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Down Under Drum

The ten-member Drum Drum turns world beat upside down


Australians, when they travel abroad, tend to stay abroad for a long time. This has almost certainly got to do with the high price of flying out of the country. It’s not at all uncommon to run into Australians in Europe who’ve been on the road for ten months or more to get their money’s worth.

Drum Drum’s current world tour will keep them away from their home base of Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territories, for something like two months—and this is a weekend jaunt by Australian standards. In that time, the group will touch down in Kuala Lumpur, Borneo, London—even Whitefish and Missoula. Past tours have taken them to the French-speaking outpost of Nouméa in New Caledonia, Singapore, the Cook Islands and East Timor (where has your band been lately? Spokane and back?).

You could say that the ten members of Drum Drum are seeing the world and soaking up culture, although it’s difficult to imagine a place as exotic and diverse as the massive island to the north of Australia that most of them can claim as their ancestral home: Papua New Guinea. The second largest island in the world, Papua New Guinea covers over 320,000 square miles (compare with 147,138 for Montana and 267,339 for Texas), and encompasses terrain ranging from steaming lowland jungles to many peaks over 12,000 feet, and at least one that reaches over 16,000 feet into the persistent cloud cover that, as late as the 1970s, prevented much of the island from being photographed from the air.

And its human diversity is no less impressive. Over 800 languages are known to be spoken on Papua New Guinea in as many as 3,000 dialects. Its 16 provinces can each lay claim to distinctive customs, lore and culture. The name Drum Drum is a literal English translation of a coastal village called Gaba Gaba in the island’s southeastern region, a once sleepy hamlet that at some point in the indeterminate past of folklore acquired a reputation as a center for dancing, singing, feasting and drumming.

Drum Drum was formed in 1993 when most of its members were South Pacific University students in Darwin. Operating under the simple principle that an important part of keeping traditional culture alive is using it in creative and contemporary ways so it can grow, Drum Drum has since expanded its repertoire to include rain dances and chants from their home region around Gaba Gaba as well as bird dances and kundu drumming from Morobe province, log drumming from the Manus Islands, fishing dances from the Kivai and Torres Strait regions, and fertility dances from the Trobriand Islands.

The combination of dance and percussion-driven music is explosive, and the instrumentation is likewise a cargo cult-like combination of Western and traditional island ingredients: violin, French horn, keyboards, bamboo flute and garamut log drums. There’s a bland World Music minute or two on their CD, but most of what you hear is fresh and exciting in a way that certain of the overtapped world music wellsprings have ceased to be. There’s even a little charmingly awkward hip hop thrown in!

Drum Drum perform at the Blue Heron this Sunday at 8 PM. A traditional New Guinean meal precedes the performance at 6 PM. Tickets are $25 for singles or $45 per couple.


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