Clapsticks is a pair of concussion stick idiophones (clappers) of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. It is used by Aboriginal groups throughout the Australian continent. Many names exist for this instrument in the Aboriginal languages and, in northern Australia, quite often the name used by one group will be similar to their name for the didjeridu. In northern Australia, clapsticks are played by male, didjeridu accompanied singers “… in ‘open’ (non-secret) ceremonies (including funeral and mourning ceremonies), clan songs (which express affiliation with particular lineages, emblems and territories), camp entertainment songs, djedbangari or djatpangarri (‘fun’ songs of young bachelors) and individually owned songs such as wongga and gunborg.” (Jones, p. 565) Elsewhere on the continent where the didjeridu is not found, clapsticks are utilized by most Aborigine groups to accompany singing in ceremonies and for dancing. (Marett, et al) By the 1990s, Aborigine popular music groups (most famously, Yothu Yindi, who toured internationally as a ‘world music’ group) were incorporating both the clapsticks and the didjeridu into their music (audio #2). Description These clapsticks are made from solid hardwood that has been minimally shaped with an adz from the tree branch from which they originated to give each of the sticks pointed ends. There is no standardized size for clapsticks, but in comparison with clapsticks seen in published images and found in other collections, this pair is relatively short. Decorative designs are painted onto the sticks. Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production A player holds one stick near one of its ends in each hand and forcefully clashes their other ends together. A high, clear, penetrating, and loud sound of indefinite pitch and short duration results. A singer accompanying himself on clapsticks will often use the instrument to reinforce the primary pulse of his song (audio #1). Dance movement will be coordinated around the beat provided on the clapsticks by a singer or singers. Origins/History/Evolution The origin of the Aboriginal clapsticks will likely never be known with any certainty. Depictions of the instrument, in conjunction with didjeridus, appear in rock paintings, but much speculation is involved in their dating. Suffice it to say that, like the didjeridu, clapsticks have been in use for at least the past one thousand years.
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 (kut) 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. Description 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. Origins/History/Evolution 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.