New Guinea Flute players

Melanesian and Amazonian Gender Ideologies
as Reflected in Various Flute Rituals

May 1991

The flute's phallic image is obvious. Therefore, it follows that the myths and beliefs which have been derived from this instrument illustrate some fascinating parallels in gender conception cross-culturally. Specifically, throughout New Guinea and three Central Brazilian cultures, (Mundurucus, Kalapalo, and Kamayura), the flute is endowed with very similar powers and meaning. Each region considers their flutes sacred. They are stored in the men's homes and females are forbidden to see or play them. In the event that women disobey this order, they can be subject to gang rape or other punishment. Spiritual associations with this instrument are present in all but the culture of the Kalapalo Indians. Ancestral communication is often achieved through the music of flutes as well. However, most importantly, a gender power struggle is represented by the flute, the rituals, and the ceremonies in which the instrument is used. In examining the origin myths of the flute, as well as the instrument's function and symbolism in those cultures, many conclusions about the roles of the sexes can be drawn.
Papua New Guinea
Native cultures in Papua New Guinea hold many beliefs about sacred flutes. Referred to as ARI or NAMA, these instruments are transverse, made of bamboo, and closed on one side. Sometime the flutes are decorated with feathers or teeth, but in general they are left plain so that the sound alone is the object of reverie. The Vanimo Aitape people have their spirit flutes stored in the men's spirit house.  This, too, is where they are constructed for specific ceremonies. Some are made long and others short. The Wogeo and Kwoma cultures consider the former to be male, so they are manipulated with the lips, and the latter, female flutes are hand manipulated. However, both flutes are only played by men. The tunes they produce are the possession of men and subsequently passed down through male subclans. Therefore, the melodies themselves provide a link to ancestry and symbolize male solidarity.
Several different origin myths exist throughout New Guinea. The Wogeo claim is that two women were dreaming, and heard flutes playing of their own accord. They ran, dancing, towards the music, and then returned to their dwellings. A character, Nat Karamwang, overheard this escapade, and also followed the sounds. When he arrived, he discovered the flutes and blew into one. The women were outraged and relinquished their own right to play the flutes. Instead, they insisted that men, only, must play the flutes, and said that it would require the men’s breath, for the flutes would never play by themselves again. Inferred in this myth is the "fall" imposed upon men by women, and the idea that "effort" must be involved in flute playing.  Women’s natural procreative powers are juxtaposed with the artifice of men giving life (birth to music) through the symbolic orifice/phallis of the flute.
Similar inferences are present in the myth of the Irian Jaya. Two twins are said to have killed an ogre. Where he was buried, bamboos grew from his grave. Some women then heard the wind blow through the reeds, making music. They consequently made their own flutes of bamboo. When the men discovered the instruments, they killed the women and seized the flutes for their secret society. This is purported to illustrate the threat that women’s powers of growth and fertility pose to men in this culture.
Men in New Guinea do not only consider women dangerous, but contaminated as well. The almost universal concept of menstruation as impure is reflected in one myth about trumpets in this culture. Supposedly, women originally defiled the instruments, so men had to wash them and then use them exclusively, paralleling men’s attitudes about the uncleanly nature of  life giving vessels. This myth implies that men's dominant behavior in society is a socialized reaction that reconciles their fear of women's procreative nature.
Many of the ceremonies which incorporate flute, throughout New Guinea cultures, function according to the gender ideologies already illustrated. The Siane use the flute when a woman elopes to a man's home. Men play them to prevent the contamination of other males in the household. In Gahuku Gama culture, the flutes are played at pig feasts by pairs of men with no women present. Flutes are also blown by the Vanimo people before fights. Both of the events represented by the flute are aggressive and male-dominated. Lastly, the Keraki perform flute music when a boy has been sodomized and they fear he is pregnant. This summons spirits who will protect him from such humiliation.
Within each of these ceremonies exists an aspect of deception. The Siane of the highlands have an initiation rite for boys using flute music. Since the women are supposed to believe that the instruments are birds, they feign shrieking as if the boy is being fed to the animals. Similarly, in Kuman culture, men tell the women that the birds are eating the pigs' blood at their feasts. They then come home and produce tongueless pigs as proof. However, this is a deliberate hoax. Conversely, the women, never present at any flute ceremonies, have claimed, in secret, that they know men are only feeding the birds water through their flutes.  It appears that their role in this ritual is one of appeasement, understanding the male’s dominant behavior is an overcompensation for the procreative power that is ultimately women’s alone.
Conclusively, four common New Guinea concepts can be observed. Men monopolize to punish women and to keep them in place, both sexes must mutually deceive one another, menstruation is conceived as unclean, and initiation is held as something very important. In regards to the last issue, Robert Gourlay explains:
Structurally, ... the secret sound –producing instruments are a monopoly of initiated males,…women are forbidden to see them under some form of penalty, and precautions are taken to ensure that the newly-initiated do not reveal their recently acquired knowledge. (1)
He also says that the myths about flutes in Papua New Guinea are more believable and pervasive because they are associated with "cult objects." This results in the perpetuation of gender ideology in their culture through the flute itself.
Mundurucu Indians
