linus digim’Rina is a Trobriand Islander and an anthropologist. He is currently Head of Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Caulking Ethnographic Gaps by linus digim’Rina

It is now common enough knowledge that Bronislaw Kaspar Malinowski made two separate field trips to the Trobriand Islands. As well, we know that he was generously equipped with a camera, phonograph, anthropometric equipments, etc by his teacher Charles Seligman, and that Malinowski himself purchased 72 wax cylinders for his first expedition to Papua in 1914.1Malinowski 1922:xix & Young 2004: 267 in B&N 2020:4 (B&N is for Barnecutt and Niles 2020 main article in the True Echoes website) It is curiously notable that Malinowski did not make any sound recordings from the Trobriands during his first field trip, July 1915 to March 1916. Was it the circumstances including his own aversion towards the use of cameras and phonographic equipments or, forbidding logistics leading to perhaps the non-accessibility of the equipments? Was this why he ended up with just a few recordings, five cylinders to be exact, in 1918 for three dance-songs (Gumagabu, Rogaewa and UsiTuma), and a song/poem (Ilakavetega). Perhaps a realization of an apparent lacuna – like an omission on his overall ethnographic datasets? I make some general observations below in the hope of fleshing out with some meat to this rather lean documentation.

linus, shirtless and in blue trousers, mutually discussing issues with settlers at old Itikinumu rubber plantation, Sogeri-Koitaki valley, Central Province, Papua New Guinea, July 2018. Photo credit: Alfred Faiteli, Demography Division, University of PNG.
linus, shirtless and in blue trousers, mutually discussing issues with settlers at old Itikinumu rubber plantation, Sogeri-Koitaki valley, Central Province, Papua New Guinea, July 2018. (Photo credit: Alfred Faiteli, Demography Division, University of PNG.)


Based on the information pieced together thus far from various sources, Gumagabu (lit. ‘the man from Gabu’) refers to a story of vengeance as summarized by B&N (2020) turned into a song with its accompanying dance moves hence, being classified as a song-dance. While Gabu would translate as ‘burn/burning’ in Bweyowa/Kiriwina language, it nonetheless clearly refers to a village on the north west of Fergusson Island perhaps within the Cape Vinall area (digim’Rina 1995:4, Map2). Having done fieldwork there in the late eighties and early nineties, I know no village by that name from the area. Going by Malinowski’s notes however ‘district of Gabu, lying in a wide bay under the North-West flank of Koyatabu’2Malinowski (1922:291 in B&N 2020:19) could be anywhere within the vicinity of villages of, and from north east of Basima, Ulua, Gameta, Bosalewa, perhaps inland Salakahadi, and Kabwaku hamlet of Wapolu area. Aside from Gabu, Kinana is a signature identity for the southern inhabitants of the Amphletts, including the whole cultural region of the D’Entrecasteaux islands. Tokinana refers to ‘the man from the south’ and in concurrence with Young, I am too unaware of any village going by the name of Kinana on Goodenough Island, as suggested by Senft (B&N 2020:16). I suspect his informants were only speculating. From the Bweyowa perspective, Kinana implies crude, backward and cannibalistic characteristics and manners. The whole story of Gumagabu is a stereotypic representation of how Bweyowa people view their southern neighbours rather condescendingly. On the other hand, Dobuans in particular share numerous prejudices and scorn against the Bweyowa people. Gumagabu is an expression of the north-south axis that manifests endless competitive exchange relations.

I was quite intrigued by Malinowski’s claim of making it possible, with the availability of purchased khedebu (kaidebu) shields from various villages and for the Omarakhana men to dance with after a long while without (Malinowski 1916:380 in B&N 2020:10). While it remains to be circumstantial even suggesting breach of communal etiquette, it nonetheless goes to show the willingness and flexibility of Gumagabu composition to move from song to dance and continue to afford further improvisations towards its own embellishment. It is a living story or myth as Young (1989) would have it.

Little can be said of Paluwa the performer, aside from Malinowski’s notes of him. There is a recently deceased Paluwa from a village nearby Omarakhana with now elderly children. Given that Malinowski’s Paluwa was from a lower rank he would be among the performers at the centre of the circle of dancers (okhepou) repeatedly singing the song and beating the drums (khesosau/kupi) with fine streamers flapping in the wind from the tip of their spears.


Spelled variously as Rogayewo or Rogaiewo is the other song-dance recorded by Malinowski. Consistent with my previous use in Young (1998:90) I retain that Rogaewa spelling as being commonly acceptable. Rogaewa and Rogaewa/o would be the active expression of the name whereas Rogayewa represents its full phonetic representation. Etymologically, roga is meaningless whilst yewa (or –ewa in its active voice) means reverse or backward motion, which is moving backwards. Again as quoted above (ibid), the song-dance moved around as a commodity – a well composed song, accompanied by beautiful body movements that resonated well with the drum beats. Its elevation to that of a tradeable item of value is expected. So far as we know it came from the people of Iwa from the Marshal Bennet isles. Rogaewa’s composer might be uncovered or perhaps not at all. Exactly how Rogaewa was ‘gifted’ to the Okheboma people, and subsequently to Omarakhana, and then to Liluta, as shown on Ch. ix.3, remains unclear. Nearby villages of Liluta including Dayagila are said to have danced Rogaewa as well. And it is still alive today.

