Behind the mask
Four days of festivities in Kokopo
Excited chatter ripples through the darkness at Kokopo beach in East New Britain where a growing cluster of people is waiting. As milky early morning light starts to seep over the horizon, the crowd falls silent in anticipation. Faintly in the distance, chanting and drumming can be heard.
Kinavai is a sacred ritual of the Tolai people in East New Britain. Shrouded in secrecy for hundreds of years, the tradition is today performed to open the Mask Festival held in the province annually. Locals and tourists are invited to watch and join in the celebrations.
It is one of the rare occasions that people outside of the Tolai tribe are able to see the tumbuans. Both feared and revered, the
tumbuans are the masked figures of incarnated spirits. Respected elders of the community undergo a secret process as they prepare for adorning the elaborate costumes of the
tumbuans. Once this is complete, it is believed that they become the embodiment of the spirit.
In days gone by, the tumbuans would pass judgments in Tolai communities. They would be summoned to a village to enforce or punish, and their decree had to be obeyed. It is reported that tumbuans have burned down the houses of those that disobeyed them, and they can kill a defier with impunity. At Kinavai, their presence is necessary to initiate boys of the clan to manhood.
On this morning, women have gathered to bid their sons goodbye and good luck. They hold giant sugar canes, the leaves waving above their heads.
“They are coming,” whispers one of the mothers, Rachael, as the chanting grows louder and a cluster of boats on the horizon starts to drift towards the beach.
A procession of barefoot boys begins to walk along the shoreline. Each wearing a red
lungi, they are nervous, biting their lips as their eyes whip around anxiously. Older boys and teenagers follow, then they all stop and turn to face the transfixed crowd.
Their mothers go to meet them and the ceremony begins. The women, all standing on one side, use a stone to break open a coconut, splashing the water at their sons’ feet. Next they crack the sugar cane, before flinging a handful of lime powder. The white powder, alongside red ochre, is also smeared on the boys’ chests and smudged on their brow and cheek bones. It is believed to protect them from the evil spirits.
Now, the boats are nearing the beach. Aboard are the female tumbuans and the male dukduks.
The masks for both are conical. The females’ are black with geometric faces and eyes of concentric circles, painted in white and red. A tuft of white feathers flutter at the top. The male masks are faceless, but are taller and more elaborately carved than those of their female counterparts. Both tumbuans and dukduks have a billowing bodysuit of green leaves that rustle as they move and jiggle. Only the men’s legs, from below the knee, are visible.
The Kinavai represents the Tolai people crossing the sea and arriving at the Gazelle Peninsula hundreds of years ago. Once the boats are close enough, the tumbuans and
dukduks wade to the shore and playfully dance at the water’s edge. The Tolai people on the beach immediately retreat, as to touch the
tumbuans is strictly forbidden. Meanwhile, the tourists and other spectators lurch closer and there is a frenzy of photography. As the rhythm of the drum picks up, people begin to stomp their feet and rejoice. The morning sun is now golden, and everyone revels in its joyous warmth.
Later in the day, the mask festival is formally commenced at the Kokopo sports field with speeches and applause. Tourists and photographers are gathered in a staged seating area, but today the gate is open with no charge for entry, so many people from
across the province have travelled to enjoy the show.
A square dance floor has been roped off, and spectators sit cross-legged around its edge. Many locals chew on buai, their lips stained conspicuously red. One of the stalls nearby providing snacks and souvenirs is selling icy poles. Many children have coloured rings around their mouths, in synchrony with their elders.
In front of the captivated audience, the final elements of the Tolai traditions are displayed. The tumbuans are summoned by chiefs hollering and banging the kundu drum. They are whipped with strings of tabu, or shell money, then fall to their knees.
Tolai people walk among them and fill their baskets with tabu in an offering, though traditionally this would often have been the payment of a fine.
Another highlight of the four-day event takes place in the evening. After nightfall, guests are driven up to the village of Gaulim in the Baining Mountains. There, a fire burns and crackles. Almost immediately after we arrive, the drums begin to beat.
Costumed men circle the fire, then, one by one, they jump over the flames. Suddenly, they spring upwards and jump onto the fire, flames licking their legs as they kick the burning timber, sending scattering embers towards the crowd. The crowd gasps in unison, in fear and wonder.
