University of Pittsburgh Seal Link to Homepage
University Library System LinkContact Us Link

Music, Song, Balladic Epics

Aesthetic genres such as music and song are a very important part of the cultural repertoires of Papua New Guinea societies, as they are also around the world.  At ceremonial dances men and women play hour-glass drums and blow whistles in time with their dance movements and sung messages.  At collective courting occasions, people sing songs and courting pairs turn their heads together expressively in time with the singing.  People sing songs of grief and parting at funerals, breaking into song after periods of wailing.  Individuals play mouth harps for courting purposes and flutes as laments or expressions of longing.

In two of our fieldwork areas, the Hagen (Melpa) and Duna areas, elaborate sung ballads amounting to stories of epic adventures and encounters with spirit forces of the landscape, encapsulate a great deal of cultural knowledge as well as messages about morality, danger, desire, and (among the Duna) the victory of human youths in search of brides over hostile spirit entities.  These balladic epics are also marked by elaborate, archaic vocabulary that adds greatly to their poetic appeal.

Sung magical spells are a special feature of musical performance in Pangia among the Wiru speakers.  Pan pipes are played in Hagen in conjunction with rituals at major celebrations for spirits of the landscape.  In all three areas mouth harp playing is well developed and in Pangia the player breathes words into the music, conveying a message to a preferred potential partner in romance.

These genres are therefore significant in the arenas of politics, life-cycle activities including courting and funerals, in magic, and in popular entertainment.

We illustrate these themes in three chapters, taken with the publisher's permission, from our co-edited (Stewart and Strathern) volume published by Ashgate in 2005, Expressive Genres and Historical Change: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Taiwan, chapters 1, 3, and 8.

These kinds of materials are important to include here as indicators of the creative capabilities of their performers, and also, most recently, because of their replacement over time or their overlaying with elements of introduced Christian songs and music since many of the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea have joined Christian churches, entailing their move away from earlier aesthetic forms, in part because of church disapproval of some activities, and in part because they themselves have voluntarily taken up new expressions that go with changed sensibilities.

People greatly appreciate good singers and performers.  With the balladic epics known as kang rom, in Hagen, the performers, usually men, declared that they would sing the whole ballad without pausing to draw breath, and they were given small rewards at the end of a performance, most often, as with courting songs, performed at night.

ULS LogoUse of materials in this Archive should include citation to the source of the materials as follows:
The Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern Archive, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, Digital Research Library,

Copyright © 2011- Hosted by the University Library System at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern own the physical material presented on this website. We provide access to the digital images for personal, noncommercial, educational and research purposes only. Without written permission from Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern stating otherwise, prohibited uses include, but are not limited to systematic downloading of images using robots, scripts, or other software programs; commercial use and resale of the images; or redistribution, publication or retransmission of the images beyond what is allowed by the U.S. copyright code. Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern hold the copyright to most of the images.