When I arrive in Madang in the dark of night, my plan is to make a good night and leave early again for the Highlands. Then, the girl at the reception looks a little surprised, and asks me if I did not come for the festival. Turns out, the Madang festival is on precisely the weekend I arrive, and it does not take me long to decide for two nights in the coastal town. The next morning, I just follow the crowd in the street, and after surviving the chaos around the festival terrain, I am in, and walk straight to the open space on the large field which has been cordoned off. Inside, several singsing groups are parading for the public. I immediately realize that I have made a good decision when I see the authentically dressed performers proudly showing off their colourful outfit. Also, that I have been very lucky to be here precisely at the time of the festival. It surprises me to see very few foreigners: the vast majority of spectators are Papuans. For quite a while, I watch a group from Simbai, who according to the announcement make their very first appearance on a festival. Their outfit is outstanding and abundant, and I wonder how they manage to keep what seems like heavy headdresses with feathers and all on their heads, and how they can move with all they wear on head and body under the relentless sun.
There is another group, from Boroi, the small village I passed the day before, also consisting of only men. They are all painted red, and look fearsome. I follow them when they leave the terrain, and they turn out to be very open and easy to approach. They gladly explain their origins, laugh with me, pose for pictures, while they chew their betel nut. It feels there is no barrier between the performers and the crowd. When I am back at the field, I see a white lady dancing topless with a group. I ask one of the security who is telling people to stay outside the performance field; to my surprise he lifts the cordon and lets me in. As with the Boroi group, the others, too, are welcoming, talkative, and let me see their attire. I try one of the huge headdresses on of the Simbai group, and apart from being heavy and making me feel hot, I now mostly wonder how they can prevent the whole thing to fall off their heads - as it is very tall as well. As soon as I let my hands go, it capsizes and seems to be falling, so I quickly put my hands back. The members of the group smile at me, and I wonder how they manage to even dance with it without using their hands to hold it. I sit on the grass, which gives an even more impressive view.
After a while of admiring the Simbai group and chatting to some of the members, I move over to a next group which also has women among the performers. The basic colour for the group is pink. Most of the women have bare breasts, grass skirts, and shells for decoration. They are very welcoming as well, and talk openly about their origin, how they prepare for these events and travel around to perform. There is still another group on the festival terrain, but suddenly, a musical group is announced on stage, the cordons are lifted, and hundreds of people storm to the podium. The singsing groups walk to the exit, and I follow them, once again realizing that the vast majority of the audience are locals. I now hear the drum beat, and stumble upon yet another singsing group with a completely different look. They turn out to be from Kambaramba, from another province (Lower Sepik river), and the main sight are the two masked dancers. The relentless beating of the garamut is infectious, and the dancers just cannot stop dancing to it. The men (or women?!) in the masks with the tall decorations move along as well, and I wonder how they can: it must be extremely hot for them. When they finally finish dancing, they want to shake hands with me, and I can see sweat running down their faces through the mask. The music on stage is still playing, and there are some competitions, but the most interesting part is now really over. I cannot believe how lucky I have been to attend this spectacular festival, which has shown again how diverse Papua New Guinea really is!
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Madang festival (Papua New Guinea). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Madang festival. Read more about this site.