In the pitch black and peacefulness of the mountains, the flames are the only light, their flickering red and orange mesmerising. Coupled with the evocative chanting and drum rhythm, they leave us enchanted. As the ceremony comes to an end, we jolt from our trance and carry our weary selves home.
The next day, back at the sports field, festivities for day two of the mask festival are set to get underway at noon. But we’re on PNG time, and scattered but heavy downpours keep dampening dancers’ enthusiasm to perform.
Finally, the kundu begins a dramatic slow and steady build-up, announcing the imminent arrival of the first performers.
There is a schedule of events, but it serves more as an indication of possible performances than a strict timetable. As dancers in costume appear, it’s a fun game to guess which village they represent. When men appear with masks adorning feathered birds’ heads, we know these must be the Sinivit villagers showcasing their akakuruk or chicken dance. In unison, they stamp and bow, capturing the illusion of the chickens on their headdress pecking at the ground.
For the amurup or emu dance, a man from the Marmar village appears painted head to toe in black. He is joined by two men in surprisingly realistic black-feathered costumes representing the emus. This dance is a comical one, with the man struggling to control the two giant birds as they scamper around him. The expressions on his face leave the crowd in giggles at the farcical humour.
The fire eaters are another highlight. These men need no fanciful costumes to attract the audience’s attention. Bare chested with a simple feather headband, the lead performer takes logs from the fire. One end smoulders in red, and smoke streams around his face. Then he takes a bite. Spectators flinch, but he does not even wince as he chews on the burning embers. A round of applause accompanies our sigh of relief.
After the performances, there are plenty of opportunities to have photos taken with the costumed dancers. Or to sit and enjoy a chat with one of the tribes people, who are happy to share stories of their culture.
It is here, that I speak with villagers from the Baining Mountains, resulting in me riding in the back of a pick-up truck up to their village just a few days later. The men have offered to show me their workshop where the masks are made. An opportunity I cannot refuse.
On arrival, I am taken up a steep muddy incline to the so-called ‘secret place’. They tell me I am the first woman and first journalist to be allowed inside.
It is a rather humble building, more of a shack, made from natural materials. Inside, an assortment of masks, some that I recognise from the fire dance, hang from the walls. Resting on the floor is one half-made, just a skeletal wooden frame waiting to be transformed.
Many of the masks have animalistic qualities, such as ears and a beak, having been inspired by the creatures of the forest.
Gideon, a young man from the village, explains how the masks are made. “When a man sleeps at night, he dreams of the head of spirits. When he wakes, he will sketch on the ground with a broomstick or small knife. Then he will use that drawing to make the mask.”
He points to one with a long protruding jaw and teeth, like the snout of a crocodile. “The maker had slept by the river when he dreamt of this one!”
The masks are made from tapa cloth, a fabric created by pulping the bark of a tree, which is stretched over the frame. This is then painted in red and black. The black ink comes from the sap of a tree; and for the red, leaves of the areca tree are mixed with slaked lime.
The dances are performed about three times a year, sometimes to pass boys into manhood and sometimes for funerals, as well as other special ceremonies. To prepare for the dance, the men performing must not partake in any wrongdoing throughout the day, not steal nor say bad words nor even sleep with a woman.
“If a man does something morally wrong,” Gideon tells me, “when he performs he will be burned by the fire.”
The wearing of some bigger and more important masks requires another level of initiation. For this prestigious role, men must undertake a long period of fasting. The man is buried in the soil with just his head showing and is not allowed food, only water. Some men, reportedly, stay like this for up to a month. When they are lifted out by their fellow villagers, they are weak but must perform the dance before they are offered any nourishment.
This rite of passage is only undertaken by the strongest elders in the village and those who are most respected.
As we talk, the chief of the village pops by to say hello, beaming with pride for his treasured tradition.
He tells me: “This dance is important to us as it has been passed on by our ancestors.
It keeps the bad spirits away.”
Fire dance ... costumed men leap through the flames in the Baining Mountains (left); dancing to the rhythm of the kundu (right).
In the groove ... dancers getting into the spirit of things at the Mask Festival.
Initiation ... (from left) the procession of boys and older teenagers who will be initiated into manhood; Mask Festival dancing; a tumbuan; one of the elaborate masks.