Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Tubuan pace around the dance grounds waiting for the singing to begin. © Paul Wolffram

Where Spirits Dance – The spirit masks of Southern New Ireland Papua New Guinea.

In the south-easternmost region of the island of New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago above the mainland of Papua New Guinea, there resides an isolated linguistic group called Siar-Lak. The Lak people number approximately 2,500 to 3,000 speakers and survive mainly from subsistence horticulture supplemented by fishing and the sale of copra, cocoa beans, and other cash crops. The Lak have several masking and dancing traditions; the most significant is known as the tubuan or duk-duk. The tubuan practice involves a secret men’s society, secret grounds, and large spirit-figure masks. These seven to ten-foot conical masks also appear in neighboring linguistic groups, most famously among the Tolai people across the Saint George channel on the eastern tip of New Britain.

A yian pindik – senior practitioner in the tubuan society stands in front of tubuan spirit masks. © Paul Wolffram

There is strong evidence to support the assertion that tubuan culture and traditions originated in Southern New Ireland and spread from there to central New Ireland and East New Britain. The practices, knowledge, and traditions associated with the tubuan are part of the esoteric law of the secret society. Only men, who are usually initiated into the practice during their early or mid-teens, can participate or enter the secret grounds. The secret grounds are known as taraiu and are found on the outskirts of most village communities in the Lak region.
Tubuan spirits only appear in community spaces during significant events, usually following the death of important community members as part of funeral ceremonies that can take place over several years. In recent decades, tubuan have appeared as part of other community events such as the opening of new churches or during visits from regional political leaders. Historically, tubuan have also appeared in public as part of their role as enforces of traditional protocols. Because of their powerful spiritual associations, relationships with deceased ancestors, and their role as enforcers of traditional lore, tubuan command great respect and generate fear among children and young women.
During most public appearances, the tubuan enter the liminal space at the edge of the village, where they dance accompanied by a male choir. Most senior men in the Lak region consider tubuan performances and the kapialai songs that accompany their performances to be the most aesthetically beautiful music and dance forms of their culture. Women, children, and uninitiated men watch tubuan performances with interest from a safe distance of thirty to forty meters. Tubuan perform synchronous movements, but unlike male and female dances of the region that are performed in grids of rows and columns, tubuan dance in their own space, sometimes individually and sometimes with other spirit figures.

Tubuan spirits bend and twist in the vigorous motions of a dance. © Paul Wolffram

The spirits dance by leaping, hopping, and skipping in time and in counterpoint to the kundu, hourglass shaped drums. The tubuan twist, turn, and leap about in a vigorous dance that suggests a lightness and dynamism that is surprising given their size and bulk. Tubuan are, after all, spirit beings and associated with lightness and reproductive power.
All tubuan are female, and while they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and patterns, each tubuan is an individual and remains unchanged across generations. A senior male initiate known as a yain pindik or ‘source of the secret’ carefully manages and escorts his tubuan to and from the dance grounds. Dance sessions may go on for hours or days, depending on the ability of the individual sponsoring the performance to provide food in the form of garden produce and pigs to the tubuan and the hosting village.

Tubuan spirits. © Paul Wolffram

When tubuan occupy a village over several days of performance, no work can be undertaken, and all normal activities of gardening and building must cease. The tubuan are summoned into the dancing ground at the edge of the village by an intricate rhythmic pattern played on a large garamut or slit gong. The slit gong is used to summon the dancing spirits and send them back to the taraiu up to ten times a day during the rites. Kapialai songs and tubuan dancing often stir deep emotions and bring to mind not just the deceased person for whom the mortuary rites are being performed but also other deceased relatives of the recent and not so recent past. Individual yain pindik are often moved to get up from the choir of men to dance among the spirits and yell out in joy and celebration of those who have passed yet still dance on in a spiritual form.
On the final day of their performance the tubuan visit each hamlet in the village that is hosting the rites. The spirits move slower, and they appear tired and mournful. In each hamlet they visit, they receive gifts of food and ropes of shell money, the traditional exchange currency of the region.
The tubuan continue to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of all Lak people. They are at once fearsome and wonderful to behold. To see the spirits dance in their traditional setting is a wonder that links the ancestors to the present generations. In more recent year’s senior men complain about the ways in which tubuan rites are truncated to accommodate the economic and political demands of modern times, but the rites seem certain to continue in one form or another for the foreseeable future.