Chapter 27: Singsings

Singing and dancing, or in Tok Pisin singsings, are an integral part of Wautogig’s social and economic life. Most singsings involve men and women from other villages and provinces, but there are also some involve the villagers only. Here I will describe each singsing, say something about its historical origins, and tell when it may be performed.1

The Buaɲ bamboo dance

Two or sometimes three dancers lock their hands into each other and blow bamboo or Buaɲ flutes while beating their kundu drums and jumping around in dance. The other dancers move in circles around them as they sing and dance. This dance is sung in the Arapesh language. One segment goes like this:

Narowen, who are you?
Marry me, marry me
Narowen, who are you
Marry me, marry me.
Ooo we are Cemaun
Marry me
The two of us are Rohwim Cemaun
Marry me2 3 4

The song is about a woman from the Cemaun line who sees a Rohwim man, Narowen, and observes that he is of the opposite line so that it is alright for them to marry.5 The words are sung over and over until they are stale, and then another verse is sung. The principal dancers blow their bamboo flutes, beat the drums, and dance on and on until they are exhausted and stop.

This dance is believed to have originated with the cassowary mother. She was a cassowary that turned into a woman but subsequently turned back into a cassowary when much of what she did, like transforming plain leaves into yams, was not appreciated by humans. Pained, she took her cassowary feathers, dressed herself in them, turned back into a cassowary, and ran away.6

This singsing was last witnessed by Peter Robui and Nicholas Baiwog on Huraimbo in the late 1960s. The dance has not been performed by Wautogig since that time, as the bamboo flutes have been lost. People living today, like Pita Kwainger or Otto Sengu, can sing songs from this dance, but they cannot blow the bamboo and dance as they sing it. If people from Wautogig ever wanted to revive this singsing, they would have to recruit some men from Woginara to train them.


Like Buaɲ, Gumarəm is also bamboo dance. It is usually sung in the Boikin language. Two dancers carry a kundu drum and blow a bamboo flute. The two drummers blow their flutes and hit their drums as they thump the ground on which they stand and begin to dance until the ground is covered in dust.7 Gumarəm is an emotionally charged singsing.

This dance was performed during a feast involving several villages. When Wautogig people performed this dance anything standing in the way was torn down or hit with a stick. As the guests carried in pig or fresh food such as yams or sago, the host would stand on his ground and welcome them by pouring lime on the backs of the carriers. This was a way to acknowledge the guests and thank them for the presents.

I recall this dance being performed by my village in the early 1960s. The principal dancer was the late John Haugie’s father who became the first medical orderly of Wautogig.8 However I am unable to give an example of the words from this dance, as it has ceased to be sung. It appears to be extinct.

The origin of this dance is reputed to be a deep pool of water in the Urieb River. The name of the pool is Hangureko, or ‘kundu drum hall’. The story goes that a hunter cut a limbum palm tree. It rolled down and dropped head-first into the water. The hunter followed the limbum palm down into the river pool, where it broke open the roof of a house belonging to the spirits of the dead who lived down there.

At night he watched the spirits come out and dance Gumarəm. He picked up a kundu drum that had been used by one of the dancers and ran back up the palm tree. When he returned home he organised people to dance this singsing. The spirits were not pleased and caused a heavy rain to fall, with thunder and lightning strikes. They grabbed their kundu and returned home with it. But the hunter had already taught the people the Gumarəm singsing and now the people could dance it.9

I believe that this dance was originally performed by the Peiruom or Beiduokum. These were the people who originally occupied the southern end of Urieb river. Their leaders, Igrunik and Yambamban, were killed by the Walanduoms. But the Peiruoms escaped, and their lands are now occupied by Walanduoms and Wautogigem.10


Mawan is danced in a circle and sung in the Arapesh or Buki language. The verses tell of emotional events. This dance comes from Matapau, an Arapesh village bordering on West Sepik (Sandaun) province. The dance is popular and can be initiated by anyone.

Mawon is danced at night. The dancers are visible because they wear leaves that shine white on one side on their backs.11 Everyone dances and beats their drums together in a group for a time. There is also a single dancer who beats his drum alone as he dances in and out around the circle. The other dancers cut off their drumbeats and sing melodic cries as they dance.

The dancers with drums are in an inner circle. Dancers with no drums move in the opposite direction in an outer circle in rows of one or two. They carry bows and arrows and spears in the “ready to shoot” stance. The whole group sings a set of verses three or four times until they are stale, and then take up a new set of verses.

Mawon is a poetic chant. It retells sad events and recalls lonely incidents. Here is an example of this song.

