Introduction:The Baining people are among the earliest and original inhabitants of the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
Thought to have been driven there by the Tolai tribes who migrated to the coastal areas in comparatively recent times and the major volcanic activity that took place over centuries. (As recently as 1994, the nearby town of Rabaul was almost completely destroyed by two volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan). The Baining tribes get their name from the Baining Mountains which they inhabit. Their language is also called Baining of which there are a few different dialects.
The Baining people's artworks are usually produced for limited uses only. The masks are laboriously made from bark cloth, bamboo and leaves and used just once for the firedance ceremony before being thrown away or destroyed. The origin of these firedance ceremonies was to celebrate the birth of new children; the commencement of harvests and also a way of remembering the dead. The Baining firedance is also a rite of passage for initiating young men into adulthood. The fire dance is a men-only event.
FIRE - Walk with me!It's well after dark when we arrive at the Baining village somewhere in the mountains near Rebaul in East New Britain and the milky way is resplendent above us, there are no lights except a few torches in the hands of the village attendants.
We sit a little bemused but expectant on a viewing bench next to the village musicians, as piles of firewood are heaped into a huge bonfire and set alight - we know little of what is about to happen - just that the Baining men are famous for their fire dance in masks that resemble a 'Daffy Duck' type character on acid, with huge painted, startled eyes.
|The Shamanic figure appears from the darkness to lead out the spirits of the night.|
As the fire is stoked higher and hotter a shamanic figure appears at the edge of the fire sporting an extremely long feather in his conical hat-mask - his purpose is to lead out the spirits of the night - we are in no way prepared for what is about to happen...
|Already in a semi trance like state the spirits are led into the fire circle.|
One by one the fire dancers appear on the edge of the clearing and one by one they are led into the light of the flames. They seem to commune with the shaman and the musicians - as if to introduce themselves to the dark and to draw strength from the chanting, rhythmic music, then they depart to the far side of the conflagration awaiting their kindred spirits.
|Dancing around the fire in preparation for the test of fire.|
When all are assembled and to the accompaniment of much chanting and beating of drums they start to dance around the bonfire in ever more frenzied circles - all the time village attendants heap more and more wood onto the fire until it is illuminating the whole clearing in vivid reds and yellows. One by one the ever more frenzied fire dancers run to the edges of the blazing fire in a kind of dream-like challenge, kicking at the edges of the bonfire as if testing the heat, deifying the flames to burn them. As the music reaches fever pitch something clicks within the dancers - they are as one with the night - they are exalted in the mystery of the ritual and the spirits of the night have joined with their mortal flesh, now instead of kicking the burning embers, their strength is at it's zenith, they take it in turns jumping into the heart of the fire, casting white hot sparks all around - with nothing to protect them but the magic of the ritual they continue to stamp on and decimate the fire for what seems like an age until it is nothing but scattered embers and night reclaims the clearing.
|As the dancers are consumed by the ritual the fire is entered and destroyed by the dancers.|
Some time has passed - it's hard to say how long - we have been transported to an earlier time - perhaps a dream time - for the westerners it is time to depart, our minds are a-fire with questions, we try to assimilate, to process somehow the spectacle that we have just witnessed. You cannot help but be aware of the gulf between cultures in time and knowledge, we in the west have gained much compared to the Baining men but one cannot help feeling that we have also lost something...
With thanks to Food and Travel Magazine for the commission to PNG and with many thanks to Judy Feller and Cecily Barton from PNG Tourism for arranging the trip!