The extraordinary mask festival & other Rabaul attractions
11 June 2019
PORT MORESBY - The National Mask and Warwagira Festival is an annual event in East New Britain where the local tribes gather to display their culture and traditions.
The festival starts at dawn on the beach with a Kinavai ceremony, when the mysterious and feared Dukduk and Tubuan arrive on canoes from their villages accompanied by the chanting and beating of drums.
The Kinavai ceremony is spiritually important for the local Tolai people, who reportedly migrated to East New Britain from Namatanai in New Ireland Province. The ceremony signifies their landing on the shores of East New Britain.
Impressive-looking men in red laplaps stand out from the crowd as they walk leisurely around grass huts selling refreshments, food and crafts.
These men are from a secret society, which is part of the traditional culture of the Tolai people.
The dances are only performed by men although they invoke the male spirit, Duk-Duk, and female spirit, Tumbuan, depending on the masks they wear.
The National Mask Festival is always crowded with dancers wearing colourful traditional attire, intricately decorated masks and spectacular headdresses.
The dances are accompanied by the beating of kundu, the lizard-skin drums commonly used in Papua New Guinea. Each tribe has its own dancing style, music, traditional costumes and bilas (body decoration). It seems that the imagination of Papua New Guineans knows no limits.
Amongst the colourfully-dressed dancers, the Tumbuan emerge with their famous conical masks. Both male Duk-Duk and female Tumbuan masks are cone-shaped but the Duk-Duk masks are taller. With the round balls of grass and leaves positioned under the masks, only the legs of the dancers are visible.
The National Mask Festival, held in July each year, is an extravaganza of culture featuring dancing, ritual performances, story-telling, exchanges and a variety of arts and crafts on display.
It includes groups from Rabaul, Kavieng, Buka, and also Madang and Wewak, putting the true traditions of the PNG people on display.
You are cordially invited to this unique festival in July. It’s traditional, emotional and the performances cannot be seen at other cultural festivals as it can only be displayed in certain locations and it has to be on the coast.
The people, scenery and natural environment are very welcoming and you quickly begin to feel and experience the culture of the Tolai people.
Rabaul’s former title of “the Pearl of the Pacific” has been substituted by “the Pompeii of the Pacific” after Mother Nature unleashed her destructive force through the Tavurvur volcano in 1994.
Rabaul (the word means ‘mangrove swamp’) was claimed by the German government in 1884 as the administrative-centre for German New Guinea.
Under German rule, Rabaul boasted a botanical garden, hotels, a casino, extensive wharves, shops, and government buildings. A sizable Chinese community grew there, and they contributed greatly to the development of Rabaul in many ways.
Following the defeat of the German garrison early in World War I, Australian governance prevailed from 1914-1942, when Japanese forces took over much of New Guinea.
The Australian army group known as Lark Force was routed from Rabaul by the Japanese after which Rabaul grew to be Japan’s largest military base in the south-west Pacific.
Some 110,000 Japanese military personnel garrisoned at Rabaul, along with air force and navy support.
After World War II, Australia resumed the administration of PNG including Rabaul, which was quickly rebuilt as a strong commercial centre and beautiful township.
The eruption in 1994 saw the wide destruction of property and disintegration of Rabaul’s beauty but Rabaul has now emerged from the ashes and is growing again.
When you are in Rabaul, make sure you see the National Mask Festival, the Kinavai Festival, the Baining fire dance, Kokopo market, the Japanese barge tunnel, Bitapaka War Cemetery, Rabaul volcanic observatory, the hot springs close to the active Mt Tavurvur volcano and the Duke of York Islands.
Your day might start with an early bird preparation for the dawn opening of the Warwagira and Mask Festival and end in the evening, with the breath-taking Baining fire dance, performed only by men from who immerse themselves in the flames of the fire and escape unharmed.
The Bainings clan is one of few PNG cultures in which do not use the kundu drum instead using bamboo.
To find out about the confirmed festival dates and for an arranged exotic tours around Rabaul and Kokopo, email [email protected]
Peter S Kinjap is a freelance writer and a blogger, email [email protected]
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