Sounding the Pacific: Musical Instruments of Oceania

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Until 6 September 2010

The unique musical technology of Oceania — the region that encompasses Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, Australia and Island Southeast Asia — is highlighted in an eclectic exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Running until September, Sounding the Pacific charts the techniques by which local instrument builders created and resonated sound for diverse uses, from the sacred to the prosaic.

The sound of Pacific slit gongs evokes supernatural voices. Credit: E. KJELLGREN

The lunet — a wooden friction drum invented on the island of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea — was rubbed during rites to honour the dead. Resembling a giant insect larva, the oblong instrument is inset with eight eye-like opercula, the 'lids' with which Turbo petholatus sea snails seal their openings. A musician would run his moistened palm across the lunet's four carved tongues to create a rising series of tones similar to the cry of the local bird from which the instrument took its name. “It is both a first of its type and a revolutionary design,” explains curator Eric Kjellgren.

Alongside familiar percussion instruments are didjeridoos, jaw harps, nose flutes, slit gongs, ukuleles and ocarinas, many carved into strange shapes or adorned with fantastic animals. When swung on a string, a bullroarer from Papua New Guinea, made from a 1-metre slat of wood with a hole bored in one end, creates a deep whirr like an oversized bumblebee. An etched bamboo nose flute from 1830s Fiji, tooted by exhaling through a single nostril, accompanied courtship rituals. A pair of fearsome 4-metre-long slit gongs from the Middle Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, hollowed from logs and ornamented with elongated carved catfish heads, were beaten in relays for months at a time to evoke the voices of supernatural spirits.

Although many of these specialized instruments remained local, others have travelled around the world. The didjeridoo, a type of trumpet made from a tree limb hollowed out by termites, originated in northern Australia but has become popular worldwide. By contrast, the ukulele — meaning 'jumping flea' — was modified from a small guitar called a braguinha, probably introduced to Hawai'i in 1879 by Portuguese settlers from Madeira.

Stringed instruments are rare in the Pacific, but one fine example on show is a sesando from Timor Island in Indonesia. This graceful, century-old tube zither consists of a bamboo stem fitted with metal strings and surrounded by a resonating chamber made from a pleated palm frond. Plucking the strings creates a dulcimer-like sound. Considered to be a sacred instrument, the music of the sesando, Kjellgren explains, is often accompanied by philosophical songs that meditate “upon fate and the fleeting nature of human life”.