Oh yepe Nambɨl e
Yipo panamolim e
Oh yepe Nambɨl e
Oh yepe panamolim e
Yipe panamolim e
Kukum e miawiep e

Oh you people of Nambɨl
Why did you come
Why did you come
Clouds cover you

These verses lament what happened to the people of Nabɨrim during the war. They tried to come to Wautogig, but they were all killed in the early hours when the village was covered by mist.

Songs for Mawon are easy to compose. The chants are the same but the wording can be varied according to events or incidents. The language employed is the owiɲəh or West Coast version of Buki or Arapesh where the r sound gives way to l in the words used. The chant is always the same but the wording can be varied to fit events or incidents.12

In, 2000, at my suggestion, we invited people from Matapau to come to Wautogig to dance Mawon for us one night. The Matapauans impressed us as they were more vigorous than our dancers. Some songs were the same, but the words varied slightly. Our young people were fast to catch on the Matapauans’ way of singing.

Mawon is my favorite dance. I can start it. It is sung in our language. It is readily understood and can be danced without much preparation.

When we last performed this dance in 1999 it was to farewell Lise and Ira, two Americans who lived with us for fifteen months. The song told of Lise and Ira’s going away and leaving memories of their presence through photos and pictures. When this song was sung, men and women cried.13


Mendep is a circle dance with actions. Before the war some of our men went to work on the coconut plantations in Karawop where they came in contact with men of Yuwo Island, between Boikin the coast and Mushu Island. The Yuwos were Wautogig’s old trading partners. Our people would give the Yuwos timber for canoes, and they would give us fish from the sea.

Around that time, in the 1930s, it was decided that Wautogig could learn to sing and dance Mendep through the Yuwo islanders. The people of the two villages made plans for Yuwos to transfer the dance, which they had gotten from Madang, to Wautogig. Both villages prepared.

The transfer took place in our old village, Litali. The whole village of Yuwo came and lived with our people -- men, women and children. They gave us two garamuts and danced Mendep with us. Since that time, the Wautogigem have been able to dance and sing Mendep as their own.

The dance starts off in the afternoon with about ten dramatic action songs, each depicting a different action. Each song is sung and danced differently, like ballet. The drama dances are usually danced by young men and women. Then, usually by 7-8pm, a round dance involving everyone takes over. Though the songs are different, the dance style is the same. Periodically, a different song and dance style is introduced to break the monotony. But in general, the round dance is a typical, Melanesian male chauvinist dance, where men hold and play drums in the center and women dance outside the circle.

The round dance goes on all night. Tea, coffee, and betel nuts are consumed during breaks. By about 3am, the morning songs are sung. Then around 5am, a funny and sexist song is sung. A man dresses up as a woman and chops wood. When the man tries to seduce women, they threaten him and he falls down. The dance closes when one of the women gets her knife and chases the man off the scene.

Mendep is a part of Wautogig culture now. Its wording is all in a foreign language. No one knows what the words actually mean. But the words are well known and danced and sung by all. Take this, for example –

Oo manbule
Ee manbule nupela pakinambo
Bule kula ee
Ee manbule

This song is sung by a handful of men while the action is stopped. They are said to go out dancing to the orders of a white kiap or patrol officer.

Preparations for Mendep are long and intricate. Relations between the dancers must be harmonious. The two main groups that have to work to maintain harmony are the Kərapehem and Abahinem clans. The Kərapehem are the principal owners of Mendep. They are the ones who first made contact with the Yuwos to bring the singsing to Wautogik, but most of their members died when they were young. The Abahinem had elders and young men who learned Mendep well. So they now lead the singsing.

During the last performance of Mendep at Woginara in 1992, it was important that good relations were maintained among the Wautogigem. Joseph Numbojuor, the last paramount chief of Wautogig, was still alive. He was very old and could hardly walk. His son, Dr. Tom Talonu was still alive then and agreed to take part in the singsing. John Kapas of Yuwo Island came to represent Yuwo.14 We went with two garamuts and two large live pigs. I contributed the largest live pig.

The whole village prepared for weeks to bring Mendep to Woginara. We crossed Urieb river and walked up to the old Wautogig village site. We then walked down to Məbəm and followed the river up to Woginara. By 4pm we were gathered at the appointed place and prepared for the dance. We were dressed in elaborate costumes with necklaces and arm and leg bands ornamented with shells.

The men wore tapa cloth and the women wore grass skirts. The dancers’ heads were covered with bird of paradise plumes and their arms were tight with arm bands. Their feet were decorated with bands that had shells to make sounds. Their bodies were covered with red paint and made shiny by rubbing them with coconut oil. Their faces were elaborately decorated with red paint and white lime. They were dotted with yellowish dyes.

