Wednesday, 20 July 2016

PNG 7 Mask Festival

To quote the Post Courier of Port Moresby: "This years (National) Mask Festival was not as successful as some had expected. It was a poor representation of provincial culture."

Well, we've never been before so we didn't notice the difference though there did seem to be more than a little confusion around the event. As we spoke to people around town there were some who told us it had been cancelled, others who said it was beginning on the Wednesday or the Thursday or perhaps the Friday. There were no notices around town and it all seemed a little strange especially given the fact that we had been picked up from the airport on arrival by Elis who told us she was the festival organizer. She did acknowledge that there had been a rough leadup tho the event and she wasn' sure which groups were coming, the withdrawal of national funding and few sponsors etc.

The big event was to be the enactment of the annual tubuan/dukduk (good spirits/bad spirits) ritual where boatloads of Tolai people arrive on the island from across the waters (the Tolai were originally from New Ireland) to challenge the  west New Britain tribes  for the right to come ashore (there's a chance I have this completely wrong). This traditionally occurs at dawn. But which dawn? Again no one was sure. Strange since hundreds of the locals were to be the actors in this event!

The festival has been a five day event in previous years (it began in 1994 - the year of the volcano eruption) but has languished recently. Other province capitals (Kavieng, Madang) have begun to stage their own dance/mask festivals rather than come to this one. In the days when it was a genuine national festival they all came - the mudmen of ....... Highlanders. It was a genuine cultural celebration for and by the tribes axross PNG. This one has degenerated into a display for the tourists who fail to turn up in numbers sufficient to underwrite the costs. Maybe 200 in total over two days.  It a vicious cycle. Even the locals didn't show up.

Having said that, as I said we didn't know the difference, but sensed there was a lack of enthusiasm for the event. The photos tell the story. The dawn event was pretty interesting apart from the insensitivity of some tourists who wanted to walk into the middle of the ritual to get a beter photo. That behaviour continued over the two days and resulted in some Europeans intervening to restrain the overenthusiastic. The real highlight was was the Fire Dance at a local village on the first evening. Two hours of chanting and singing in a field with only a fire burning in the centre as lighting. It was trance like. The masked dancers, all male (the whole mask festival was male), wore giant masks which we were told were based on the native bee. The dancers moved around in an erratic, non choreographed way dancing with tiny steps and occasionaly charging towards the fire to sideswipe the blazing pire or kick a shower of embers into the sky. There was the same uncertainty about the fire event (no surprise - it had become the norm) as about the festival. It was on, it was off, it was transferred to a different village; no one was going.

Gideon, our historian friend, was our guide. He spent an hour in Kokopo talking before deciding it was on; then another thirty minutes at the village on our arrival confirming it was proceeding. Apparently there had been some protocol difficulties There was conflict between two villages who both thought they should be hosting it (there was a profit to be made). Someone had mischievously been putting the word around that it was cancelled. It turned out to be a great night. A full house. Unfortunately, very little light so few good photos.

The worst part of the final day was the tourists and their cameras. The best part was the finale when the tubuan returned to close the festival with a high energy dance full of great singing and dance which had a strange mesmerising power. Great.

By the time the chairperson of the festival committee made the closing speech and the hand over of ceremonial spear to thenext host community (again done in challenge mode) had occurred  we were virtually the only people left watching. A fitting , if somewhat low key ending. 

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