Art/ Collection/ Art Object


early to mid-20th century
Papua New Guinea, Massim region, Milne Bay Province
Massim people
Wood, lizard skin, fiber, lime
H.11 1/2 x W. 3 in. (29.2 x 7.6 cm)
Wood-Musical Instruments
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
Not on view
This drum is known as katunenia in Kilivila (the language of the Trobriand Islands where the piece most likely originates). It is made from a hollowed piece of hardwood. Cylindrical in shape and with a slight tapering towards the middle section, it has the characteristic hourglass structure of most drums found in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in Melanesia as well as other parts of the Pacific. The drumhead (known as towamomla in Kilivila) is made of stretched lizard skin. Beneath the drumhead, an engraved zigzag pattern girths the drum for decoration. Several such encircling incisions, colored with white lime filling, cover the surface of the bottom end of the piece (known as towabiri). Further zigzagging patterns spread perpendicularly from the encircling design at the top in a curving trajectory. These designs are linked to a distal ridge that runs almost the full length of the drum to one side. It is made of two thin strips carved out from the drum, incised with shallow engravings filled in with white lime in a pattern reminiscent of the highly-stylized bird head motifs found in other Massim carvings. The birds face each other in an arch roughly at the middle of the drum where the ridge is carved to create a protruding handle to be held while playing. The lower part of the drum has two additional carved out ridges running parallel to the body of the piece on opposing sides. Both these ledges are perforated closer to the drum so that ornamental streamers made of pandanus leaves can be attached to them. Like people, drums in the Trobriand Islands also don decorations when they are played for special occasions such as festivals.

Drums in the Trobriand Islands are used to accompany traditional singing and dancing. Generically known as kasosau or kaesosau, Trobriand drums come in two sizes, the smaller katunenia and the larger kaesosau. Smaller katunenia drums are struck with the thumb, producing a more high-pitched tone or voice than the larger kaesosau. A typical set up used in traditional Trobriand dances would have only one small katunenia and several large kaesosau. Sometimes, kaesosau drums are beaten in a less energetic manner, changing their register of voice to a softer one known as kaibela (as opposed to the usual, louder kaiula voice of large kaesosau drums). In the Trobriand Islands, there can only be one katunenia and one kaiula voices per orchestra. Usually, changes in drums’ rhythms and voices signal changes in dance patterns. The hollow part inside the drum has a thicker section towards the middle called laboala kikoni (the house of the mice) that is said to improve the resonance of a good drum. Okabulula Village in Kiriwina Island (the main island in the Trobriand group) is renowned for its tradition in drum-making.

Drums are prized possessions in the Massim region of Papua New Guinea. They often have individual names (sometimes even engraved on the smooth body of the drum) and are passed on as heirlooms within a dala matriclan. Since each drum has a specific tone that distinguishes it from others and can be recognized by Massim locals, they are at times considered to be the voice of an ancestor within the lineage, hence the importance of preserving them.

Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow, 2017

Further reading

Norick, Frank A. 1976. An Analysis of the Material Culture of the Trobriand Islands Based on the Collection of Bronislaw Malinowski. Berkeley: Ph.D Thesis, University of California.

Shack, William A. 1985. The Kula. A Bronislaw Malinowski Centennial Exhibition. Berkeley (CA): Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology.
W. R. Marshall, MD, Massapequa, NY, until 1967; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1967, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1967–1978

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Artist: Date: early to mid-20th century
Accession Number: 1979.206.1768
Date: early to mid-20th century Medium: Wood, lizard skin, fiber, lime Accession: 1979.206.1768 On view in:Not on view