This is a large bamboo flute from the Sepik river region of northern Papua New Guinea. The Sepik river is one of two vast tropical rivers in Papua New Guinea, that meander through the densely forested lowlands of the island. Along the banks of the river and its many tributaries live sparsely scattered, remote villages, scarcely contacted by the outside world. Here people live a lifestyle that has changed little for thousands of years. Revering the crocodiles that inhabit the rivers, the people of the Sepik region have unique traditions and customs.
Flutes are one of the most precious of possessions in the Sepik river region as they are used for initiation and other cultural rites. Therefore they are very rare and hard to get. The flutes that are considered sacred are made from long sections of bamboo up to two metres long and are kept concealed except for special ceremonial occasions. This flute measures approximately 196cm with a diameter of approximately 6cm.
It was collected by a visiting anthropologist in the late 1970's and on sold by his children in New Zealand after he passed away. The exact age is unknown, however it looks as though it was made during the same decade. The proximal end is sealed with a carved wooden flute stopper that stays in place while the flute is being played. These wooden stoppers are carved in the form of animals, birds or humans and represent clan totems or ancestors. In this case a wild boar is depicted, representing an ancestral totem that is important to many clans in Papua New Guinea. It has three woven fibre rings attached to the body of the flute that are decorated with white feathers. Amongst the Sepik river people, feathers are often used to decorate cultural items that are highly valued.
These types of flutes are cross blown, played by blowing air over a fairly large hole near the proximal end. The sounds produced from these flutes can vary dramatically from low pitch to very high. Traditionally they are often played in pairs, each flute with a different but complimentary note. Sometimes several pairs of flutes are played, resulting in a continuous, multi-harmonic melody. The sounds are believed to be the voices of certain spirits whose names are given to the flutes. An example of what these flutes can sound like can be heard here.