The KAROKO is a flute about 4352 inches long and 2 2/4 3 3/4 inches wide, which is played by blowing through a vibrating chamber against two adjacent reeds. It has a deep, mournful sound. This instrument is performed by groups of two or three men, only, in the Mundurucu Indian tribes of Central Brazil, located by the lower Madeira River. The oldest, most experienced male will play a midsized flute, while others play the large and small flutes in harmony. Again, this male dominated performance genre reflects man's effort to assert control over the female powers of which they are afraid.
Originally, females used to play the flutes, representing their ability to seize power, occupy male roles, and take men's homes. However, men then forced the women to give the instruments up, and used them to establish their reign over animal husbandry and social stability, once the domain of women.
The origin myth follows: Three women, Yanyonbori, Tvembiru, and Parawaro heard music coming from Lake Karoloboapti in the forest. When they went to it, they saw only jiju fish. Since they could not catch them, the women returned home to gather nets, then eventually captured one fish each; hence, three Karoko, as used in the flute ceremonies. The women were about to play the fish as flutes and the men became very suspicious. First, they restricted the women to play in their homes, not the forest, reflecting the dichotomy between the private and public domains. Then, Yanyonbori's brother, Marimarebo, plotted the repossession of the flutes. He threatened not to hunt anymore, so Yanyonbori schemed. First, the men, unwillingly, were coerced into sleeping in the female dwelling homes for an evening while the three women played the flutes. Then, the women approached the men and engaged in sexual intercourse with them. Finally, both sexes returned to the men's homes, the flutes were relinquished to the men, and the women went home crying about their loss.
The ceremonies, which use the Karoko, somewhat imitate the event of this myth. Like in New Guinea, meat is offered to the mouth of the flutes. Then the ceremony follows. Men hunt for game while women make a drink of manioc starch. Next, the men circle the village as three are playing flutes and the rest are hiding the instruments and performers from the females' vision. Finally, the women, who have shut themselves into their dwelling houses, wail as an expression of grief for lost power. The ancestors are said to be pleased by this ritual and its music. Ironically, the Mundurucu women are crying over the loss of something they have willingly relinquished in order to perpetuate an accepted gender role concept.  As in New Guinea culture, the Mundurucus share this social deception and male dominance as a pretense to subordinate the natural powers of females. These aspects of society are symbolized by the image of the flute and by the rituals designed for this sacred instrument.
The entire complex of public ritual among the Mundurucu is derived from this principle of gender competition for power, and that power is signified through sound -producing instruments that link the present with the past. (2)
The power signified throughout the flute in Mundurucu society is one of phallic dominance. Since the myth of the Karoko has male superiority symbolized in it, it might be deduced that the possession of the penis renders power. However, a dual sexual imagery is actually apparent. Not only are flutes phallic in shape, but "in their cavities dwell the ancestral spirits, just as the real cavities of women contain the regenerative potential of the people and clans."  (3)  Here, it is revealed that the mouth or cavity of the flute has vaginal connotations. This paradox illustrates why the male role must be maintained by vigilance and persistent self -assertion. Since males had to be born by women, they are inevitably dependent on females for nurturing.
Thus, the mother, at the center of love and affection, threatens the male’s individuation and authority, so the vagina is conceived as destructive.  Ellen Koskoff points out an important conflict within this behavior of social deception. She cites the high status given to women in Mundurucu culture and recognizes their preference towards matrilocality. This establishes a cohesive female family network. Nonetheless, Mundurucu males publicly state females as inferior and claim they must "tame them with the banana" if they enter the sacred flute house. Robert and Yolanda Murphy say that "this ideology is maintained because it conceals from the men the fragility of their own superiority, and it perpetuates an illusion."  (4)  Hence, the gender ideology implied here is not one of merely male dominance. The flute rituals provide the Mundurucu with a discourse for asserting gender competition for power.
Kalapalo Indians
The Kalapalo Indians of Central Brazil, in the Upper Zingu Basin, perform weeklong events, during their six month rainy season, which utilize the KAGUTU flutes. Again, these large hardwood horizontal flutes are played by three men. (The ritual significance of the number three will be addressed later, in the conclusion of this article.) As in the cultures of the Mundurucu and throughout New Guinea, the Kalapalo do not allow for women to watch the men perform, or to see the flutes during the ritual process.
The Kagutu are used as accompaniment to "oratorical songs," where a song master sings falsetto to ask the OTO (sponsor) for food and drink. Another function of the flute in Kalapalo society is to play for their ITOLOTEPE, songs sung by men, composed by women. The lyrics deal with issues of marriage, food taboos prevalent among Kalapalo women, and female rivalry. Here, an interesting characteristic of Kalapalo society becomes evident. Kalapalo music does not polarize the sexes, it unifies them. Men and women are not merely conceived as opposite, but also as complementary.
For instance, men are to fire as women are to water. The former gather wood, roast food, and consume hot, spicy food, while the latter process food with water and eat blandly.  Men clear the fields from which women make manioc foods. Conversely, this food prepares men to hunt and fish for the whole community. Another example would be that men plant cotton which women spin to make hammocks that they both share. Subsequently, these principles of separate but equal enable men and women to have good sex relations and diplomatic marriages. There even exists public knowledge of private extra marital affairs which seem to be acceptable by almost every one in Kalapalo culture. It is understood that females please males with sex while men please women with food. This relationship between intercourse and food exchange is signified by the Kagutu rituals.
