Own the masks, own the power – The hidden secrets behind the Rom dance


vanuatu cultural masks Watching the famous Rom dance at the annual Fanla Art Festival on Ambrym Island, I am mesmerised by the elaborate costumes and the sheer power and grace of the dancers. I’m also a little scared.

Moments earlier the watching crowd had scattered with alarm as two of the ROM dancers leapt out of the nasara (the dance ground) and began running through the village. Those not quick enough to get out of their way received a hard whack from the dancers’ metre-long ceremonial bamboo clubs.

“Sometimes this happens during Rom, so if you see them coming towards you fast, then you may need to get out of the way too,” said a grinning Freddie Roromal. Roromal is the son of the chief of the village and my host for the day.

“The Rom dancers are wearing tatabe masks today, which in our language means movement, so they can’t stop moving once they put on their masks.”

“Although they are being guided by the small group of chiefs and high-ranking warriors in the middle of the nasara, there are times when the spirits of the masks take control of the dancers and they cannot stop them.”

ambrymIt makes me wonder….who or what exactly are these ‘spirits’ and why are the masks considered the most powerful and important part of the dance and the kastom ceremony?

As it turns out, the answer is far more fascinating and complicated than I ever imagined. Think of the Rom dance as part séance, part traditional dance ceremony and part political rally. Not only are the elaborate Rom masks a gateway for the ancestor spirits to manifest themselves in the real world but they are an integral part of the grade taking maghe system that defines kastom life.

It’s a bit like training for your black belt in karate, but instead of learning kicks, throws and punches, you are learning dance moves, kastom secrets and magic. To become a great chief, you need to reach the higher grades and the ROM masks are the stepping stones (politically and socially) to achieve this.

But not just anyone can do this. Your first step is to find a chief who owns the design to a Rom mask and ask if you can purchase it. According to John Willie, a multi-lingual guide from Fanla, this involves offers of pigs, money, food and a willingness to learn the secrets of kastom life. You also have to earn the trust of the community and the chiefs. Grade taking is a privilege not a right.

“We use masks for lots of ceremonies in our society, initiation ceremonies, circumcision ceremonies, Rom ceremonies. They are a symbol of power,” Willie said.

“But Rom masks are very special. Their secrets are only known by the chiefs and their designs contain powerful magic. They are very beautiful but they can also be very dangerous.”

ROM dancersSo much so that in past years, the Rom masks and costumes were ceremonially burnt at the end of the festival to avoid any bad spirits escaping and haunting the village. These days the masks are kept in a special place that is taboo except to the owners of the mask.

Different levels of grade-taking require the purchase of different types of Rom masks; Rom kon, Rom tatabe, Rom ten, Rom tatoro. Each mask has its own unique designs, meanings, dance ceremonies and spiritual power.

In other words, whoever owns the masks, owns the power.

Willie goes on to explain that once a buyer has agreed to purchase the design of a Rom mask, the owner of the mask makes his nakamal (meeting place) tabu so he can meet the buyer in privacy and teach him the secrets behind the colours and shape of the mask.

Interestingly, the buyer may choose not wear the mask himself during the Rom ceremony. He can invite other trusted men to pay to enter the nakamal where they practise the dance for days on his behalf and learn the secrets of their ancestors. As a result, all the men benefit from an increase in kastom knowledge as well as societal status.

The Rom ceremony officially begins the night before the dance with the ‘unveiling’ of the masks (usually done at sunset). Like every year, the paramount chiefs of Ambrym gather together for this auspicious ceremony and perform a number of dances and rituals to prepare the masks and the ceremonial grounds for the unveiling. It’s a humbling and highly ritualistic experience, especially as the nasara descends into twilight. You can almost feel the ancestor spirits getting restless in their nearby graves as the dancing reaches its peak, readying themselves for their resurrection and release the coming day.

rom danceWhen the masks are finally revealed, a hush descends on the nasara. The wood and banana fibre creations are stunningly beautiful and their silky white beards and hair seem to glow in the half light. Our guide, John Willie, is quick to point out that each of the masks is slightly different, both in design, power and significance.

“Some of the mask designs are worth far more than others. You will see this tomorrow when the new owners of the masks come to pay for them. Many pigs will be sacrificed.”

The entire scene is reminiscent of a National Geographic centrefold; a timeless ritual that has probably stretched back centuries on this island, proud warriors and chiefs resplendent in their traditional nambas (penis sheaths), framed by glowing ROM masks and the towering wooden tam tams of their sacred dance ground.

