Traditional Culture on Ambrym

Vanuatu slit drums in the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France

Vanuatu slit drums in the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France

The Ambrym islanders of Vanuatu produce high-quality woodcarvings and tree fern figures in large quantities. As in most of northern Vanuatu, a powerful system of traditional copyright applies, and only those with the traditional rights to make certain types of objects are allowed to do so.

Vanuatu’s most famous handicrafts come from North Ambrym, especially the tall slit drums called tamtams in Bislama. Craftsmen slot and hollow two-meter breadfruit logs, then carve faces on them, and these are used as signal drums. Also characteristic are the black tree ferns carved for the mhehe graded rituals, and bamboo flutes up to a meter long with burnt-in geometric designs. Painted masks with hair of bleached banana fiber are worn in rites to increase the yield of yams. Masks worn by participants in Rom dances during the Ole ceremony in July and August represent certain spiritual aspects of power associated with yams.

Storytellers on Ambrym use intricate sand drawings to illustrate their tales. Up to 180 stylized patterns that the artist draws without removing his finger from the sand can convey a variety of messages. Ambrym sorcerers are famous throughout Vanuatu for their magic, often associated with the destructive power of the island’s volcanoes.