In the origin myth of the Kagutu, a man named Taugi catches three fish, which symbolize the female, and they become these specia1 flutes. This is strikingly similar to the Mundurucu myth. The mouthhole of the Kagutu is considered vaginal, and when the flutes are stored on the rafters, it is thought of as a period of menstruation. Female menstruation is conceived as filthy and is associated with another myth involving Taugi. This time he plants a pirahna in his cousin's breast and the resulting bleeding symbolizes a repulsive image of menstruation. However, Kalapalo females uphold a belief quite contrary to this. They think that semen can make a woman sick if she is not impregnated. Therefore, a  contradiction in the gender ideology can be cited.
For the Kalapalo, music is an enacted metaphor for opposite sex association. If a woman defies the men by observing their flute ritual, she can be subject to gang rape. Scholarship speculates that this is not because males are inherently violent. It is because they are antagonized by the powerful female manifestation of the Tagutu, and violently express their threatened feelings through rape.  However, the Kalapalo women possess their own ritual which provides a forum for female domination through role reversal. It is called YAMURIKINALU. Here, females are aggressive, relinquishing their typical roles as child bearer, guardian, and nurse. They act independently of men, luring other women into their ritual, and often beat up on the men. Also, they now play the Kagutus, representing the male role. It becomes obvious that both sexes are violent only as counterpart to the opposite sex. This eroticism between men and women actually attracts them towards each other sexually. Kalapalo rituals symbolize the differences and dangers between the sexes and the music represents the communication they have with one another. Basso explains that since music is interpretable, it can act as an effective communicative tool when a multiplicity of gender presuppositions exist. (5)
In other words, there is an assertion by the performer and a doubt by the listener. However, the music transcends this difference by providing an outlet for male/female discourse. Men do not only benefit from this. Females share the benefit because it is a natural process of relating to males for them. Therefore, Kagutu ritual unifies the sexes by representing a mutual understanding of Kalapalo gender ideology.
Kamayura Indians
In this Central Brazilian culture, the Indians incorporate the flute into three different rituals. The first is called JAQUI, and it is meant to evoke the benevolent spirit mothers of fish. Here, again, is the fish/flute association. Jaqui flutes are both long and short. In performance, the NARAKA'IP (male master flutist) plays long, loud pitches over an accompaniment performed by two men on the smaller flutes. They play an introduction of soft, isolated pitches which continue beneath the solo to provide a steady rhythm. Later, the NARAKA'IP adds another pitch to his simple two-note melody, and doubles the duration of his pitches. Finally, all three flutists conclude by sustaining this new third pitch in unison.
Consistent with the rituals of the aforementioned cultures, the Kamuyura deny women the right to observe the Jaqui ceremony. Females remain in their homes, which are located on the periphery of the event, and face punishment, also, of gang rape if they disobey the mandates of the rite.
Interestingly, the origin myth of the Jaqui flute illustrates a dynamic between the sexes astoundingly similar to that of cultures throughout New Guinea and Central Brazil. Women originally possessed power (the flutes) until men seized it from them. The Kamayura say that two male twins, Sun and Moon, scared women flutists away by bellowing through their HORI  HORI (bullroarer). As a result, the women left behind their instruments, which were then captured by the twins, again re-appropriating power.
In a second flute ritual, the TAQUARA dance of the Kamayura, rather than providing a male/female discourse, represents a communication between the insider and the outsider. This ritual is used to drive away evil spirits which may have caused illness, death, or other misfortunes within a household. Through the TARAWI, (a double-barreled bamboo flute, symbolic of the domestic guardian spirit, Tarawi) men get in touch with the benevolent powers of this spirit in performative meditation. Two men play two pitches each on their flute. This time the ritual number three is not present. Taquara performance practice uses simple phrases of increasingly shorter length. Unlike the expansive quality of the Jaqui ceremony, this degenerative process reflects the elimination of evil which the ritual is supposed to achieve.
Lastly, a third flute ritual exists among the Kamayura. The KWARIP ceremony uses URUA flutes to perform for feasts and festivities which occur at the latter half of this ritual. Kwarip is used to collectively commemorate the dead, join the young in marriage and reach ancestral spirits. Another function of the Urua comes from a Kamayura origin myth. Mauvtsinim, the Creator, was believed to have made five daughters out of wood so that one could become the mother of Sun and Moon. Hence, the Urua was constructed of hardwood with a range of five pitches, and is now used to celebrate this creation; a creation that is significant of the women's regenerative powers. Unique to this particular Kamayura ritual, Kwarip enables women and children to play the Urua. However, the ceremony predominantly involves only men. Usually, these males dance until dawn. Then, they perform on the Urua, and male performers move from house to house. They are all decoratively painted, as are the logs they display around the flute house. Women are forbidden to see this early stage of the ceremony, but participate towards the end of Kwarip when the feast and festivities occur.
Jonathan Hill argues that this ritual is an inclusive one. He points out how Jaqui and Taquara completely exclude women, however, Kwarip celebrates both sexes and allows them each to participate. Although the female role is small and uncommon, the fact that it exists at all supports Hill's point. (6)
A significant conclusion can be drawn from his explanation of the hierarchy developed by these three Kamayura flute rituals.


