Slit drum (Vanuatu)

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Slit drums from the Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

In Vanuatu, a slit drum is a musical instrument that is traditionally played by men of high rank.[1]

In most islands of Vanuatu, the drum has little to no decoration, and is played horizontally on the ground.[2] On the island of Ambrym though, such drums stand vertically on the ground; they are decorated with one or several faces with disk eyes, representing ancestral figures, such a figure is called a tamtam. [1] The distinctive shape of these Ambrym drums has made them iconic of Vanuatu as a whole; they are frequently found in museums around the world, represented on Vanuatu banknotes, and featured in the tourism industry.

Cultural significance[edit]

Slit drum from Ambrym, Vanuatu in Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Slit drums, whether decorated or not, have a significance to Vanuatu's traditional economy and society: they can be a sign of a man's wealth and social status within the political system of graded societies.[2][3] The drums are sometimes found at ceremonial dance grounds and other gathering places. They have been used for dance rhythms, but also for signalling purposes.[1][4] A tamtam is said to hold spirits, some good, some bad, and are often posted upright at the perimeter of a property or outside a house as protection.


  1. ^ a b c Tamtam (slit drum) Retrieved November 2013
  2. ^ a b See p.77-78 of François & Stern (2013).
  3. ^ Slit Drum, Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, Early 20th Century Retrieved November 2013
  4. ^ See p.86 of François & Stern (2013).


See also[edit]