Also:       kwi      towel      

Contextual Associations

The kul is a side-blown trumpet aerophone of the Iatmul people of the middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. Until the end of intertribal warfare well into the 20th century, pairs of kul were used by returning Iatmul warriors to signal, from their canoes as they approached their home village, their success in battle, and could be sounded as well in the village for community celebrations following such successful raids. It can therefore be considered a signaling instrument the sounding of which conveyed a very specific message of success in warfare. In Iatmul communities, the performance of instruments, including the kul, is done only by men. Much instrumental music-making by the Iatmul involves pairs of like instruments, be they flutes, slit-drums, water drums, or side-blown trumpets. The Iatmul gave some kul personal names (see Craig 2010, where on p. 197 are pictured two horns named Kasapange and Wispange). Today, since warfare and head-hunting have long ceased being practiced, the kul is no longer sounded. A few old kul have made their way into museum and private collections located around the world (links to eight such instruments are provided in the Bibliographic Citations below), and Iatmul artisans make new ones as part of the ethnographic art market that has developed in some Papua New Guinea locales over the past several decades (see also the entry for the Asmat tifa). Extant examples of kul, including the one pictured and described here (purportedly acquired in the 1970s or early 1980s), are typically decorated with symbolically-rich surface carving and sculptural finials. The dominant decoration motif on the body of the instrument is an oval created with two interlocking spirals (highlighted in white paint) one end of each meandering to become part of another oval (see gallery #1). The finial of this instrument (detail #4) presents human and animal figures—Iatmul iconography is rich and almost always representative of mythical, spirit, and totemic figures presented in a highly stylized and varied manner. We will refrain from speculating about the meaning of the figures on this kul, providing only close-up views of them for the sake of visual clarity (see detail images #5-#7).


The long, conical-shaped air column, the exterior shape, and the figural carvings are carved from of a solid block of hardwood (gallery #1 and detail #1 document the front and back sides of the instrument). Cowrie shells and paint are the only other materials used in making this instrument, the former implanted as eyes in the finial sculpture, the later to cover the exterior of the instrument (black) and to highlight designs chiseled into the body of the horn (white). The conical bore/air column begins with a raised and oval-shaped mouth hole (detail # 2) and gradually increases in diameter until it terminates at the roughly circular open end of the instrument (detail #3). The bore does not extend into the upper section of the instrument with the figural carving. No vent holes are found on the instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Typically performed while standing, the performer (always a male) holds the kul roughly horizontally with the mouth hole placed against his lips. In the single audio-visual source available to us of this instrument being sounded (“Melanesia: Papua New Guinea: The Iatmul: Kul—wood trumpet performance Central Region of the Sepik River 1973-1974.”), the substantial weight of the very long kul (over four feet in length) is supported by cradling it in the player’s right arm bent at the elbow, leaving his right hand to grasp the tube just to the right of the mouth hole. His left hand grasps the horn’s sculptural finial to further control the instrument. In this film document, the performer produces a single pitch on the kul, approximately a F2, in longer and shorter durations. The clearest sounding pitch produced by the much shorter kul described here is approximately an A3. Traditionally, kul were made and performed in pairs, one tuned slightly higher than the other. A transcription of a 1962 field recording of a pair of kul being performed appears in Spearritt (1982, p. 121). One instrument produces the pitch E3, the other F-sharp3, and throughout much of the transcribed performance they are sounded simultaneously.


The historical origin of the Iatmul kul is unknown, but such side-blown trumpets have been found elsewhere in the Bismarck Archipelago of Melanesia, with the greatest concentration in northern Papua New Guinea. The Iatmul themselves credit the source of the instrument to their mythological ancestors. So deeply integrated was the kul into Iatmul warfare and headhunting before contact with Europeans that when these practices were prohibited by outside authorities the instrument simply ceased to be used.

Bibliographic Citations

Craig, Barry, ed. 2010. Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. Accessed 16 April 2019: https://muse.jhu.edu/book/2136/.

“Instrument, wind, Kul or Kwi, Iatmul, Timbuke, Middle Sepik River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea.” Museums Victoria online collections, accessed 11 April 2019: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/186939.

“Melanesia: Papua New Guinea: The Iatmul: Kul—wood trumpet performance Central Region of the Sepik River 1973-1974.” JVC Anthology of World Music and Dance v.29: Oceania 1, Micronesia/Melanesia/Australia. One DVD disc, track 29-11. JVC Victor Company of Japan, Ltd.

“side-blown horn.” Horniman Museum and Gardens online collection, accessed 11 April 2019: https://www.horniman.ac.uk/index.php/collections/browse-our-collections/object/13007.

Spearritt, Gordon D. 1982. “The Pairing of Musicians and Instruments in Iatmul Society.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 14: 106-125.

________. 1998. “Iatmul,” in “Mamose Region of Papua New Guinea,” Don Niles, et al. In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.9 Australia and the Pacific Islands, ed. Adrienne L. Kaeppler and J. W. Love. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 552-557.

 “Towel.” National Music Museum online collection, accessed 16 April 2019:







Wassmann, Jürg. 1998. “Iatmul mythological suites,” in “Language in Musical Settings,” J.W. Love, et al. In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.9 Australia and the Pacific Islands, ed. Adrienne L. Kaeppler and J. W. Love. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 340-342.

Yamada Yoichi. 2005. “Melanesia: Papua New Guinea,” in The JVC Anthology of World Music and Dance Book 10: Oceania, Fujii Tomoaki, ed. Japan: JVC Victor Company of Japan, Ltd., pp. 11-19.


Instrument Information


Continent: Oceania

Region: Melanesia

Nation: Papua New Guinea

Formation: Iatmul

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.122.1 aerophone--side-blown straight natural labrosone

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over hole in side of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: single pitch - one pitch produced in single air cavity


30 in. length (with sculptural finial) 18.4 in. length (length of sounding cavity) 17.8 in. length (center of aperture to open end) 3.3 in. diameter (at open end of sounding cavity) .9 - 1.1 in. width (of blow hole aperture)

Primary Materials

shell - cowrie

Entry Author

Roger Vetter