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Home » THE ASMAT » Tifa: the Traditional hourglass-shaped Drum of the Asmat of Papua

Tifa: the Traditional hourglass-shaped Drum of the Asmat of Papua

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  1. The Asmat

    Papua’s famed Woodcarvers
  2. The Asmat

    Papua’s famed Woodcarvers
  3. The Asmat

    Papua’s famed Woodcarvers
  4. The Asmat

    Papua’s famed Woodcarvers
  5. The Asmat

    Papua’s famed Woodcarvers
  6. The Asmat

    Papua’s famed Woodcarvers



A couple of tifa players sit around a flaming coal fire, tuning the lizard-skinned cover of the tifa drums by rubbing around its top edge. The lizard skin is held and tightened with braided plant fibers or rattan strings around the top. When done, the traditional drum will sound clearly and loudly, as loud as the chants they accompany, the only oral literature known to the Asmat people.

Tifa, a traditional Asmat drum looks very similar to the shape of an hour glass, with the bottom end kept open, and the top covered with lizard skin. At its mid part is the handle that is usually beautifully carved. World-wide known for its wooden sculptures, the Asmat wow ipitsj (wood carvers) produce unique carvings with extraordinary shapes and outlines, with colors usually in terracotta red, black, and white.

A tifa is exaggeratedly decorated with fantastic carvings from top to bottom, made of black wood found only in the swampy forests nearby. A tifa may come in many sizes, from a short one of around 1 foot in length, to those around 6 to 7 feet long. In the latest Asmat Cultural Festival held in 2013, various tifas with fantastic carvings were auctioned off, costing a pricy thousand dollars each: a valuable art collection for antique aficionados.

In 1961, native artwork collector, Michael C. Rockefeller, son of famed New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, was enthralled with the Asmat culture. Sadly, during his last expedition to the Asmat region he mysteriously disappeared here. His Asmat artwork collections can now be seen in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Other outstanding collection of Asmat sculptures can also be found in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, as well as in the Asmat Art Gallerie in Berlin.

According to Asmat myth, a tifa was originally created and played by an Asmat god, named Fumiripitsj, who once created many human statues to keep him company when he felt lonesome. But when he carved a tree trunk into a drum and played it, these sculptures came to life and danced along with the sound of tifa. With that myth living among this community until today, the tifa continues to be an inextricable part of Asmat rituals and is considered a highly valuable item.

Tifa is both an artwork and a drum, but no Asmat person will consider it as a musical instrument. When ritual songs are sung, the tifa players beat the drums to accompany the singing and dancing. Major cultural events commonly involve tifas as part of exhibitions. During the annual cultural festival, tifa is showcased but is also very much for sale.

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Tifa: the Traditional hourglass-shaped Drum of the Asmat of Papua

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