Also:       kwangu      kwang-gu      kangu      

Contextual Associations

The kundu is a single-head hourglass drum of Papua New Guinea. “Kundu” is a generic name for such drums, but each of the hundreds of tribal groups on the island of New Guinea and many of its surrounding islands has a local name for this drum type (for example, see the entry for the tifa of the Asmat people). Based on morphological and decorative clues, the kundu pictured and described here very likely originated amongst the Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. A number of similar Iatmul drums can be found in museum collections around the world (see Bibliographic Citations below), and some of these are named kwangu (or kangu or kwang-gu), which would appear to be the term for such kundu drums in the language of the Iatmul. On this specimen, human faces, perhaps representing ancestors, on the handle (detail #4) and in the otherwise open fields of the drum shell (detail #5), and abstract representations of the crocodile (the gaping jaws oriented toward either end of the shell as seen in gallery #1), itself considered to by the Iatmul to be their progenitor, are carved into the shell’s surface. A decorative design motif that seems to appear frequently on Iatmul instruments found in museum collections is the alternating curvilinear spiral as seen on the “crocodile snouts” of this drum (detail #6). This same motif is found on the Iatmul side-blown horn (kul) in this collection. Amongst the Iatmul, the kwangu is strongly associated with males and their ceremonial life. It is used, for example, to accompany sagi, songs with texts that recount the exploits of ancestors and list totemic names (an excerpt of such a ceremony can be seen in the video “Melanesia: Papua New Guinea: The Iatmul: Song of the mythical ancestors,” accompanied by a kwangu displaying decorative elements similar to the instrument pictured here. Since the latter half of the 20th century, Iatmul carvers have created objects, including drums, intended for sale to tourists visiting their villages. This is perhaps how this drum began its journey decades ago from an Iatmul village, passing through various collectors’ hands, before ending up in this collection.


The shell of this kundu is carved from a solid block of hardwood using metal tools and fire to produce its tubular hourglass form and thin walls. This form includes an integral handle (detail #3). Further reductive carving with metal tools is used to produce the symbolically-rich surface decoration. One end of the drum is left uncovered (detail #2), while the other is covered with a head made of a lizard skin that is glued with tree gum or other natural substances to a 1-inch wide exterior band around the rim of the opening (detail #1). Small black pellets of beeswax, used for fine tuning the sound quality of the drum, are attached in a circular pattern around the center of the head (three of these, and signs of three further ones now missing, are visible in detail #1). There is no indication of this drum having ever been painted; several of the kwangu in museum collections are decoratively painted. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

If seated, the kundu player places the drum across his lap and strikes the drumhead with the open palm of the hand nearest the drumhead. If standing, the drum can either be held with one hand by its handle or cradled horizontally with one arm across the player’s chest, leaving the free hand to strike the head. In general, as well as amongst the Iatmul, a beater or beaters are not used to sound the drum. Tuning is accomplished by heating the head over fire and by applying the above-mentioned tuning pellets.


The origin of hourglass drums in Oceania is lost to history. It can at best be pointed out that this form of drum is distributed primarily in Melanesia (Papua New Guinea and the islands to its north) and Micronesia (primarily the eastern island groups, including the Marshalls). King, McLean, and Montagu (2014, p. 715) imply that, in Oceania, this form of drum spread from Melanesian cultures to Micronesian ones. It does not appear possible at this time to link the evolution and spread of these Oceanic hourglass drums to those of other regions of the world—primarily Africa and South and East Asia—where they are found.

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/.

Geary, Christraud M., ed. 2006. From the South Seas—Oceanic Art in the Teel Collection. Boston: MFA Publications.

“Hand drum (kundu), 20th century.” Minneapolis Institute of Art website, accessed Aug. 7, 2019: https://collections.artsmia.org/art/5754/hand-drum-iatmul 

“Hand Drum.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art website, accessed Aug. 7, 2019: https://collections.lacma.org/node/215738

 “Hourglass Drum.” Les Musées Barbier-Mueller website, accessed Aug. 7, 2019:  https://www.barbier-mueller.ch/collections/collections/mers-du-sud/arts-de-nouvelle-guinee/article/hourglass-drum?lang=en

Iatmul (Melanesia, Papua New Guinea) Kundu (Hand Drum), 20th century. PDF accessed Aug. 7, 2019: http://www.ipevolunteers.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Iatmul_Kundu_Drum.pdf

“Iatmul people.” National Gallery of Australia website, accessed Aug. 7, 2019: https://cs.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=82547

“Iatmul/Chambri hand drum.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  website, accessed Aug.7, 2019: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/466735

 “Instrument, percussion, Iatmul, Kararau, Middle Sepik River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea.” Museums Victoria Collections website, accessed Aug. 7, 2019: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/186911

King, Anthony, Mervyn McLean, and Jeremy Montagu. 2014. “Hourglass drum.” GDMI v.2: 714-715.

“Melanesia: Papua New Guinea: The Iatmul: Song of the mythical ancestors; 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 29-12. JVC Victor Company of Japan, Ltd. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art website accessed Aug. 7, 2019: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/504614?&searchField=All&deptids=18&where=Oceania&what=Drums&ao=on&ft=musical+instruments&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=6

Niles, Don, et al. 1998. “Iatmul,” in “Mamose Region of Papua New Guinea,” 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.


Instrument Information


Continent: Oceania

Region: Melanesia

Nation: Papua New Guinea

Formation: Iatmul

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.241.1 membranophone--individual single-skin hourglass-shaped drum

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - hourglass

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: unframed

Membrane attachment: unframed membrane glued to shell

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with one hand

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


27.8 in. length 5.2 in. diameter of drumhead 6.1 in diameter of open end

Primary Materials

membrane - reptile skin

Entry Author

Roger Vetter