Small but Courageous: The Chanter’s Drum

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People on Sumba depend on the goodwill of the ancestors and in the Zaizo ritual, the requests of the living flow through the music and ultimately reach the ancestor spirits. As I wrote in the last post about gongs, Zaizo rituals related to the ancestors on the Indonesian island of Sumba involve a great deal of talking in large gatherings. Speaking up in public can be daunting, so although the only shy Sumbanese I have met are giggly teens asking for a selfie, perhaps a small infusion of courage is nice to have, even for experienced ritual officiators when they interact with the ancestors. This courage is drawn from the smaller type of the two drums that I recently collected for Moesgaard Museum. Together with the gongs the two drums form a key set of ritual musical instruments.

During the Zaizo ritual, the drum sits on the floor in front of the leading officiator, who sits cross-legged beating away at the drum with a debarked stick while he repeats the words of the crowd in his chant. The entire combined rhythm of the drums and gongs is jolty and stumbling and so are the lead drummers’ movements. Ngongo Lede, an experienced drummer, is quite the star in this genre, going on tour between houses that needs his expertise. Like one of those dedicated fans who follow their idols’ entire tour, I went along (I had not written a banner saying I wanted to have his kids though). He would usually sit with his back unusually straight and his head tilted slightly backwards, his closed eyes creating a dignified air about him. He is not alone however; he draws courage from the drum in front of him. Its head is made from buffalo hide and this is no coincidence.

Ngongo Lede drumming and chanting

On Sumba, the buffalo is considered a brave and strong animal and is praised for these virtues. During large feasts, for example at funerals and weddings, Sumbanese slaughter a number of buffalo, the rule being ‘big is beautiful’. “We slaughtered one with horns like this” someone might proudly tell you, stretching out his one arm indicating with the other some point around the elbow, telling you the length of that poor buffalo’s horns. The buffalo is slaughtered by having its throat cut and a large animal like this does not just die instantly from such a wound. It takes several minutes. During those minutes, courage is indeed needed, as the men who hold on to the ropes tying the buffalo’s head and the men taking turns at slashing the beast’s throat are in constant danger of being trampled by the desperate animal. People prefer a strong animal with a good fight in it, and loudly cheer at it in admiration of its strength. During the unmatched fight, the men must be as courageous as the buffalo, so they brandish their machetes and stomp the ground as they roar, cheer and dance to display their strength and courage while the slow-dying buffalo fights for its life. Perhaps a bit of the buffalo’s courage and strength is even transferred to them during the course of the slaughter? Perhaps the drum in Moesgaard’s storage facilities also contains a bit of that courage from some long-dead buffalo from Sumba?

Skulls of slaughtered buffalo hang outside many houses on Sumba

Whatever the case, the drums and gongs are essential elements of the Zaizo-ritual. Without the conversation between the gongs that runs in parallel with the one between humans, the requests of the living would not reach the ancestors, and without the courageous drum, the drumming chanter would not have the heart to face the ancestors. In the traditional networks of status on Sumba, which are rapidly losing their former importance, being courageous; fierce and angry even, are highly valuable character traits if you want to try to attain a high status or “to seek a name” as it is often phrased. As when facing your living contestants for status, you must also show courage when dealing with your ancestors. That history and the importance of “courage” are condensed in that small drum that gave Ngongo Lede the resolution to chant away through the night and will continue to live on through Sumbanese people’s rituals.

//Victor Krusell

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One thought on “Small but Courageous: The Chanter’s Drum”

  1. Pingback: Speedy Delivery – The Hand Drum from Sumba | ethnographica

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