For fifty thousand years of Papua New Guinea’s habitation PNG islanders have been singing, singing and singing. Music in PNG is central to the development of tribal identity; the fact that each tribe has its own songs helps differentiate each from the other but also serves as a prelude to, or a substitute for, actual war.
The interior of PNG is so rugged and isolated that even today the music of many indigenous peoples continues to exist in its original language and according to its original forms. There are some common instruments such as bamboo flutes and slit drums, while certain groups have adopted particular drums and instruments such as the bullroarer for specific ritual purposes.
On the coast, music has developed as a hybrid of indigenous, Melanesian, Polynesian, European and East Asian influences. Since the early days of colonization Christian missionaries, gold miners and seafarers brought their own instruments and merged their songs with local music. For example, World War II-era American and Australian soldiers and sailors introduced guitars and ukuleles to PNG resulting in the development of a distinct PNG style of stringband music. The Paramana Strangers is the most popular and enduring of PNG stringbands, having formed in the 1960s and continued in generational incarnations–version II being the children of the original members, version III being their children–ever since. (Listen to clips of Paramana Strangers III’s stringband music on iTunes.)
In the 1970s the “bamboo band” style from the Solomon Islands became popular in PNG. In bamboo, musicians pound out rhythms by slapping bamboo tubes of varying sizes with plastic flip flops. The Wagi Brothers are PNG’s most widely known bamboo band. (See PNG bamboo in action on YouTube. This one’s pretty great too.) In the ’70s and early ’80s another PNG band, Sanguma, forged new hybrid territory by fusing Papuan roots with global jazz and funk. (For an example, check out a clip of Sanguma’s “Namilai” or “Sugu Kumpa” on iTunes.)
Since the 1990s George Telek has been the most prominent Papua New Guinean world fusion star. We’ll learn about him below.
National Geographic’s overview of PNG music | Who are the greatest PNG musicians of all time? |Â Learn about some of the PNG’s more unique instruments, such as the nose flute, the slit drum, the bamboo jews harp and the sepik flute | PNG’s University of Goroka’s Chanted Tales Project is documenting and recording the oral traditions
of the Central Highlands
In class we’re going to listen to:
— Telek: “Waitpela Gras”
During the 1990s PNG’s locally beloved singer/songwrtier George Telek became an international star when he seamlessly blended rock, reggae, stringband music and indigenous Papuan three-part harmonies on the album “Serious Tam,” released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. Telek hails from the Tolai village of Raluana, near the city of Rabaul in East New Britain and sings both in Tok Pisin and the Tolai language of Kuanuan. He started his musical career in the ’70s, playing in popular stringbands such as The Moab Stringband and The Jolly Roger Stringband before joining The Kagan Devils, The Unbelievers Revival Band and eventually the rock group Painim Wok (“looking for work”) which was PNG’s biggest rock band in the 80’s. His collaboration with Australian musician David Bridie, “Tabaran,” broke new ground by fusing Papua New Guinean and Australian sounds. He has since continued to record new music and tour internationally but he remains a dedicated PNG artist, still living and creating in Raluana.
In class we sing our versions of two Telek songs: “Waitpela Gras” and “Lamagit.”
More about Telek:
Telek’s home page: “Telek is a band, a man and, in some parts of the world a legend.” | Telek’s biography | Listen to clips from “Serious Tam” | Hear “Waitpela Gras” on YouTube | Watch
Telek perform in the rousing David Bridie production, “Singsing”
— OShen: “Burn it Up”
O-Shen’s unique road to international reggae stardom began in Papua New Guinea where his white American missionary parents raised him until he was fifteen. When they returned to Spokane, Washington, O-Shen (born Jason Hershey) had a difficult time fitting in and eventually ended up getting into trouble. (A little burglary, a few years in prison.) After his release O-Shen returned to Papua New Guinea and from there relocated to Hawaii where his PNG-based roots reggae has not only become increasingly popular but also more confidently multilingual–his album “FaYa!” includes songs in Yabim, Rigo, Nakanai, Kiwai and Niugini pidgin.Â
Review of “FaYa” and an interview with O-Shen: “Raised and educated in the village of Butaweng (population 1,500), a community where neighbors took care of one another, a strong sense of cultural identity was imprinted early in life, and no one judged anyone by the color of their skin, O-Shen suddenly found himself in a world where it was far easier to get by burying his identity instead of celebrating it.” | Watch O-Shen sing “Meri Lawa” in a boat. From the video description: “O-Shen is an American White boy who grew up in the Morobe Provice of my homeland Papua New Guinea. This is for all you heart broken island boys. Wan fit mangi stret!”