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The rhythm of the kundu…. It’s Mt Hagen Show time

Huli dancers (PNG Value Tours)
Nebilyer (Western Highlands) dancers at the Mt Hagen Show (PNG Value Tours)

PETER S KINJAP

PORT MORESBY – Most of Papua New Guinea’s cultural events are a relatively unspoiled resource that have great potential for generating revenue from tourism. 

From the year’s beginning to its end, it is festival time somewhere in PNG.

In Mount Hagen, capital of the Western Highlands Province, the famous Mount Hagen Cultural Show is showcased every year during the first of week of August.

With a history that dates back almost 60 years, the show is one of PNG’s finest and most popular events.

It draws tribes from all over the Western Highlands and neighbouring provinces for cultural performances, art and craft displays, singing and dancing, and traditional rituals.

The show was first staged in 1961, long before Papua New Guinea’s independence, in a bid to peacefully share and preserve the people’s traditions.

If you are around Mount Hagen, the rhythmic thumping of kundu (lizard skin) drums is the first hint of this colourful and sensual festival.

As the last of the early morning fog lifting, the field behind the Kagamuga showground is a sea of towering headdresses, colourful foliage and paint-encrusted faces.

Hours of performance preparation and dress rehearsals by each tribe are underway and, across the field, you can see hundreds of people are in various states of dress, tucking leaves, arranging feathers, painting bodies and examining mirrors.

“When I was a boy, I used to climb up to the treetops so I could see over the fence and watch the festival. That was the 1970s,” local Kagamuga resident Jack Boni tells me.

"We are very proud; we love to present our culture. But it is dying out because of Western influence," he adds.

Usually held over two days, the Mount Hagen Cultural Show is one of the biggest singsings of the year in PNG.

Villagers from all over the region come to showcase their costumes, music, dance and culture.

For visiting tourists it's an opportunity to experience first-hand the customs of the many tribes in one of the most culturally intact places in the world.

If you happen to be one of the first to turn up at the Kagamuga showground on those two days in early August, you can watch the sun's rays catching the morning dew on a black, red, yellow painted faces.

All the men, from the smallest to the biggest, honour their ancestors by dressing as old men with beards and legs mudded with white clay.

When they dance – holding hands and jogging on the spot in several lines – the rattling of shells, bones and seed necklaces form a mesmerising percussion to their low chant.

Warlike cries and whooping draw attention from the crowd as the men march in a somewhat coordinated way – going round and round the field forming a circle with traditional spears and axes.

Many costumes evoke ancestral spirits but, while friendly, as they pay tribute to their traditions and heritage, most performers won't initiate conversation.

"When you open up to people, they open up to you. If you walk with your arms folded, saying nothing, they will say nothing, too," says Daniel Kaua, a Mount Hagen resident and show organising committee member.

The Mount Hagen Cultural show invites tribes from neighbouring provinces. The Foi tribesmen from Lake Kutubu in the Southern Highlands are festival regulars.

Foi men are renowned for their knowledge of how to extract the highly valued viscous oil of the kara'o tree, which they believe sprang from the menstrual blood of two women who once travelled the land.

The gushing oil is said to be the tree's menstruation. It is mixed with charcoal or plant dye to create the paint used in celebrations and rituals: black for warriors, red for mature men and yellow for initiates or men in training.

As the day’s heat intensifies, there is an explosion of colour and rhythm, pounding feet and bouncing heads. Deep chants resonate and the beat of kundu drums throbs deep in your chest.

Tourists wielding oversized cameras duck and weave between performers, jostling for the best angle, snapping selfies and snapping at other tourists to get out of the way.

For their part, performers seem proud to be celebrities for two days, admiring and posing with endless patience.

Peter KinjapIn almost every corner of the field, performers stamp their feet and shake their as gras (leaves tucked into the back of their belts).

The closing dance for the day, known as waipa, is usually by youngsters (male and female) in courtship mood, giggling as they hold hands tightly and joggling in a clockwise direction chanting songs of love and acquaintance.

This year the exotic Mount Hagen Cultural event, is tentatively booked for the weekend of 17-18 August. It’s getting to be time tomake arrangements to be there.

Peter Kinjap (left) is a freelance writer and a blogger, email: pekinjap@gmail.com

Comments

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Garry Roche

Always enjoyed the Hagen show. There was always great variety. Just checking the caption on the top photo. It says 'Huli Dancers' ?
They are wearing a feather headdress which in Melpa is called 'koiwagl'.
I would say they are from Nebyler or Central Hagen. Maybe even Kuli - but not Huli.
For some years the Hagen show was moved from Kagamuga to the sports field at Rebiamul, but I think it has now moved back to Kagamuga.

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