Hill claims that Kamayura flute music is a meta-symbolic code that both defines insider/outsider distinction, and ensures that these boundary lines are not so embedded in society that they cannot be crossed. This hypothesis is derived from the fact that the Kwarip ritual engages all the sides of the male/female, insider/outsider dichotomies which Jauqi and Taquara isolate. Therefore, although there exist two ceremonies which seem exclusive, specifically, of women, it cannot be concluded that this gender ideology is pervasive in Kamayura society. Kwarip, Hill explains, represents "the juxtaposition of structurally opposed processes in the music of the Urua flutes."  He believes that this third ritual, hierarchically, provides an equalizer for the previous two.
Hence, it can be suggested that each of the other cultures studied may possess just such a mediating ritual. Certainly, Basso speculates the very same thing, for she presents the Yamurikumalu ceremony as an alternative to other male dominated rituals in Kalapalo culture. It provides a balance. This element of balance is exactly what I think the ritual number three renders. A perception which allows for three facets of any given subject to be recognized, avoids a process of polarization. Too often, it seems, analyses of gender ideology offer only such polarized conclusions. Commonly, they define the two gender roles, male and female, and describe their separate domains. However, it should be considered that there are many other factors contributing to those very distinctions between the sexes. Separate can still mean equal. Women in other cultures may accept, as perceived by the Western mind, subordinate roles. Yet, Western ethnocentricity may prevent a more nuanced understanding of gender issues in any society. Therefore, it is essential that studies of gender do not merely observe isolated behavior patterns to determine a culture's ideology. Instead, a more comprehensive examination of a given culture will provide more sensitive and accurate conclusions.
Profound similarities emerge when comparing the flute rituals of these Melanesian and Amazonian cultures, who are separated by 10,000 miles and 40,000 years of history.   These seemingly disparate societies share both similar gender ideologies as well as the ritualistic way in which they express them, without ever having had any direct contact with one another.  Recognizing this, one might be struck by the sense that a common human spirit is resonant in both cultures.  This raises many fascinating questions about the common stories and understandings of ourselves that humans around the globe share.  Additionally, the flexible and significant image that the flute holds in all of these rituals makes this instrument central to the. anthropological study of many peoples.  As if creating life from the womb, the flute turns breath into music.  Thus, the flute, as a universal representation of prana (or “life force”),  becomes a unifying symbol for mankind.






1. Gourlay, Ken A., Sound Producing Instruments in Traditional Society: A Study of Esoteric Instruments and Their Male – Female Relations (Port Moresby: New Research Unit, 1975), p. 102.

2. Robertson, Carol E., “Power and Gender in the Musical Experiences of Women”, ed. by Ellen Koskoff, Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), pp. 229.

3. Murphy, Yolanda and Robert F Murphy, Women of the Forest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 94.

4. Koskoff, Ellen, “An Introduction to Women, Music and Culture”, ed. by Koskoff, Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), p.13.

5. Basso, Ellen, A Musical View of the Universe: Kalapalo Myth and Ritual Performances (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), p. 175.

6. Hill, Jonathan, “Kamayura Flute Music: A Study of Music as Meta-Communication” , Ethnomusicology, VI. 23, No. 3 (Society of Ethnomusicology, 1979),
pp. 419-423.