Thursday, 26 September 2013


It’s been a while since I blogged and this is in response to a question no one has actually asked me yet:

What sort of music are they into in Papua New Guinea ?

This has been inspired not just by the theft of my MP3 player but also by some of my recent experiences in meeting musicians and artists here. If the missing MP3 player is an indication of local taste then the population here enjoy their rock music including Metallica , Slayer and Rival Sons. As yet, however, I have not seen anyone seriously rocking out so I suspect that my music has been wiped and replaced with ‘Morobe Feelings’ or something equally interesting.  If you haven’t heard it here you go: 

PNG isn’t really on the ‘stadium band’ circuit but the local music here is fascinating, and as I’m beginning to discover the local musicians are also very talented. My long terms friends will know that I have a passion for drums (and occasionally drummers) and any band with more than one drummer gets my vote. So imagine my great excitement the first time I heard a Garamut or three of them at the same time. These musicians came from Manus Island and played with such intensity and passion I was quite caught up. I loved to see how the beat created such excitement in the children, and the accompanying dancing involved a lot of leg kicking, jumping and shouting. 

I found one clip of three drums – but you need to turn the volume up to 11 to get the real impact.

A little research told me that the Garamut is usually played at sacred ceremonies, communal celebrations and dances. It’s made from a hollowed out log and can come in lots of different sizes.  I’ve also been told that because of its resonance it can be used for long distance communication and standing close to one of the big ones you get that thump in your chest (a little like a Prodigy gig). It’s used instead of a church bell in some places. It is worth getting close to one because each Garamut has intricate designs on its handles and body to indicate the area of PNG that it comes from.  

The hand held drum here is called a Kundu and it is an hourglass shape and used during tribal dances by both men and women. I recently attended the Goroka Show which was three days of outstanding performances of singing, dancing and drumming. Getting together for these events is called a ‘sing sing’ but it’s much more than singing, it’s awesome performances, some of which would have Lamb of God wincing. I watched one group of young boys with kundu drums perform a dance that ended with two boys holding their arms in the air while another broke a cane across the outstretched arm.  I watched an equally unsettling performance of ‘Cane Swallowing where a group of young men poked canes down into their bellies to the sound of an eerie pan pipe.

I found this interesting if very colonial reference to Cane Swallowing from 1934

Each Sing Sing group had up to 20 drums and there were at least 100 groups in the field at the time so the combined rhythm of all the drums, plus the singing and the dancing meant that the ground was shaking and the whole air was filled with sound. I felt simultaneously uplifted and energised, a little intimidated and also rather impressed with the physique of some of the performers (perhaps more like a Metallica gig).  Its 20 years since I studied anthropology but I reckon that that’s what the war paint and noise is for; to assert one’s own identity, prove you are more powerful than your neighbours and show off to the opposite sex. I was impressed by the stamina and dedication of the performers who were there all day, some wearing hot and heavy costumes, including one group who were wearing fireproof headdresses which had a small fire burning inside.  One group of young people were making music with old plastic pipes which they hit with flip flops. The highlight for me however was being invited onto the VIP stage to meet the Governor not just because she is a powerful and inspiring woman, but also from a higher viewpoint I spotted a circle of dancers forming in the centre. So I left my bilum and joined in the PNG mosh pit. Holding hands in the heat with two strangers either side of me jumping up and down in total synchronicity was great fun and everyone was so accommodating of the mad white meri who wanted to join in.  The need to jump up and down and make noise clearly transcends cultures. 

Whilst in Goroka I also attended a rehearsal of children in the church orchestra where over 20 young people demonstrated great talent and a dedication to practice. I discovered that the church helps them to purchase their own instruments and I listened to some beautiful hymns being played. It was lovely that they had learned ‘When I’m 64’ to celebrate my friend’s birthday.   

Music is a huge part of PNG life. Buk bilong Pikinini has very talented pianists, guitar players and vocalists working in the libraries teaching children to love their musical heritage and using song lyrics to teach children to read.  The libraries recently held their own Cultural Event where each library dressed up and performed songs, dances and poems. I was honoured that the ladies of Koki dressed me up and painted my face and body so I could join in the dancing. There was a moment with all the children in their PNG flag t shirts, and national dress, singing ‘My Land is a Land of High Mountains’ that will stay with me till I am an old woman. 

So what sort of music are they into in Papua New Guinea? 

All of it 

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