Much of the music of Papua New Guinea 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 string band music. The Paramana Strangers is the most popular and enduring of PNG string bands, having formed in the 1960s and continued in generational incarnations–version II, as seen in this video, being the children of the original members, version III being their children–ever since.
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Papua New Guinea’s “Tok Pisin,” also known as Melanesian Pidgin English or Neo-Melanesian, began as a “pidgin/creole” language blending English, German, Malay, Portuguese and local “Austronesian” languages and has transformed into a developing language in its own right. Like most “pidgins,” Tok Pisin developed in the colonial era as a mix of the colonizer’s language (in PNG’s case, English) and local dialects (in Tok Pisin’s case, primarily the local language of Tolai). Linguists disagree about whether its grammatical structure is based upon that of specific local languages or if it only developed when the first generations of speakers, those children who grew up speaking Tok Pisin rather than the more complex originating languages of English or the local tongues, imposed some sort of “default grammar humans are born with” (as Wikipedia’s entry on Tok Pisin puts it) to the language their parents had taught them.
Being multilingual is the norm for Papua New Guinea; the nation boasts over 800 indigenous languages. Unlike its neighbor Australia, with its dry, open landscape British colonizers committed to tame, PNG has ample rain which feeds ample, dense rainforests that amply intimidated German, British and eventually Australian colonial forces into staying put along the coast. This enabled Papuan villagers to maintain their cultural customs, including their languages. Though many languages of Papua New Guinea continue to be highly local, claim less than 1000 native speakers and are in near threat of extinction, a good number are still viable and active.
“Waitpela Gras” is song by Papua New Guinea’s treasured singer George Telek, on his excellent Real World Recods release “Serious Tam.” It’s a lighthearted song that references happy times — the fun feel of banana peels, grandma’s white hair, a mother’s love. Telek hails from the village of Raluana in PNG’s East New Britain. He often records in the Tolai language of Kuanuan, though “Waitpela Gras” is in Tok Pisin, the nation’s widely-spoken pidgin/English hybrid.
“Singsing” is the Tok Pisin term for the elaborate festivals held all over Papua New Guinea that feature theatrically choreographed dance and vocal performances by PNG villagers. Each of the many performing/competing groups comes to a Papuan singsing to represent its own village’s unique songs, dances, language and culture. The costumes and makeup are extensive, the harmonies are complex and the competition is intense. While in a sense the most popular singsings, like the one in Mt. Hagen featured in this video, are events sculpted for tourists, and while the truth is that most PNG villagers wear Western clothes and don’t paint their faces when they live day to day, Papua New Guineans value singsings as a time to revel in the beauty of their local cultures.
Today, in our online classes for kids, we are introducing Papua New Guinea (“PNG”), a Melanesian country that occupies the eastern half the world’s second-largest island–just a bit north of Australia–which it shares with Indonesia’s West Papua. Unlike Australia, with a dry, open landscape British colonizers committed to tame, PNG has ample rain which feeds ample, dense rainforests that amply intimidated German, British and eventually Australian colonial forces into staying on the coast. While we’re in PNG this week we’re going to sing Papuan songs, celebrate a phenomenal cultural competition and turn imaginary straw into imaginary wigs.