Themes: Music

Instruments and sounds in Papua New Guinea


Indigenous instruments

Flutes are often used in ritual gatherings. The flute is considered a sacred instrument and not to be looked upon by women. Flutes in PNG are usually much larger than western flutes, made out of lengths of hollow bamboo.  They are usually decorated with feathers and other attachments, and often have a carved wooden finial at one end.  Drums, rattles and other percussive instruments are also essential in ritual gatherings, and used to set the pace for dancers.  Stringed instruments are rare.


Traditional music

Traditional music is usually song based, with flutes, drums and other mainly percussive instruments accompanying the voices. A drone effect is often created using mouth bows or jaw’s harps. Typically there will be a lead singer and a chorus who follow the leader.  The song, once established by the leader, is then overlaid with staggered starts from the other singers, like round singing, producing a fugue-like, repeating effect. 

Pop Music and World Music

The first influence of Europeans was the replacement of traditional music with hymn music.  Gospel singing is still very popular, and expanded beyond the church with the arrival of rock and roll.  Reggae is also popular in parts of Papua New Guinea, and string-bands are common, consisting of people singing alongside guitars.  These modern styles only became widespread in the 1990s, when television spread across the country. It was also in the 1990s that western musicians started to collect traditional music from rainforest communities, which were remixed and distributed under World Music labels. Since then, several notable musicians have emerged from PNG contributing to an international World Music scene.