As indicated by Malinowski’s notes of the man, Tokulubakiki is a prominent figure during Malinowski’s fieldwork at Omarakhana owing to his sharp mind and good natured manners. Although smart and being part of the royal circle, son of the chief, the name has not been carried on such as named after these days, unlike his wife’s name, Kuwo’igu. Little is also known of his dala (matrilineage) although this can be easily uncovered. He sounds like a rare talent, even today.


I have capitalized letter ‘T’ for Tuma island in order to give some prominence to the reason as to why these songs and dances are referred to as such. These are songs and dances, derived or their composition inspired by the seers’ interaction with spirits of the dead people back on the island of Tuma. As indeed the word ‘usi’ is derived from ‘wosi’ for songs or songs and dances together. It is, I suspect, ‘not an archaic pronunciation of wosi’ rather a mishearing by the chronicler particularly by the non-Bweyowa language speakers (Baldwin 1945:201 in B&N 2020:14). Wosi when pronounced together with words or names like WosiTuma (usituma), WosiGula (usigula), WosiBaloma (usibaloma) are often in soft low pitched sounds – so low that the clear sound of ‘w’ disappears in thin air and is taken over by ‘u’ which is quite similar to the sound for ‘o’. This I suspect might be the cause of the misspelling from WosiTuma to usituma by non-Bweyowa speakers.3Tuma refers to the island of the spirits of the deceased, Gula concerns Bweyowa heritage, and Baloma refers to the spirits inhabiting the Tuma island. As noted by Baldwin, and Senft as well there are several varieties of WosiTuma known from village to village. Wosimwaya (lit. song ancient and traditional) is the generic category of all of the above types of songs and performances hence a genre.4Senft’s Bigatommwaya instead of Bigitumwaya is unfortunate and rather cumbersome by the average competent Bweyowa language speaker’s standards (B&N 2020:16). The former is palpably cumbersome and seldom heard thereby indicating naivety while the latter displays flare fluency and sophistication in expression.

 Monakeu or Monakewo the performer of UsiTuma and Ilakhavetega was the son of Paluwa, performer of Gumagabu. Again, the various spellings of Monakewa (the correct spelling insofar as I know) are explained above. According to my father and later confirmed by my first born brother Moserota, there came a time when Okheboma talented men had lost the art and skill of lashing the outrigger together with the hull – one that is technically referred to as torilamila, including the various knots and lashings known as weyugwa. This skill and knowledge is held only by a few and these few are responsible in ensuring the buoyancy, speed and balance of a canoe in motion. At Omarakhana, a frail elderly Monakewa had it. So a select group of Okheboma men set off with gifts to Monakewa for the skill. As he was too old to go to Okheboma beach and teach them so he produced a model canoe and outrigger ran through the weyugwa procedure in detail for them instead. They returned with the model canoe and proceeded to build their Kula canoes by repeatedly copying. My father was among the men that made the trip, and there is a fair chance that this could be true as my father would be in his mid to late twenties when World War II occurred. And Monakewa was doing the recordings with Malinowski in 1918. Monakewa, I believe is from the Dubwaga dala5Word for sub clan and closest to being the corporate unit of Lukuba clan. So the name is being carried on by present Dubwaga descendants such as Monakewa son of Khadilagova of Okupukopu village.


I cannot add any further to what has been noted of the song or poem. Senft’s informant say it is funny, in fact it can be rude for some with the use of coarse language in the song or poem. Ilakaveyega spelling is what main island Bweyowa/Kilivila speakers would note of Kaileuna dialect speakers – their way of saying the same name notwithstanding. Ila [woman with] khavetega [sizeable broken piece of clay pot for cooking green vegetables by elderly women], in another sense she presents a female version of Dokhanikani – the ogre.

Waratou (the court clown)

Malinowski poorly spelt the name as Ortao’u for Waratou being the court clown (Website under ‘Collections’ Ulo kadala is a single name in Ulokhadala, and then Tokulubakiki, with Bagido’u the heir apparent standing right at the door of his ligisa were correctly identified. Ulokhadala is likely to be Tolukwasisiga of Kwenama dala from Osapola hence, a close relative of Namwanaguyau and his other brothers in Yobukwau, Dipapa, etc who were the immediate sons of chief Tou’luwa. I have no doubt that Waratou – being the court clown – is from Yogwabu dala of Malasi clan. This was the alleged original ruling chiefly dala that was hoodwinked by the present Tabalu and usurped the chiefly authority and associated privileges from. Subsequently Yogwabu were accorded special roles and duties within the court such as ‘spokes person’ or ‘sampling the chief’s food before he partakes it for safety purposes’ thus, Udasi [mouth theirs] Gweguya [chiefs] – UdasiGweguya. There is also Khasi[theirs] dagula [feathers] Gweguya[chiefs] – KhasidagulaGweguya, Bo [woman of] lotalota [galaxy] – Bolotalota, one that influences the forces in the galaxy (rain for agricultural prosperity and sun for drought), and so forth. So Waratou’s role in the court is culturally significant and historically sanctioned. A living descendant going by the same name now lives at Oluvilei hamlet of Okheboma village.

