The National Bank Museum has two drums in its collection. Acquired from South-East Asia, the objects were regarded by some indigenous communities as the most highly valued means of payment. The first drum, the moko, is part of the Museum’s permanent exhibition, while the second one, the kyee-zee, is stored in the reserves. The two drums may have been held in high economic esteem because of their strong ritual value. As little is known about these instruments in our part of the world, we have decided that this month’s Spotlight/Object should be focused on these items.
Kyee-zees, or ‘Shan drums’, were used by the Karen people, an ethnic group living in the mountain ranges of South-East Asia, mainly in Burma and the western region of Thailand. Regarding these drums as a link with their ancestors, the Karen often used them during ceremonial festivities and burials. Anyone who owned a kyee-zee assumed a special status within the tribe. As the drums were thought to be indicative of wealth, they also offered a kind of security, during times of famine, for example, when their owners would not be faced with the same fear as all the others. Consequently, these instruments could trigger off disputes within tribes.
If a drum were stolen and never returned the hate generated between the people involved would be passed on from generation to generation. The feud would die down only when the stolen kyee-zee was replaced by another one or when a man from the offending tribe was handed over to the other tribe. Kyee-zees were typically part of marriage dowries. This was also the custom amongst the Lamet people in Laos, who had the Karen to thank for their exposure to drums.
Among the many other names kyee-zees are sometimes called ‘Shan drums’ because they were made by the tribe with the same name. The members of the tribe would exchange their instruments with the Karen for food or everyday items. The drums were also known as ‘rain drums’ or ‘frog drums’, as references to the sound of thunder or the croaking of frogs, both of which herald rain. The Karen people believed that playing the drum would incite the frogs to start croaking and rain would fall on the land, thus ensuring bumper harvests and, by extension, prosperity. The frog reference is continued with the 3D depiction of theses creatures on the drums. A kyee-zee’s value would also vary according to its sound quality and how old it was. The drums remained in circulation until the 20th century.
The moko was first mentioned as a means of payment on the Indonesian island of Alor back in 1851. It was also known on the neighbouring islands of Solor and Pantar. The oldest objects of this type date back to the Bronze Age.
It is unclear how the instrument reached Alor, although its shape is akin to similar objects found on other South-East Asian islands, such as Bali. That is where the oldest bronze kettle drum, called Moon of Pejeng, can still be found, in the Pejeng temple. The inhabitants claimed mokos were found in the ground after being sent by the gods. As mokos from other regions, particularly Java, became much more available during the 19th century, this increased the value of the older instruments, which were increasingly used as a means of payment. Mokos served as the most valuable method of payment, followed by gongs and pigs, whereas arrows served as small change. Each moko had its own unique decoration, either with foliage motifs or dancing figures. As the drums were very highly valued by the inhabitants of Alor, they generally tended to be used in three different ways. First of all to pay for the dowry of a future bride. A marriage was based on an intricate exchange between families not only in the early days but also throughout the entire marriage. Hence the need for mutual payments. In order to become officially engaged, the young man in question would have to offer a moko to the father of his lady-love and a shawl to her mother. The two families would then enter a period of negotiations. The man’s family would pay the future bride’s family roughly three times as much as she received. As soon as the most valuable moko was given as a marriage payment, the fiancée would go to live with her in-laws. The rest of the dowry would be provided at a later stage. Apart from being used for marriage purposes, mokos also played a key role in the context of burials. As with the Karen people, the inhabitants of Alor regarded the drums as a link with their ancestors and they were handed down from generation to generation.
Lastly, mokos also served as a means of payment when building a house, which meant several years would go by before the planned dwelling could be constructed, as mokos were not readily available.
A moko’s precise value would vary according to its history, reputation, sentimental value, ritual purpose and its magical properties. Its value was also a reflection of how many mokos were available within a community, while the drum’s condition was of no importance.
The steady supply of mokos ended up creating monetary concerns. The steps the Dutch colonial authorities took to deal with this issue early in the 20th century led to a legislative reform in 1914, whereby the use of the moko as a monetary unit was gradually abolished, to be replaced by silver or copper coins. The instruments were still being used to pay taxes during the 1913-1914 period. Consequently, over 1000 mokos were handed in to the colonisers, who immediately had them destroyed. Conversely, mokos continued to be used to pay for marriage settlements, along with pigs, goats, fabrics and food. As the ownership of a moko was of huge importance for the people of Alor, it was vital to ensure the instruments were properly stored. They were generally kept in people’s dwellings, in a kind of attic with just one entrance reached via the home itself so it was impossible to go in and out without being seen. A drum would also be kept in a safe place in the event of a dispute about its ownership.
Accordingly, as soon as a good hiding place was found this would obviously be kept a secret. Owning a moko was a guarantee of wealth and prestige. The most expensive ones were therefore extremely precious and did not belong to just one individual. They represented the wealth of an entire family or a village. These shared mokos were in fact hardly ever used as a means of payment, for nothing on the island of Alor was equal in value to these objects.
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