Papua New What?

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Sometime in the middle of the last century, it became obvious that the guitar was one of the world’s most pervasive musical instruments. Myriad cultures have filtered complex traditions through its five to ten strings in acoustic or electric forms. From the Congo to Cuba, Nashville to New York, the guitar is the de facto medium of musical expression after the drum. So then it shouldn’t be surprising when the guitar pops up in less-expected places, in locations that are isolated enough that one assumes they would have incurred relatively little influence from the Western world.

When I first heard a recording of guitar bands from Papua New Guinea several years ago, however, I was shocked. I wasn’t surprised that Papua New Guineans, or to be precise, those of the Kaluli ethnicity who appeared on the record, had obtained guitars or played them with ease or even facility (I’d heard stories of previously unknown African or South American tribes coming out of the jungle with pre-formed rock ensembles, the instruments salvaged from a missionary plane crash). Western-influenced music from the developing world frequently has a raw sound, indicative of the disconnect of influence, but these PNG bands performed with so much ease as to imply that guitars had been in their culture for eons.

Many Papua New Guinean guitar bands (locally known as “stringbands”) are fronted by a husband-wife duo and feature a dense backing guitar ensemble. Most songs function as performances of mourning, but the foreign listener would not necessarily be aware of this given their upbeat rhythms and melodies. For Westerners, the Papua New Guinea stringband listening experience is simultaneously one of nostalgia and discovery: musically, there appear to be influences ranging from Delta blues to Hawaiian guitar to southeast Asian pop, but the PNG stringband sound stands on its own in comparison to the synthesized fusion-emulations of Western beats coming from other parts of Asia and Africa.

The reason that you’ve never heard of Papua New Guinea stringbands before is that they do not have a major profile in the “world music” scene: groups like BVDC Stringband or the Alir Pukai Stringband have not likely toured abroad. There are, however, two well-assembled collections of PNG music released in the U.S. The most recent, 2005’s Songs of the Volcano, is a collaboration between the Tolai people of Rabaul, PNG, and Bob Brozman, a globe-trotting steel guitarist in the tradition of Buena Vista Social Club’s sugar daddy, Ry Cooder. With a traveling recording studio, Brozman and his local collaborators produced a tight, seamless sound.

My personal preference is for the 2001 multi-disc set, Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea. The fact that the latter release was produced by the Smithsonian Institute and compiled by an ethnomusicologist (Steve Feld) may make some readers run for the hills, but the genuine pathos and raw expression on the first CD, entirely dedicated to stringbands, puts the layered ironic “modern love songs” of the Magnetic Fields and their ilk to shame. Bosavi’s tracks were largely recorded outdoors in natural environments and include background sounds that add to their ambiance.

Luckily, you may not even have to purchase either of these records. Below is Gusuwa String Band’s “Long Ago” from Bosavi, featuring a typical male-female harmony and guitar variations that exemplify the style and tradition. If you do like the song, check out Brozman or Feld’s release: proceeds from both go directly to the musicians in PNG.

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