinity, the crocodile is celebrated with annual festivals. There are numerous beliefs surrounding the crocodile, but some cultures of the Sepik River hold that the crocodile is an ancestor. This also explains why scarification in the pattern of crocodile scales is common throughout the region. While some regions produce less decorated slit gongs, the sides of this drum are also carved with intricate designs.
Part of a four part set of musical instrument postage
stamps issued by Papua New Guinea October 29, 1969.
Whether you celebrate this week’s holiday by buying a musical instrument, learning a new one, or simply enjoying your favorite songs, consider the garamut. Its unique cultural identity and significance to the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea serves as a reminder that, in some places, musical instruments are far more than mere noisemakers. Just as every piece of art has a story behind it, an instrument’s origin can truly give it a life of its own.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

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