About This Festival
Everything about Papua New Guinea is diverse. From the multitudes of rare animal species to the 841 documented languages, from the lush rainforests to the Technicolor coral reefs, PNG is big on disparities. Despite all its exotic trappings, PNG is not a destination for the thin-skinned, inexperienced traveler. If you prefer big box resorts and umbrella-festooned cocktails, then this may not be your spirit destination. But, if you’re big on choosing your own adventure, going not just off the beaten track, but practically off the map, and you're keen to answer the call of cultural curiosity, PNG might be for you. There’s no better way to experience the array of tribal cultures that PNG has to offer than at the Mount Hagen Cultural Show.
Each year during the third weekend in August, Mount Hagen hosts Mount Hagen Cultural Show, one of the largest singsings (tribal gatherings) in Papua New Guinea. Upwards of 100 tribes attend this event where they peacefully share their cultural traditions through costume, dancing and music. Disguised in anthropomorphic body paint, clad in elaborate headdresses, jewelry made of shells and boars’ tusks and skirts made from leaves and fur, the groups perform their primal dances; the tribe that garners the most applause and biggest reaction from the crowd wins. It is, to say the least, a photo opp.
The first Mount Hagen Cultural Show was staged in 1964, while PNG was still under the colonial rule of Australia. Many different tribes from the Highlands gathered together in an effort to share their cultural experiences with each other, bringing a calming effect to inter-tribal conflicts and animosities.
Since the first show, there have of course been technological advancements, political developments, and major paradigm shifts; namely, PNG’s independence from Australia in 1975. Mount Hagen has boomed in the past 40 years, and is now the third largest city in PNG. While the tribal focus of the show remains the same, the event has been made more tourist-friendly. A mix of tribal traditions and modern entertainment are designed to attract international and domestic travelers, and there is now a monetary prize for the winning cultural group. This ensures that the singsings are a colorful, competitive affair, with performers drumming, chanting and dancing at a pace that leaves even the audience breathless.
Flying Feathers & Mud Baths
Tribes convene at the showground and perform simultaneously, so you can imagine the sensory overload that takes place. Feathers fly, feet stomp, drums beat and voices soar high above the tree canopies in the distance.
Costumes and performances are, of course, not arbitrary. Each tribe has its own legend and lore that it conveys through masks, face paint and dance. One crowd-favorite is the Asaro Mudmen. Legend says that long ago, while being pursued by an enemy tribe, the Asaro submerged themselves in the Asaro River. Finally, at dusk, the Asaro dared to emerge from the water. Seeing them rise from the banks, covered in mud, the enemy tribe mistook them for spirits and fled in fear, leaving the Asaro to escape to safety.