Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The land of the giants

A Japanese film maker uncovers how the giant slit drums of the ethnic Naga tribes are made

Ethnic Naga villagers celebrate the completion of the slit drum. Photos - Hiroshi IguchiEthnic Naga villagers celebrate the completion of the slit drum. Photos - Hiroshi Iguchi

The sound of slit drum cutting through the still dawn is a sound most people in Myanmar know. Monasteries all over the country use slit drums in the morning to rouse monks from their sleep and again in the evening to mark meditation. While the wooden instrument is ubiquitous in Buddhist Burmese culture, it’s in the remote ethnic Naga communities that the Khiam, or giant Naga slit drum - large enough to fit a grown man, creates an atmosphere like no other.

In the documentary ‘Story of Khiam’, which screened for the first time last Friday at the Japan Culture House in Yangon, Japanese sound engineer Hiroshi Iguchi explores Naga culture through the process of making a Khiam.

Villagers test the slit drum.Villagers test the slit drum.

It was during a visit to the Naga New Year Festival in Lahe in 2015 that Iguchi, on a filming assignment with a Japanese TV program, first felt the power of the Khiam, an experience which inspired him to make the documentary.

“The atmosphere of that town was different from any other city like Yangon or Mandalay. I wanted to know the reason for the atmosphere,” he said.

Ethnic Naga villagers celebrate the completion of the slit drum.Ethnic Naga villagers celebrate the completion of the slit drum.

The documentary captures the making of a Khiam, which is over 10 meters long and is carved in one piece from the log of a Gaw tree. Iguchi spent three weeks in Shaplo village, Lahe township in northwest Sagaing, filming its creation.

The process takes 14 days.  The village men first scour the forest for a tree with the appropriate girth, then cut it down, hollow and carve it where it falls. Once the drum is light enough to move by hand, the drum makes a four day journey from the forest floor to the village’s pang, a building where it is housed for ceremonies.

The finished slit drum is dragged from the forest floor to the village.The finished slit drum is dragged from the forest floor to the village.

Lined with roughly 20 drummers, 10 on each side hitting it on opposing beats with large wooden sticks, the speed and intensity in which a Khiam is played depends on the occasion. There is one type of Khiam which is played only at ceremonies while another, which sounds similar to an African talking drum, is played proceeding or after life events: a battle, a funeral, a natural disaster, explains Iguchi.

The Naga believe that once the Khiam has been completed, healthy harvests and good luck will be bestowed on their village.

Filmmaker Hiroshi Iguchi stands next to the slit drum. Filmmaker Hiroshi Iguchi stands next to the slit drum.

‘Story of Khiam’ also gives viewers rare insight into the daily life of an isolated ethnic group that for decades was neglected by the military Junta. The hour-long film does away with the romantic images of the Naga people as wild head-hunters, instead it shows the day-to-day customs of Naga culture: village decisions being made by a group elders, meat being smoked to preserve it for the winter, young boys assisting adults forage for edible roots.

“My main purpose of making this film is to record the unique and original culture of Naga people”.

Naga men wearing their traditional costumes during a night time celebration for the completion of the slit drum.Naga men wearing their traditional costumes during a night time celebration for the completion of the slit drum.

“They [the Naga] live self-sufficiently. I was impressed to see their hardiness and to be allowed to live with them” said Iguchi.

Though the residents of Shaplo have little in the way of material possessions - no phones, no internet and no electricity - they appear happy, which is a concept Iguchi has chosen to explore through the documentary.

The lack of infrastructure in the remote locations on the Myanmar-India border presented a raft of challenges for Iguchi and his film crew.  

“Everything was a challenge because usually I’m working as a sound engineer in Japan. So, funding, scheduling, filming, editing and everything were difficult. But the most difficult was scheduling because there is so little information about Naga,” he said.

Thankfully Iguchi and his team persisted as ‘Story of Khiam’ provides long overdue insight into the culture of  this often misrepresented ethnic group.

‘Story Of Khiam’ is narrated in Japanese with Myanmar subtitles.