Large-scale song and dance festivals in Papua New Guinea are known as Sing-Sings. As many as 100 regional, provincial, and national tribal dance groups, each with their own style of body decoration, travel for days on foot or by boat, bus, or truck to gather for these annual traditional events. Sing Sings are based on traditional large gatherings but these modern festivals were created by the government so that traditional enemies could meet on neutral territory. The first sing-sing was held in the town of Goroka in 1957. Instead of fighting over ancient feuds and cultural differences, the idea was to get together and celebrate diversity and socialize peacefully. More than 50 years later these festivals are major events drawing locals as well as an increasing number of tourists. The most well known of the sing-sings is the Mount Hagen Culture Show in the Western Highland Province.
Body decoration and adornment are key features, using materials such as paint pigments, feathers, grasses, leaves, bone, shell and animal skins – all used in creative variety. Elaborate wigs are made from human hair and plumes, wild pigs’ tusks are used to pierce noses, and faces and masks are painted in vivid primary color patterns. Each group has section of the showgrounds and sing and dance for 7-8 hours each day. (And its hot!!)
The people spend hours each day painting their faces and bodies and preparing their costumes. Many bring materials with them and source them from the forest. I particularly enjoyed watching the Huli Wigmen, the Skeleton Men, and the Mud Men get ready for their performances.
The Skeleton Men paint themselves head-to-toe in black ash, with a coating of vivid white clay outlining the head giving the impression of bones. They shuffle forward, twisted in extreme angles, presumably to frighten their enemies.
The Asaro Mudmen’s legend is that they were defeated by an enemy tribe and forced to flee into the Asaro river. The enemy saw them emerge in the dark from the river covered in mud and thought they were spirits. As most tribes are afraid of spirits the enemy fled and the Asaro escaped. Legend also says that the mud from the river is poisonous, so instead of covering their faces, they make elaborate, very heavy masks that cover their entire heads with short ears, horns, sideways mouths and joined eyebrows. They remake these masks for each performance!
The Huli are the largest ethnic group in the Highlights and are known for their elaborate headdresses. In Huli culture, when a virgin boy is around 14 to 15 years old, they can pay to go to wig school. The master and students live isolated from the community and no one else is allowed in the school. It takes 18 months to grow hair for one wig and can only grow under the master’s spell. The boys stay until until they graduate, some as long as 10 years.