It’s a kind of magic

Story John McCrystal
Images Grant Sheehan

This is not for you,’ says Chief Sekor, through a translator. ‘The festival is not for tourists. It is to keep the magic, to preserve the traditions.’

I’m one of a handful of people watching the annual Ambrym Magic Festival, held over two days in July in a glade in the jungle inland from Olal, a village in the north of the island of Ambrym in the Vanuatu group. It’s day two.

On the program are the beating of the tam-tam drums, a magic demonstration and a Rom dance. The previous day, we watched more dancing, the demonstration of several more ‘magics’, and were invited to share a traditional feast of ember-roasted yams and taro, and ‘wu-wu’, a kind of dough made from roasted breadfruit and basted with coconut milk.

As a service to the outsiders — there are a handful of Australians there besides ourselves — Sekor is interpreting the event for us. He’s a tall, impressive man, with a professorial stoop, a luxuriant beard, beetling eyebrows and a permanent expression of mild outrage. He wears two circular boar’s tusks, one on a string around his neck, and another around his wrist. This, it has been explained to us, is a mark of his status.

A circular boar’s tusk may only be worn by a chief, and the more he wears, the higher his rank. Sekor, like the rest of men participating in the festival, wears little else: he wears a nambas — a penis sheath made from beaten bark — and a belt, into the back of which a bunch of greenery is thrust.

Sekor addresses us in scraps of English, or in French. On Ambrym, the European language you speak depends upon where you went to school, and Sekor was educated by the Marists at Saint-Louis. My rudimentary schoolboy French has fallen into disrepair over the years, but in Saint-Louis, the village where we are staying with Chief Sekor, I have been forced to rely on it. Sekor speaks marginally less English than I do French. If only Miss Farrell could see me now, I reflect whenever I’m forced to stumble my way through a sentence. But then again, knowing Miss Farrell, and given Ambrym is the witchcraft capital of Vanuatu, she probably can.

One or two of the Australians are fluent in Bislama, the creole devised by the labourers abducted from the islands of Vanuatu (the New Hebrides in those days) in the 19th century and taken to work in Queensland. Bislama was cobbled together out of phonetic English, and was repatriated with the ‘blackbirds’, as the labourers were known. It’s now the lingua franca of Vanuatu.

At a given signal, the dancers begin to stamp their feet. Their bare soles strike the ground in unison, and the impact can be felt in the bounce of the dark, peaty soil. The men are in a tight circle, facing inwards, and their expression is one of focused intensity. The women, dressed in skirts made from dried pandanus leaves, are arranged in a semi-circle, half-enclosing the men. They shuffle as though working a treadmill, and for the most part, their faces wear the look of boundless patience that doubtless comes from leading their hard, daily lives.

The men’s chanting is rhythmic, and not without a hoarse beauty. The dancing raises a sweat that glistens on their burnished, mahogany skin. Muscles work beneath the sheen. The group is mostly older — part of the purpose of the festival, Sekor has explained, is to try to draw younger people back to kastom (tradition) from Port Vila, where they have mostly drifted in search of opportunity. But despite their advanced years, they are, to a man, in great physical shape.

Each dance ends with the rising ‘Whooooo!’ sound that I remember from high school whenever a classmate was called to the headmaster’s office. Hands go onto knees, and ribcages pump. It’s clearly hard work.

The event isn’t being taken entirely seriously. There are occasionally slip-ups, and some of the participants — particularly the younger women — grin and nudge one another. The men, with the exception of Sekor, kid around a bit between dances. The stem of a ‘kastom leaf’ — the frond of a special palm — is buried and men take turns trying to pull it up. Some of the visitors try, too, including me. No one manages it.

Two men sit cross-legged and grip a stick held upright between them, their eyes closed. They begin to wrestle, reputedly with a spirit that is trying to snatch it from them. Pandanus leaves are layered on the ground, with much chanting and meaningful spitting between layers. The stack of leaves is used to carry a child. Each successful act is greeted with applause rather than awe.

Magic is taken deadly seriously on Ambrym, and elsewhere in Vanuatu, where the sorcerers are widely feared. Sekor and others have apologised to us that this year’s magic festival is a shadow of the inaugural event in 2008. One of its leading lights died only a fortnight before, and took much kastom lore to the grave. His death, I was assured, was due to the malign influence of sorcerers from other parts of Ambrym, who were etermined to undermine the festival.

The climax of the festival is a Rom dance. A Rom is a ceremonial mask made of wood, bark and dried pandanus, elaborately painted and strapped to the dancer with woven cord. This year’s dance with a single Rom and a number of ‘junior’ Roms, is a visual treat.

Like the magic festival, Ambrym itself is not strictly for tourists, even though it’s only a short flight from Port Vila. A steadily growing number of people come to make the full-day trek up to the crater rim of Mount Marum to look down into its seething lava lake, but there are few other conventional attractions. The frequent eruptions of its two active volcanoes mean there is little in the way of coral, or even white sand beaches.

Transport is mostly by whaleboat, accommodation is very basic — no electricity or running water, for the most part — and the island is only serviced by three flights a week, or the sporadic cargo ferry, which can be a harrowing experience. Language can be tough for anyone who didn’t pay much attention to the Miss Farrells of this world.

Paradoxically, the lack of amenities has served to preserve one of Vanuatu’s greatest attractions: the chance to get as close as you ever will to an ‘authentic’ encounter with ancient Melanesian tradition. Now that’s a kind of magic. ??John McCrystal and Grant Sheehan gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Air Vanuatu and the Vanuatu Tourism Office in their visit to Ambrym.