At the appointed time, the kundu drums and the garamuts began to play. Men and women joined in and the dance was up and going. The dancers ran onto the playground in two staggered lines. The onlookers shouted with joy, exciting the dancers and encouraging them to sing. As the dancers got to the dance ground, they made space for a few dancers to dance each action song. There were eight of these songs. When the dancers finished, they rested to smoke or chew betel nuts. Tea was shared after which the group broke into the round dance. Everyone joined in and danced until late at night.

In the morning our people danced the early morning dance. Gifts of grass skirts, arms bands, and necklaces, along with the two large pigs and the two garamuts, were presented to the Woginara people. The Woginaras received the dance and all the gifts. However they appeared not to be prepared, and had nothing to give in return.

While the Woginaras today technically own the Mendep singsing, people may criticise them or correct them whenever they dance it, because when we left, they were not able to dance it on their own. They have been asking that Wautogigem come back to teach them the singsing so they are able to perform it, but so far this request has fallen on deaf ears.

Mendep is a complex dance. It involves the whole village. The whole village must stand together and act as one community. If Woginaras cannot stand together and act as one community, it is unlikely they will master the skills of dancing this dance or of passing it onto another village. Careful planning is required to perform this dance. Whoever who proposes to hold it must come up with the manpower and resources to sustain its execution. Community harmony is essential. Co-operation, collaboration, and community spirit coupled with joint action is necessary to see this dance through.

An associated dance to Mendep is Womendep. It was said to have been sung by frustrated youth during the war. It is a circle dance, danced by young people in a Madang language or in Tok Pisin. It is similar to Mendep but has its own distinctive style of dancing and singing. Womendep is a popular dance. It seems not to have any owner although it is believed to have originated out of Madang. It is a common dance in the Momase region.


Jawu (sometimes also called Yau) is danced in two rows, like mullet fish dancing between stones or tree stumps in a river or stream. This dance came by way of Galot, son of a Wautogig man who married a woman from a Madang village called Panim.15 The men and women are elaborately decorated for this dance. Men carry kundu drums and women wear grass skirts and carry palm branches. It is very colourful. The words to this dance are in a Madang language. It has been performed by men like the late Arnold Watiem and his elder brother Worebai. Jawu was a popular dance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was performed for the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of PNG, His Honour Sir William Prentice, when he visited Wautogig village.16 17


Another singsing Wautogig people often perform is called Maimai. It is a circle dance from Begesin in Madang. Because Maimai is sung in a language of Madang, the meaning of the words is not known. The wording in this dance is not difficult. Some Wautogigem, especially Joseph Sallun, like to compose songs in Tok Pisin in the tunes of this dance.18


Sia is another dance that our people once performed, though we do not perform it anymore. The dance originally belonged to the people of Sio-Sialum in Morobe Province. It came to Wautogik through Karanget island in Madang. My father’s brother Sairu learned it when he went and married a woman from Karanget and taught it to us when he came back after the war.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sairu came to Wewak and settled into Bogumatai. It was at this time that he taught our people to dance this very colourful and entertaining dance. The dancers all wear caps and dance like roosters. After my uncle died, the dance was not danced again, although some men from Dogur village have purchased this dance and are now performing it.

In 1986 I brought men, women, and children from Sio-Sialum to Wautogig. They lived with our people in our village for two weeks and performed the Sia dance. They promised to host us if we visited them. I have often thought about making this return trip, but I have never had the money or the nerve to move a large number of people from Wewak to Sio.


The last singsing I should mention is the well-known dance of Bagabag. This dance belongs to the people of Koil and Vokeo in the Schouten Islands. It came to us came through Wom and is now widely practised by our people. This dance is for both men and women. Two men carry sticks and dance in front of the men and women who are dancing in rows.

This dance is danced in churches and in opening new buildings. The Nindim family is very familiar with this dance and so the Nindim sons and daughters often take the lead in organising it. It is danced by Nindim and Baiwog families as well as the Pilimbi sons. It is still live today.19

The main instruments the Wautogigem used to play in their singsings are garamuts, kundu drums, palm leaf plant whistles, and coconut shells. Kundus are hollow logs sealed on one end with lizard skin. Garamuts are slit gongs. Players hit them with a stick. Garamuts are used to beat a rhythm for dancing. They also allow for a two-way communication between groups at a distance. Another instrument sometimes used for singsings is the əruh or conch shell. The conch shell is used in Gumarəm and Bagabag. It is also used to generate winds for sailing canoes on calm days.