The following morning the forest near the nasara is alive with strange music and movement. The ROM dancers have arrived! They are twitching and twirling in a small clearing and their leg rattles (made of nuts from the “wombal” tree) create waves of clacking rhythms that wash over the nearby crowds and mirror their nervous energy. Suddenly, all the dancers begin moving purposefully towards the nasara, led by the chiefs and high-ranking warriors. The ceremony has begun!

Beautiful, powerful, mesmerising, scary…a traditional ROM costume is all this and more. It consists of a tall, intricately painted triangular mask framed by white hair and a glowing white beard sitting atop a thick cloak of dried banana leaves (not to mention the ceremonial fighting stick so feared by the attending villagers). The overall effect is otherworldly, a spirit manifesting itself in a vaguely human form, art and magic intertwined.

In Fanla, the ROM tatabe dancers twitch and shake and dance with almost superhuman intensity inside their elaborate costumes. In fact, after entering the nasara, the dancing doesn’t stop for almost three hours, urged on by the cries of the chiefs and warriors and the relentless rhythm of the tam tam drums.

It’s a physical and spiritual marathon that seems to defy the limits of human endurance and their rhythmic stamping is so powerful it actually shakes the ground underneath our feet. Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine the stamping as the tremors of a mini-earthquake, telegraphing a series of potent messages to the spirit world around them. We are here, we welcome you, join us….

The hypnotic rhythms rise and fall throughout the morning and the dancers respond accordingly, until with a final burst of energy the dancing and the drumming finishes. The silence is palpable, but it doesn’t last for long. Soon the air is filled with the cries of pigs being dragged into the centre of the nasara, where they are ritually sacrificed and payments of food and money are handed over to the owners of the of mask designs.

vanuatu custom danceOwn the masks, own the power.

As I leave the nasara, I ask Freddie Roromal if he is worried about the village’s kastom traditions dying out in the face of a relentless onslaught of western style clothes, lifestyles, money and religions (the village has two churches – Presbyterian and 7th Day Adventist).

“Yes, we are all worried about this. Understanding kastom is knowing about your culture, your ancestors and your land. We are teaching our young men how to carve, how to participate in kastom ceremonies and activities. We are encouraging the local schools to teach our local language as well as Bislama,” said Roromal.

“What we have in Ambrym is unique and we don’t want to lose it.”

The Fanla Art Festival will be held again on July 16-17, 2019. Freddie Roromal can be contacted on 7716316. Accommodation and festival packages can be organised by Wrecks to Rainforest.

Story and photography courtesy of Alex Bortoli.


The Kastom Story of the ROM Mask
There are a number of versions of this story on Ambrym depending on who you ask and which village you come from. But they all seem to have similar lesson at their core.
In Fanla, the story goes that a wife who was afraid of her husband decided she would leave him and return to her own village. The brother of the husband found out and made a mask and costume designed to scare her. He hid in the jungle and waited for her to sneak out, then he scared her so badly she returned to her husband’s hut and did come out again until she had his baby! The chief decided he would keep the mask for himself as it was too powerful for others to use.
In Olul, the story goes that two women unhappy with their boyfriends ran away into the jungle, but after a while they began missing them and agreed to make a mask in their likeness. The women sat on either side of a large banyan tree and made their own individual masks, but when they confronted each other they discovered they’d made the same mask! They went back to the village and showed the chief, who realised the power inside each mask. He asked the women to show him how they made the masks and then killed both of them so he could keep the secret knowledge for himself.
In other Ambrym Villages – the story goes there was once a woman in love with a man who was not interested in her. In order to win his attention, she made a ROM mask and costume and seduced him. She did not reveal her identity but instead beckoned him to follow her into the bush. When they were there, she took off the mask and revealed herself and the man was amazed – he thought she was a spirit of some kind. He asked her to show him how she had made the mask and the costume. When she had done so he killed her so that only he would possess its power and be able to pass on the knowledge of the mask and the costume.
The upshot of all the stories is that women are now not allowed to touch a ROM mask – it is strictly tabu – and only a powerful chief can know all its secrets.

The Power of Symbolism

Every aspect of the ROM dance has meaning, from the designs and decorations on the mask to the ceremonial clubs and ankle rattles. This symbolism also extends to the chiefs and high-ranking warriors/mages dancing alongside the ROM dancers. High-ranking chiefs will often wear red flowers in their hair, symbolising pride, majesty, knowledge and strength. The red flowers are indicative of their high position in kastom society. Nearly all chiefs also wear the boar tooth necklace, a symbol of power and wealth. In some cases, a mage or a chief will wear a namale leaf on their back, signifying peace while others will wear distinctive white fowl feathers in their hair, meaning safety, peace and majesty. It seems that symbolism pervades all aspects of kastom society and this is especially visible during the ROM dance ceremony.