Bagido'u - the heir apparent is standing at the door of his house; squatting in front of him are some well-known figures; on the right Ortao'u, the 'court clown', then Ulo Kadala and Tokulubakiki (holding child). In the background the ethnographer's tent. (Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/SOS/64)

The Songs, Dances, Stories and Performers

All these items originated from the Bweyowa cultural heritage, part of its gulagula. The recordings are now held at the British Library as explained in the website. With a slight exception on the Gumagabu song dance, the images and recordings have over time been removed from the cultural ambience of the place, Bweyowa, Kilivila, Kiriwina or the Trobriands. As with Rogaewa from the Iwa people, it will probably struggle to find a comfortable niche back at its original home. Yet it is not completely isolated and could potentially and mutually be invited back ‘home’ like the proverbial prodigal son in the Christian bible. Gumagabu, according to Malinowski, was in 1918 owned by To’uluwa, chief of Omarakhana, and whose ancestors acquired it from the descendants of Tomakam through laga payment. If this claim by To’uluwa was true then laga payments by Bweyowa custom is outright alienation whereby holdership of previous tenant is completely terminated. I have since then not heard of any other group or village that contested this claim by To’uluwa. Other than this there are no plausible other claims of ownership for Rogaewa, which the Okheboma people occasionally and sentimentally lay claims to, nor is it possible for Ilakhavetega and WosiTuma for that matter. The images too are neither offensive nor emotionally heart-rending. In fact, both the sound recordings, despite the poor quality perhaps, and dance images would generate a mild reminder of perhaps a slipping-by Bweyowa cultural heritage – a certain phase of cultural paradigm that is worth reflecting upon for the future. In this view, I would suggest seeking the endorsement of the incumbent of the Bweyowa/Trobriand office of the paramount chief – GuyolaKilivila. He is the sanctioned overall custodian of Bweyowa/Kilivila gulagula. This immediately disqualifies all Church leaders, politicians of various levels and modern day professionals.

Personally, and after listening to many of the tunes, not to mention themes, of these so called archaic sounds, and generally from South East Asia through to the Pacific region, I recognise a fundamentally common similarity in the tunes, flows, humming and repetitiveness of the songs. (I wish I was a musician to explain this a bit more clearly.) This is found in poems, magical chants, mourning dirges, laments, heralds and songs. For the time being and in the absence of a better label I suspect this alluring similarity to be fundamentally Austronesian!

Malinowski today

As with Malinowski and those immediately before him, the chosen field approach together with its fine field documentation methods generated its own values, and indeed part of which we are appreciating. Over time we have all become part of the journey of documentation hence, ‘caulking ethnographic gaps’ has become our immediate task that has probably opened up more possibilities. These songs, dances and stories are alive, have been enacted, details adjusted and adopted – and continue to live on. This is a result of often mutually combined efforts between the chronicler and the informants and/or collaborators. Insofar as one can see for the Trobriand Islands at least, the anthropologist-informant relationship is by and large ephemeral suggesting unsustainability by average standards. I wonder if this is an unanticipated end result of objective-imbued field observation and documentation approaches. For, and on the other hand, the Christian churches approach do not necessarily document like the anthropologist and yet leave behind apparently a more lasting active legacy with the people – often derided as been subjective. Christian missionaries tend to impose, observe and adjust methods of cultural integration including appropriating cultural spaces such as renaming places and persons – to which the anthropologists do not. Through the institution of baptism for instance, church legacies have lived on as part of the local people’s annual cultural celebrations and personal names like Peter, Jacob, Benjamin, Esther, being proudly carried on and shielded by its received forms of morality. By contrast therefore, the world famous name of Malinowski is faintly recalled, and I know of no Trobriand child named after him. A few of the elders use his books mainly for the images and tales rather than the ideas expounded. Malinowski is not alone and indeed this includes all the other anthropologists that came after him, as well as myself at Basima, on nearby Fergusson Island. Of course, immediate family members playing hosts do rename one or two of their off springs after the anthropologist but this is where it ends, generally. This is perhaps why the world famous Malinowski shall remain obscure and often on the recesses of living Trobriand Islanders’ lives unless one is a travel writer or becomes a student of anthropology, as I have been.

Returning to the songs and dances for the last word, modern day performances lacks systematic documentation except for a few parents and school teachers insisting upon children to learn, display and be involved in cultural performances. The language is spoken everyday but not so much of the singing and dancing of those traditional themes and tunes. The introduced ideas and beliefs together with more dynamic technology have evidently taken over much of the cultural spaces. In fact only the occasional travel writers, tourists, journalists, office of tourism agents, social media enthusiasts and urban based relatives that pick up performance images for various purposes. This casual form of documentation characteristically lacks the vital cultural context. There still remains hope however for the present generation to embrace the potential of today’s technology towards the fosterage of that ‘slipping by’ Bweyowa culture.