* * *

Tələkələhəs or Terek

There are two special dances I want to mention. One is called Tələkələhəs or Terek.20Terek is a series of songs that are sung to celebrate the coming of age of a young woman when she loses blood in her first menstrual period. When the young woman informs her family of her status, she is put in isolation and receives special meals. She is confined in a small house where she stays alone, apart from the company of small children. It is believed that the young woman’s cool blood will help slow the growth of children who are growing too fast.

After two days, she is taken to a riverbank and is carried on the back of a man. She is completely naked and the man carries her spread out on his back. He runs up and down the riverbank several times. Teenage men stand along the riverbank with bundles of unərɨh or in Tok Pisin calat, stinging nettle plants. They smack the nettles on the girls back quite hard. Each boy does this two or three times so that she receives about fifteen to twenty hits. The girl is dropped into the river and then carried to the beach. She cries bitterly. The girl’s back is then tattooed.

After the tattooing, she is carried home and secluded for another week. She is given the best food and protein. When she recovers from her wounds, she is decorated and taken out to be seen in public. She is now a woman.

Terek is sung by elders, both men and women, on the day that the menstruating girl is presented to the community. The people gather in the evenings and sing Terek to each other. They call the girl’s name and if the girl is already betrothed to a man, the man’s name is also publicly sung, so people become aware of the proposed marriage. Qualities of married life that are considered good are described in song as well.

The words of Terek are in Boikin language.21 They are sung only by the people of Walanduom and Wautogig. Other Arapesh villages do not perform this dance. At the end of the dance, there is a feast in which food and meat are cooked and eaten. The man who carried the girl during the nettle attack is paid, and those who were responsible for the girl’s upbringing are paid, showing gratitude for the efforts.

The last time this dance was performed in Wautogig village it was for Lowin, my grand-niece. My father was a well-known performer of Terek.


Muli is the last singsing I will describe. It is a yearning chant or song that uses arousing poetic images. For example, this Muli tells of an evening sunset.

Aun e nabɨh meigɨni
Aun e nabɨh meigɨni
O nabɨh gani Manuwok
O nabɨh gani Manuwok

It invokes an image of someone who sees the sunset, feels lonely, and sings:

Sun sets where
Sun sets where
O sun sets in Manuwok
O sun sets in Manuwok

Or translated more poetically:

Sun where dost thou sinketh
Sun where dost thou sinketh
O it sinketh yonder in Manuwok
O it sinketh yonder in Manuwok

The singer sits alone and sings this song over and over. Someone standing by might feel touched by the loneliness and sing back –

O inamweɲ ating bo unak a
O inamweɲ ating bo unak a
Una gani aun nabɨh
Bo una gani aun nabɨh

O let me come with you
O let me come with you
We’ll go together to where the sun sets
Let’s go together to where the sun sets

Muli is a lonesome song, sung by a soloist, invoking or recalling loneliness and isolation. There is no dance associated with this song. It is typically sung in Arapesh.

Both Terek and Muli differ from the other singsings, though they are not the same. Terek is sung in groups, the Muli is sung alone. Terek celebrates a girl’s attainment of womanhood, Muli is sung when a person feels lonesome or sorrowful, like when a loved one goes away.


1 There is also a custom of welcoming first-time visitors with a mock ambush. Julius Yehaipim thinks it was an idea Bernard brought from elsewhere. The villagers did it at his suggestion when the High Commissioner of New Zealand visited, and they have been doing it ever since. Harry Sakagu says that the traditional welcome was to call out "Oo oo oo!" in the same way that Orokaiva people call out "Oro oro oro!". Listen.

2 Jacob Sonin says the first few lines of the Buaɲ singsing. Listen.

3 Jacob Sonin explains that ɲerau ei means 'maritim mi', marry me. Listen.

4 Jacob Sonin says a few more lines from the song and Tony Nindim translates. Listen.



7 Jacob Sonin explains that he knows much less about this singsing than he does about buaɲ. Listen.





12 Jacob Sonin explains that owiɲəhic 'ol lain bilong hap igo' is the Arapesh way of describing those who live along the coast west of Wewak in the area that has now come to be known as the 'West Coast'. Listen.

13 Many annotations to add here – photos, recordings, text of songs I wrote down.

14 Explain how this is an example of what Fortune describes as the “telescoping roads”.

15 Not sure if this goes with Jawu or Maimai.

16 Jacob describes William Prentice as an 'adopted father' of Bernard. Listen.




20 Jacob Sonin explains that Terek is the Boikin name for this ritual and Tələkələhəs is the Arapesh name. Listen.

21 Tony Nindim demonstrates a segment of the Terek singsing and everyone enjoys it. Listen.

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