Blog, Vanuatu

Custom Dancing on the Magic Island

The beauty of cruising is not having to stick to a strict schedule. There are no planes to catch or hotels booked. This allows us to take advantage of opportunities that turn up at short notice.

Whilst re-provisioning in Port Villa another yacht told us about a festival that was happening in two days time, on the island of Ambrym, 120 miles to the north of us. The festival would include Vanuatu’s famous Rom dance with impressive traditional costumes and masks. We had not intended to visit Ambrym for another couple of weeks but hurried to finish our provisioning and cast off the mooring for the 24 hour sail to get there.

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Just as we were approaching Ambrym and reflecting on how pleasant the overnight sail had been, something caused Florence to shudder, as if we had run aground or hit something. The depth sounder showed depths too deep to register, the chart said we should be in 300+ metres and there was nothing to be seen in the water around us. What on earth was that?

A later news report confirmed that there had been an Earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale a couple of miles to the north of us. Luckily it was too deep in the earths core to cause a tsumani and there was no damage or injury to the neighbouring islands.

That night as we peered out at the active volcanco glowing over the anchorage and marveled at the power of mother nature, we could understand why Ambrym is known by locals as ‘The Magic Island’.

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The glow of the volcano, taken from aboard Florence in the anchorage

The magical atmosphere continued onshore the following day. The sound of drumming echoed through the jungle as we gathered in a clearing surrounded by intricately carved totem poles. The ground shook in time to the music as dancers wearing penis sheaths stomped their bare feet on the earth. Each dance told a story, the dancers facing inwards, towards the story teller. As well as generating some money for the village, the festival is held annually with the aim of educating young people and keeping traditions alive.

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Magic is a large aspect of life in Vanuatu, with black magic greatly feared and anyone believed to perform sorcery severely punished. Even after over a month in the country we have only begun to scratch the surface of what this really means. This aspect of life is incredibly secretive and not something that most visitors are aware of, let alone witness. Information is gained slowly and carefully, bit by bit, like peeling back the layers of a large onion. We have come to understand that black magic is one of the main concerns of Ni-Vanuatu people. It is a big worry that a sorcerer will cast a spell that will kill you, cause the sea/storms to take your home, or place you under a constant curse. Black magic is taken so seriously that ‘cursed’ children (early disease can be seen as a sign of black magic) may be deserted and there have been recent (2014) public hangings of two men suspected of black magic.

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The start of a magic show

Good magic is more openly practiced and includes medicine men, weather men or the ‘Yam King’ who must eat the first yam harvested or the crop is ruined. Magic for show is not seen to be real magic so we were treated to a few ‘magic’ tricks, young boys were carried around the circle, held off the ground by leaves, and we were challenged to pull a palm shoot out of the ground that had been planted with magic (it was impossible). Traditional cooking methodswere also demonstrated. Rough sticks were used to grate casava (a potato like vegetable) which was then stuffed inside a bamboo stick a placed over an open fire to cook.

The final day of the festival held it’s highlight, the Rom dance. Specific to Ambrym, the male only dance portrays the old story of struggle between good and evil. The masked Rom dancers portray evil spirits as they move around the clearing en-mass, stopping their feet and rustling their grass costumes to the loud rhythmic beating of the drum and seed shakers. The ‘good’, unmasked men chant the story of the dance. What starts as a slow, methodical chant builds in volume and vigor until a fever pitch of stomping and singing is reached.

Custom dances are sacred traditions, highly regarded and valued by local tribe members. We felt incredibly privileged to witness such a unique and important celebration.

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4 thoughts on “Custom Dancing on the Magic Island”

  1. Great post! Did you hike to the lava lake yet? It’s interesting to hear what you’ve learned about black magic there. Despite bringing it up in conversation with many of the locals they were clearly uneasy talking about it. They would tell us that they didn’t know anything or explain the ‘magic’ tricks you talk about 🙂

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