Baining "fire dances" and bark cloth masks are famous throughout Papua New Guinea. Three related Baining tribes live on the Gazelle Peninsula. (1)
Masks are made from bush material: bamboos and reeds for framework, bark cloth, tree sap and berries for dyes, vines for lashing, bird feathers and leaves for decoration. (2)
Musical instruments include a bamboo tube pounded against a horizontal log, a small slit gong bamboo drum and a bamboo mouth harp.
Dances are either day or night dances. A day dance may be followed by a night dance or a night dance may be performed by itself. They are often put on for mission, cultural or tourist events. Many early coastal missions prohibited masked dancing, so dances are more common in isolated inland areas.
Feasts and dances are the only events that bring neighboring Baining together. Villages are small. There are no organizations such as men's clan houses. Construction of masks and food preparation for feasts requires at least two months of village effort. Villages invited as guests return the invitation later.
A village elder sets the time and starts the work on the masks. Everyone is free to help or not. Men work on the masks at a bush shelter assisted by a special group of women. The first man to arrive at the work site in the morning throws in a stick to chase off any spirits (aios) lurking about. The men purify themselves at a nearby stream before coming home.
The elder's wife or other female relative coordinates song rehearsals which match each mask. New songs are composed. Some are local gossip. Others refer to a sequence of places and give the feel of a journey. Women make and dye grass skirts for themselves and for the men's dance costumes. They also prepare the food.
Everyday, the men pick up something on their way to the work site and leave it on a pile just outside the mask-making area called the "heap of the women." As they leave for the day, they pick up something near their work and leave it on a pile just inside the mask-making area, "the heap of the men."
On the day before the dance, women are invited to view the finished masks. They hack the two piles to bits with their bush knives. Then they untie the knots that symbolically held the masks in place until they were complete and ready for "play."
The action now moves from the bush to the village. Men bring in small pole masks before dawn and tie them to a framework for display. The women's chorus starts singing and continues until sundown. Another women's group, often carrying their children, dances in the plaza. They are joined by unmasked men.
Periodically, men leave, put on their masks and return to dance, sometimes for only a few minutes. They may leave again, discard the mask and rejoin the plaza dancers.
Aramariki (rmarki) is like a large shield held on its side. It is about 12 feet (4 meters) long, made from flat bark cloth pieces. It enters alone to symbolically sweep the dance ground clean, carried by as many men as can fit around it.
Aisingaigi (eisingaichi), python snake or eel, is a large head with a long tail. Accompanied by other bark cloth entities like the pole masks, it also is said to cleanse the dance grounds.
Pole masks are carried on poles balanced from the top of a cone on a dancer's head. They represent local wildlife and plants. Dancers go to the scaffolding and get pole masks to dance anytime during the day.
Another type is asariratki which look like large cone hats topped with tall bark cloth tubes. These are danced by lines of men from a few villages.
Akip (a chip) means spear. A padded wood harness fitted between the legs of the dancer supports a cone base wrapped with thousands of tiny feathers. This cone supports a 10-15 foot (3-5 meter) flexible pole which is decorated with pairs of feathers. Rosettes of cassowary feathers decorate the front and the back.
The skin of each dancer's lower back is actually pierced and threaded through with a strong rope which holds the harness to the dancer. A line of these dancers may dance most of the day with brilliant feathers shining and spears bouncing and swaying.
Akip are sometimes accompanied by small horizontal anisingring "women's" pole masks carried by a man, but accompanied by one of the special group of women who work on masks in the bush, or by a young boy.
Akurikuruk (churukchruk) masks are danced by men who fast from the time they are chosen until after the dance. They hold their stomachs flat as they dance to show that they kept the fast.
Akurikuruk are said to be hungry, arriving after a long journey. They are half-animal in their face, and half-plant in the giant stalk that rises from their back. Two ropes come down from the top on each side to hold the heavy cone in place. They are the last dancers to appear.
The dance is closed with two special songs, one refers to the play of circling birds. This may be followed by a men's chorus and later the atut night dance.
The "fire dance" can be performed on the day after a day dance or performed alone. Preparations are secret from outsiders. No women are allowed near the mask makers.
Huge bundles of firewood are collected and stacked in the dance area. Both men and women practice songs and dances all night the day before the dance.
Alaspraka (vubracha) are helmet masks hung on each side with big billboard type panels, 4 feet (1 meter) wide by 8-10 feet (3 meters) long. Pandanus leaves are sewn onto the openwork frames to make many different patterns accented with red lines and dots. The mouth is a bamboo trumpet. They are sometimes referred to as cobweb masks.
Anguangi or atutki (ningum) are bark cloth helmet masks with large eyes and broad-billed mouths like a platypus. They also wear a bark cloth phallocrypt and pandanus leaf capes and chaps. These masks can be reused and are stored in a bush house, unlike most day dance masks which are usually discarded in the jungle. Perhaps for this reason they are often seen in collections.
Avriski (lingenka) wear cone-shaped hats fringed with pandanus leaves plus a stick out the top decorated with feathers, pandanus leaf capes and chaps, and bark cloth phallocrypts which used to be pinned into the dancer's flesh.
Atut dances are exciting and fun for the village. The chorus begins singing around sundown in a thatch shelter at the edge of the dance area. The singers open and close the dance. They provide a structured counterpoint to the wild movements of the dancers.
Men and boys start a big fire in the middle of the dance ground. Sometimes material from an old house is used. The masked dancers may be proceeded by unmasked male or female dancers, or a funny skit. They appear mysteriously at the edge of the fire's shadows.
Each dancer enters alone to dance in front of the chorus for one complete verse of the song before moving on to dance in place at the edge of the fire circle. The chorus may draw a verse out as long as they want.
When all the dancers have entered, they began a wild, circling dance around the fire. Dancers run through the flames or kick at the coals to throw up big showers of sparks. A dancer may come and dance in front of the chorus, then go back to join the circle. They dance with only a few breaks until dawn.
Any bits of masks that break off are thrown into the fire. Men keep the fire burning brightly all night. Women do not go near it. Unruly children are threatened with being carried away by the atutki. Sometimes children are given to dancers to carry for awhile to scare them into better behavior.
Baining culture focuses on producing plentiful food. Extended family groups work their gardens and cocoa blocks. A child becomes a successful adult who can produce and exchange food, but then declines into old age dependency. Village social life is what differentiates people from untamed nature and bush spirits.
Gardens and mask-making areas are the in-between places where human work transforms raw materials from the bush into useful forms. The Baining say they perform their dances for fun or "play" (3). Dances are ritual play and only for adults who are strong enough to "play" with non-human forces without getting hurt.(from Fajans)
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(1) The Baining are probably the original inhabitants of the Gazelle Peninsula. The North Baining live in the northeast corner. They call themselves akakat (chachat, qaqet). The Central Baining live in the area around Galim and the East Baining around Wide Bay on the south coast.
These groups speak separate non-Austronesian languages and dialects. Baining languages are related to the Sulka language along the coast to the south and to languages in central and south Bougainville.
Baining is a Tolai word meaning inland or bush people. The Tolai are thought to have settled along the coast and islands in the late 1700's. Between the Tolai and the European colonists, the Baining lost control of large areas of their coastal land.
(2) To make bark cloth for masks:
The whitest bark cloth comes from trees near the coast, but other local trees are used.
Dark paint comes from the sap of a tree which is chewed to mix with saliva to make it stick. Red came from either a plant dye or blood, but now store paint is often used. Yellow comes from the bulb of a plant.
Books used to research this series.
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