IDRC Pan Asia Networking sponsorship

Tapr:  the drum (garamut) signals of the Maramba society

By:  Paul Yamngarpise Norman,

Department of Anthropology & Sociology University of Papua New Guinea.

Communications by means of patterns transmitted by struck idiophones is well known and extensively documented.  However, this paper is an attempt to present, illustrate and investigate the significance of drum signals in Maramba Society.  The information presented here is from my own indigenous knowledge about the uses of the Garamut as the traditional medium of communication.

The Maramba people, for thousands of years have been using the Garamut (slit-gong) as the only medium and means of communication.  The Garamut has been part of the everyday life-style of the people and it is of immense value.  It has also played a very significant role in the social, spiritual, ritual, cultural and also the political life of the Mararnba society.

However, I still now proceed onto defining what the tapr is. Tapr in my local 'Kanda dialect' a sub-sub-family of the Nor-Pondo sub phylum, within the main language category of the Sepik-Ramu phylum, simply means a 'message'. The 'tapr' (message) is actually produced by the B+NG (the Garamut) in pidgin or the slit-gong in English.

The 'B+NG' (garamut) as a means or form of non-verbal communication also made it possible for people to interpret certain messages being transmitted and also the interpretations of the sounds, codes and the different kinds of patterns of beats being performed or employed and only well-skilled people handle the Garamut.

*To fully present to you here the importance of 'tapr' (message) and the garamut (slit-gong), ....

Garamut - slit drums - photo by Quentin Reilly circa 2000 - Manus Island

... I would like to illustrate or demonstrate one of the songs which fits in with what I intend to present here. The song itself is all about the 'tapr' (message). The song used to be a traditional song, which was re-arranged and recorded into contemporary music

The song carries with it the symbolic messages calling the relatives of the dead person or simply, it is a death-announcement.


(1)          (2)













I .The Garamut is beaten by someone

2. The message is heard/coming

3. A woman has died

4. Hey! you people listen

5. A woman has died

6. The garamut is beaten and the message is flowing

7. The message symbolising a woman is beaten.

Interestingly, I have in one way or the other captured your attention with the demonstration of the song 'tapr', however, I now intend to proceed onto pinpointing the functions of the Garamut as a means of traditional communication in my society. Firstly, in a more broader sense, the garamut is used extensively during traditional singsings. The question of when and how it is used to communicate is that; it is used during important occasions such as signify or commemorate the death of a kinsman or kinswoman. The Garamut is also used to commemorate yearly events like the Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Secondly, the Garamut is used to transmit death-announcements and the message and signals relayed indicates that a particular woman or man is urgently required or urgently summoned to return home immediately.

For instance, the seriousness of the personal signal is apparent when we consider the case of the woman working in the garden which may be a distant as 20 kilometres from the village. In responding to the call, she risks losing an entire day's work, at great cost to the family. Similarly, an adult male, perhaps a long way off collecting betelnuts or probably fishing or hunting, would equally be upset to have been summoned.

Also associated to this is that, every adult has an individual signal or message. This signal has three main sections: an introduction, a main section, and a conclusion. It begins with (A) - the rubbing of the inside of a slit in the log, (B) - a series of equidistant beats, probably demanding attention and (C) - one (for male) or two (for female) blows indicating sex of the person summoned, then a slow version (D) of the fort-coming main section is beaten, and this is followed by repetition of (C). Next the main section (E) is beaten and repeated once or several times, and finally there is a repetition of B, C, D and A.

Thirdly, the Garamut (slit-drum) is also used for ritual purposes and it has ritual signals associated to it. It has totemic representations of each clan, the seven clans of the Maramba Society. These totems symbolically represent an animal, a lake, a sacred site, a bird or a snake of each clan. Fourthly, the Garamut has been used as an appropriation signal during the colonial system or the Kiap System and as such it was highly regarded as appropriate means of communication.

And finally, the Garamut (slit-drum) is often used to 'swear' at someone in the village, clan or neighbouring village, if the person happens to find out that something has gone missing in his garden or someone has stolen betelnut from the person's betelnut tree.


To sum up my presentation here, I would like to make a comment about the impact of the 'tapr-culture' which has came about as a result of the western influence. The tapr culture has lost its significance and its social value as well as its meaning.

After being home for Christmas vacations, I had a thorough investigation, particularly observing the changes that have occurred. Surprisingly, the younger generation had already deviated from their customary obligations of up-holding traditional and cultural practices of knowledge acquisition. They have switched to the beats of what I called the reggae, rap and heavy-metal music. This has also shocked the entire younger generation of the Maramba Society.

Finally, I proposed to-put out a 'conservation argument' here and also stating that the chair should take these three important points into consideration:-

1. There should be a greater emphasis placed upon the importance of preserving traditional knowledge.

2. There should be research and documentation of data carried out extensively to understand and inform the entire bulk of the population about the importance of traditional knowledge.

3. If research is to be carried out to better inform, understand and educate the people, funding should be available to fully carry out these tasks.

Tapr:  the drum (garamut) signals of the Maramba society

By:  Paul Yamngarpise Norman,

Department of Anthropology & Sociology University of Papua New Guinea.

for the 1997 Waigani Seminar
e-mail author:  c/o John Evans evansjoh3@email.com
Papua New Guinea © 2000

Return to top of page

PNGbuai.com Site Search Engine

Technology Section Directory

photos of 4 Garamut slit drums - Manus Island, photos by Quentin Reilly
. slit-gong drum
. conclusion