Music of the Ancestors

It is almost eighty years since the first description by Gregory Bateson of the cultural life of this Middle Sepik River group of people. While scholars and museum collectors have drawn attention in the meantime to the unique quality of Iatmul architecture, wood-carving, pottery, myths and legends, little attention has been given to the music. The present study looks at the way in which music functions in the lives of the Iatmul, and considers its range, variety, structure and inventiveness, including a detailed analysis of three large instrumental repertoires from two of the most populous Iatmul villages. Special attention has been given to evidence of symbolism in the music or in the instruments, and to the place that music holds in the belief system.

The main melodic instruments used are two- to three-metre long bamboo flutes without finger-holes. The most important rhythmic instruments are the big slit-drums in the men's ceremonial houses. Like the flutes, these are usually played in pairs. In the village of Aibom there is a unique group of seven flutes and an hour-glass drum player. The playing of both the flute pieces and the drum sequences has reached a high level of virtuosity. The music is taught and learned solely by oral transmission, so the musicians need to be completely familiar with both the overall structure and the detail of each part of it to sustain performances for up to twenty hours of continual playing. It has only recently become possible to publish this material in the form of a multi-media disc, which allows a substantial part of the music to be heard, along with transcriptions, text, photographs, line drawings, bibliography and catalogue.

What's on the DVD

The DVD is an interactive HTML document containing the text of the PhD thesis, with abundant links to specific audio examples, photographs, line drawings, figures, tables, footnotes, transcriptions, and the detailed recording catalog. All the transcriptions have the corresponding audio recording linked to them to allow the reader to follow the traditional musical examples in familiar Western musical notation.

  • Full text of the PhD thesis
  • 124 Very high quality audio examples
  • 39 Transcriptions
  • 44 Colour Photos
  • This DVD is an excellent teaching and study resource for researchers in ethnomusicology, anthropology, and indigenous cultures of the people of Papua New Guinea, particularly the people of the Middle Sepik.

    It is also useful in displaying the use of modern multimedia publishing techniques to simplify and facilitate the presentation of research material in ethnomusicology.

    About the Author

    After teacher training in the early 1940s, Gordon Spearritt went on to study Music at The University of Melbourne, graduating in 1949. Later studies included a Master of Arts degree at Harvard University (1966), an ethnomusicology course at Wesleyan University, Connecticut (1973), and a PhD at the University of Queensland (1980). An academic career of 30 years at the University of Queensland included periods as Head of the Department of Music and Dean of the Faculty of Music.


    About the DVD

    ISBN: 978-0-646-52536-5

    The disc is a revised version of research which followed several field visits and many years of studying aspects of the Iatmul people of Papua New Guinea.

    Purchase the DVD $110 USD

    DVD Cover

    Restricted Access/Confidentiality

    In acknowledging the trust placed by Iatmul musicians and informants, the author requests viewers of this material to respect that trust, and act in good faith towards the research recounted here. Copying, reuse, or re-publishing of any part of this material is strictly prohibited.