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Slit Gong (Atingting kon)

Met curator Eric Kjellgren on communication in Slit Gong (Atingting kon) by the Tin Mweleun peoples of Ambrym Island in Vanuatu, mid to late 1960s.

The towering slit gongs of northern Vanuatu are among the largest musical instruments in the world. Found primarily on Ambrym, Malekula, and neighboring islands, they are carved from the trunks of breadfruit trees, which are also an important food source. In each village, a number of gongs, comprising a sort of informal orchestra, stand on the village dancing ground. Gong orchestras are played at major social and religious events such as initiations, funerals, and dances. When playing, the musician stands in front of the gong and strikes the lip of the slit with a clublike wooden beater. As the gong ensemble is played, rhythms of immense variety and complexity can be produced by the carefully coordinated actions of multiple drummers.

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Video transcript

I almost can’t walk by the Slit Gong without pausing to look at it. It’s from the island of Ambrym, in Vanuatu. It shows a human face, one of the most common and widely spread motifs in the art of the entire world, and yet it has this very striking quality. These large, staring eyes, and the nose, and the mouth itself is not at the base of the face just under the nose, but is in fact the slit that runs down the entire front of the gong. And the gong, in a sense, is a double image of one of the founding ancestors of the village. It portrays the ancestor’s face, but also the ancestor’s voice, which is the sound that emerges from the slit in the gong when it is played. These gongs are played by beating them with wooden mallets on the edge of the slit, and it produces a very deep, resonant, thumping sound, which actually carries long distances across the landscape. It’s used to accompany these dances and songs that are performed in association with various ceremonies, and they were also used in the past as a way of communicating between villages. There were a system of beats and pauses that were essentially analogous in some ways to Morse code. So that if you wanted to tell them, “Show up in five days, tell Chief So-and-so to bring the ten pigs he owes us, plus three piles of taro,” you could send something that specific. To some people in the West, the concept of ancestor worship seems rather unusual. It was only when I had the opportunity to actually go to the village where it was made, and talk to the people who had made it, that I realized the real subtlety and complexity of the imagery. They told me that what you’re seeing in the eyes is in fact the morning star. And that emphasizes the fact that the ancestors, in a sense, are of the human world, watch over human activities, but are also connected with the larger workings of the cosmos. Many of the themes that were being expressed, I realized, are themes that we have in our own culture: the respect for the founders of our society, and the need to continually remember them, and give them their proper due.