To the extent that the Indonesian island of Sumba is famous, it is for its horses. A quick google search will return dreamy images of the setting sun illuminating riders on the pristine beach, or the elegant sandalwood ponies, originally bred here on Sumba and nearby Sumbawa, bathing in the surf. But there was a time before one of the most expensive hotels in the world occupied the Southern coast of Sumba, and before there were glossy tourist brochures showcasing the annual Pasola: staged fights between mounted men with mock-spears, as cultural spectacles. In this past, powerful men used to be known by their horse’s name; a symbol of great achievement; and were also commonly buried with their horse.
Unlike Sumbawa, where horse carts are ubiquitous in towns, the horses on Sumba have lost their practical use as a mode of transportation or a beast of burden. Their ceremonial use, however, is as important as ever. But perhaps the distinction between “practical” and “ceremonial” is too rigid? As I have written before, the Zaizo is very much a practical ceremony. The participants have to ensure a passage of words from themselves to their deceased ancestors who control life and death. This is done through carefully coordinated performances of music and speech. So the instruments are obviously of some importance. Apart from the gongs and the buffalo hide-drum, there is another drum completing the set of musical instruments. Known in Moesgaard’s collection as item EA957-0005, on Sumba it is called “mbamba”. In both places it stands about 50 cm. tall, made from wood and with a head made of horse’s hide. During the course of the Zaizo-ceremony, a man sitting in front of the main orator beats the drum with both hands. Just as the buffalo’s courage is transferred to the other drum, the horse’s speed is preserved in this one and transferred to the speaker’s words. During the Zaizo people talk about opening and following a single “path” to the ancestors. Apart from denoting unity among the living in their dealings with the dead, the path is also a kind of line along which the chanter’s words can travel. So maybe the “ceremonial” drum is also a practical vehicle for the orator and his words to travel by horseback on a heavenly path leading to the ancestors. In this sense, a rider without a horse is like a singer without a band.
//Victor Krusell Sørensen