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Giant Drums of the Tropical Islands of Vanuatu Walk in the Night
The tropical islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, are home to one of the world’s largest free standing musical instruments. Drums that disappear in the night.
Vanuatu is home to a collection of sacred art which has been traditionally kept secret from the outside world. “Art that could easily be mistaken for any piece of modern artwork,” stated David Baker, curator of the Annandale Gallery, Sydney, Australia, which recently hosted a Vanuatu exhibition. Ancient artifacts that set the art world agog.
Among the art was a four foot Tam Tam, or wooden carved drum, one of the world’s largest free standing musical instruments. The face is stylized to represent an ancestor. The eyes represent the morning star, of a society which has kept its traditional secrets well away from the eyes of the world. The slit up the middle of the drum allowing the ancestor to speak, when the lip of the drum is beaten with a small wooden club.
These ancient drums played a significant role in ancient customs and traditions. They were a vital part of sacred ceremonies, such as initiations, funerals and traditional dances. Carefully coordinated actions by multiple drummers, beat the lip of the gongs with a small wooden club. The informal village orchestras performing rhythmical ensembles of immense variety and complexity.
The gongs were also a method of communicating with neighboring villages. Intricate messages could be sent over long distances, using a unique gong language. They could even contact neighboring islands, if the atmospherics were favorable. However, the art of the intricate language of the gong is almost lost among the younger generation.
Smaller carved versions of the larger musical instrument are frequently carried home by tourists to these tropical islands, totally unaware of the deep cultural significance.
While Tam Tams with one and two faces are a common site in the tropical islands of Vanuatu, only one particular group of islanders, on the remote island of Ambrym, in the province of Malampa, have the intellectual property-rights to carve them.
For the opening of Le Meridien, an international resort in Port Vila, on the main island of Vanuatu, it was decided that two five headed Tam Tams would be purchased to adorn the imposing entrance to the resort. A lot of money was paid and the day arrived when the massive drums were proudly put in place. People admired the wooden drums that towered high overhead, until disaster struck once word got out. The tams tams had been purchased from someone who had no traditional right to carve the drums. All hell broke loose. Many people were deeply upset, particularly the family who had the sole right of carving the ancient artifacts.
As the days passed it looked as if the storm would pass by, until one misty night the Tams Tams mysteriously disappeared, in spite of security guards patrolling the area. Urgent queries went out to find out who had taken the Tam Tams and where they were located. Many people were questioned. The police were called. All to no avail. No matter who was asked, there was only one answer given. “With the aid of the spirits of the night, the Tams Tams walked away.”
The offending Tams Tams have not been seen from that day to this. The managers of Le Meridien had to reorder a new Tam Tam, this time from the rightful traditional carvers.
Could anyone reading this story, please report if they see any giant wooden Tam Tams walking the streets on misty nights. Please contact Paramount Chief of ‘Tam Tam Five Heads Anyonymous’. Perhaps the drums will be singing the 1970’s song, “These feet are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do, one of these days these feet are gonna walk all over you.”
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