Preserving Papua’s Iconic Tifa

Papua province is not only rich in natural resources, it is also home to countless diverse and unique cultures.

Among Papua’s signature cultural symbols is a traditional music instrument called Tifa, whose name has become synonymous with the province.

In the simplest terms, Tifa is a percussion instrument. Though it produces music when struck, like several traditional Indonesian instruments, what makes Tifa stand out is its close association with folklore and verbal traditions.

Different tribes have passed on their own myths and stories on the origins of the Tifa. According to one version prevalent in Biak, the instrument was first wrought by an orphaned boy from the village. As the story goes, the boy had been invited to a party, which every villager had been asked to attend.

As was custom then, all the villagers attending the party had to bring something from home. This saddened the boy, who did not have anything to bring.

It was while he was walking in the forest thinking about this that he chanced upon a lizard, who was striking his stomach and producing a sound very similar to a percussion instrument. When the lizard asked him why he looked unhappy, the boy told him of his predicament.

The lizard told the boy to take its skin, burn it on a staff, then cut it in a circular pattern, and mount it on a piece of wood. He told the boy the instrument thus fashioned would produce a unique and distinctive sound when struck repeatedly.

The boy followed his advice and played the instrument at the party. When one of the Tribal Chiefs asked him what he was playing, the boy said it was a “sreb”.

From that day on, the people of Biak call the Tifa a sreb. The story illustrates how the Tifa is deeply-entrenched in the history of the Papuan people.

In the modern era, the story may sound too much like a myth, but it’s the very belief and appreciation of the story that has prompted Papuans to preserve the Tifa for a very long time now.

According to the head of the Tourism Department of Jayapura, Chris K. Tokoro, the Tifa is not an instrument that can be played by just anyone. It serves a specific purpose, he said.

The Tifa is commonly played during traditional rituals, welcoming guests, and even as a war cry, he explained.

Traditionally, the Tifa has mainly been played by men, in keeping with traditional teachings about gender roles in Papua, which require men to lead women in all aspects of life. Compliance with gender roles is seen as a way to respect and honor ancestral values by Papuans.

In Papua, another notable occasion when the Tifa is played is Sing-sing, when various tribes gather to showcase their respective cultures.

These gatherings are held in order to exchange knowledge of their traditions so they can learn from one another. This demonstrates the Tifa’s power to bring Papuans together.

The Tifa is called “eme” by the Asmat people, “Kalin Kla” in Teminabuan, “Wachu” in Sentani, “Sirep” or “Sandio” in Biak, and “Kandara” by the Mali Anim people.

The people of Papua are not only preserving the Tifa as a symbol of their culture, but also developing a way to make it a financially beneficial item to sell. The Tifa is thus playing an important role in the economy of Papua.

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