This tifa is a single-headed hourglass-shaped membranophone of the Asmat people of Irian Jaya, Indonesia (the western half of the island of New Guinea). Culturally, the Asmat, though today citizens of the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia, are better thought of as being Melanesians, like all the indigenous inhabitants of the island of New Guinea. Asmat single-headed drums are also called em, eme, im, imi, kiendo, and ta’impe. A more generic name for New Guinean hourglass-shaped drums is kundu. The Asmat people live for the most part in the flat, forested swamps along the south-central coast of Irian Jaya, as well as inland to varying distances. Asmat life is rich in ceremonies that serve to keep their communities in balance with the spirit world. The efforts of Roman Catholic and Lutheran missionaries, most intensively during the middle of the 20th century, has resulted in the majority of Asmat people becoming adherents of those faiths, yet traditional spiritual beliefs and practices remain strong. The earliest Dutch colonial authorities and European missionaries to encounter the Asmat were struck by their artistry, especially their woodcarving. That artistry found expression in everyday Asmat material culture, from their homes and canoes to shields and drums, many of which were utilized in communal ceremonies. Various outside actors over the past several decades have collected old Asmat objects and encouraged Asmat artists to produce objects for sale in the ethnographic art marketplace. As a result of this activity examples of Asmat art are today found in museums and private collections around the world. The drum pictured here is a product of this ethnographic art marketplace. In all likelihood it was never used ceremonially, but constructed and decorated in the traditional manner for sale in the art market. Similar to all Asmat drums, the shell and handle of this one is treated as a canvas on which is rendered through carving symbolic designs and figures. Visually, the handle is comprised of stylized renderings of bird beaks, most likely the hornbill. Much of the drum shell is covered with abstract design motifs, which are interspersed with four symbolically more suggestive figures (detail #1: human figure; detail #2: possibly a bird; detail #3: perhaps an abstract human body; detail #4: human hand). Much of the vocabulary of carving motifs found on Asmat drums and other ceremonial objects make reference to the former practice of headhunting. The performance of drums in Asmat communities is restricted to males, and when drums are not in use they are stored in a village jeu (buildings in which community matters are discussed, ceremonies are planned, and woodcarving takes place).
This tifa is carved from a single block of light-weight wood. The shell itself is tubular and hourglass-shaped, the bottom end left open (detail #5) and the top end covered with grey-white fish skin that is glued to the shell and further secured with a belt of rattan that is wound tightly around the membrane (detail #6). While making the drum the carver leaves a high ridge of wood that runs the length of the drum from which he eventually carves the drum’s handle. For a video documentary of the making of a tifa see Tifa: An Asmat Drum.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The player of a tifa, seated or standing, holds the drum by its handle, grasping it with his left hand near the middle of the drum shell and positioning the shell across his lap (if seated) or with the playing head facing forward (if standing). The membrane is struck with the open palm of the player’s right hand. Small balls of a wax/honey/coal tar paste can be added to the drumhead to control its timbre; pitch can be controlled by heating the head over an open fire to raise its pitch. Consulted sources do not explain how the drumming on these instruments is structured. One source mentions only that the drum is used to accompany singing and the blowing of fu (end-blown bamboo trumpets) (Kartomi and Niles 2014, p. 230). In the first minute of the video documentary Tifa: An Asmat Drum several tifa can be seen being played inside a jeu.
Long, hourglass, single-headed hand drums with integrally-carved handles are most strongly associated with peoples of the island of New Guinea (including the Asmat) but also with some peoples of Eastern Papua (and the Melanesian island groups in general), some Micronesian Islands (Marshalls and Eastern Caroline Islands), and in the Torres Straits Islands and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia. However, where and when this type of instrument was first created and how and when it spread throughout this area cannot be known at this time with any certainty due to a paucity of information about the musical practices and histories of the peoples of this region.
Belford, Troy, and Jerry Martin. 2008. Tifa: An Asmat Drum (Part I and II). Holmes Museum of Anthroplogy. YouTube Video accessed October 3, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=523OH0Rfkac
“Drum.” American Museum of Asmat Art, Univeristy of St. Thomas. Website accessed October 2, 2017: http://artsatust.museumssites.com/collections/search-the-collections/search/search:drum--collection-collection:asmat-museum-collection
“Drums.” Lowell D Holmes Museum of Anthropology, Wichita State University. Website accessed October 2, 2017: http://holmes.anthropology.museum/asmat/drumfull.html
Kartomi, Margaret, and Don Niles. 2014. “Kundu (4),” GDMI v.3: 230.
Kunst, Jaap. 1967. Music in New Guinea. In Vehandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde v. 53. ‘s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff.
Smidt, Dirk A. M. (ed.) 1993. Asmat Art: Woodcarvings of Southwest New Guinea. New York: George Braziller.Van Arsdale, Kathleen. 1998. “A Lowland People: The Asmat.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.9 Australia and the Pacific Islands, ed. Adrienne L. Kaeppler and J. W. Love. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 589-591.