Upright slit-drums standing in groups out in the open are unique to Central Vanuatu and occupy a focal position in the social life of the societies in which they are found. As such they have been extensively photographed and collected from the late nineteenth century onwards and have since evolved into a national icon represented on hotel brochures, postage stamps and advertisements of all kinds.
This slit-gong drum from Ambrym Island in the north central region of Vanuatu consists of a single head carved into a crescent and set upon the drum as on a body. The single motif of a face, standing out in isolation at the top of a column of wood above the slit, achieves a spectacular effect with a minimum of means.
The drum has a hermaphroditic quality, combining symbolic aspects of both male erection and female genitalia. Its soaring form is human, ephemeral and aspiring. The head, like that of graded-society, tree-fern sculpture, is dominated by a strongly aquiline nose and huge round eyes which give an impression of great serenity and composure. The rounded head with large crest serves to distinguish Ambrym slit-drums from those produced on Malekula Island, which are carved with a truncated top and squat, stylised face in low relief.
The tall, vertically planted, wooden slit-gong drums are grouped as miniature forests in long batteries and beaten to simulate the voices of ancestors in men’s age-grading ceremonies. A preference for anti-clockwise directionality goes with the high incidence of circling dances where directional movement follows the right-hand side. This principle extends to the playing
of slit-drums which are always struck on the right-hand side. The right-hand wall of the gong is thinner than the left which is meant to thrust the sounds through the slit. The drum comes to life as an actual character through the sound that it gives out. Each has its own particular tone, independent of the drummer’s style of playing. The pitch will rise as the slit widens.
Judith Ryan, Senior Curator Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).