Favourite titles

Favourite titles
Whether it is "Redefining literary techniques and devices", "Justifying Papua New Guinea Literature", or "Translating the Bible into Anuki", these offer valuable reading for the paperless student of literature, and indeed the best sort of literary entertainment you can get out of Papua New Guinea. Check them out either on Soaba's Storyboard or The Anuki Country Press.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Smooth Operators

The taste of the salt wind...
 There is a saying among dinghy operators in the Cape Vogel area that the moment you reach the decision to travel during rough weather, there is no turning back. “Once you get that 40 horse power going – don’t turn back,” they say with the click-swish of the thumb across the throat. And they are serious with that remark. A panic-ridden decision to turn back in mid journey might have terrible consequences. Many lives have been lost in this part of the Cape Vogel Basin through such errors in judgment.

A dinghy operator in that area professes to be an experienced sailor. He knows the nature of the tide and the current that flows with it. He knows the taste of the salt wind that touches the hair of the skin and what that might mean a few minutes later in the journey. And just by feeling the strength of the surge of tide against his vessel, he can tell how far he is from land, even if he has no compass nor stars to guide him. When the waves get bigger and fiercer, lancing white teeth at his vessel from virtually all directions, he knows when to hum down on the drone of the 40hp throttle and when to rev it up, as if dancing along with them and all the while allowing his 23 or so footer to surf, not cut or surge through, atop and along one before landing with ease at the side of the next. The passengers in turn place their trust in the operator because they know he will get them home.

Sometimes the weather gets so bad fog and mist cover much of Goodenough Bay and if a dinghy happens to be out there, it can quite likely stray towards the Solomon Sea or Trobriand group of islands and further beyond. One cannot even see the mainland from which one had sailed out. Even in that situation, the operator can tell how far he is offshore by simply watching the waves converge. Each time the waves converge, forming a formidable looking apex somewhat – that indicates a meeting point of the incoming tide with the receding one. He then knows he is not too far off from land.

One of the fascinating sights to behold is the way the operator and his crew ease out the dinghy to the depths in the fog of morning light, as their passengers settle themselves securely on their seats before each journey. While there is so much anxiety about how the weather might turn out as the sun rises, the crew carries on the usual ritual of wading into the water and tasting the salt from the finger tips. Some crew members stand up front and, on the pretext of lighting a spear, determine the speed of the salt wind before giving the signal for the operator to start up the engine.

At this point we should give those dinghy operators a hand for the wonderful work they do in transporting their passengers as well as goods and services from main centres like Alotau to their villages and back. Though they may not look fashionable or crafty as much as mysteriously elusive as the “Western male” in Madam Helen Folasade Adu’s jazz rendering of the phrase, they are indeed, and in this context, our “smooth operators” in the banana boat mode of transport.

But storyboard’s reasons for mentioning this crop of dinghy operators in a Milne Bay setting like Cape Vogel are as follows.

Firstly, the good work that Charles Abel has done by providing all the LLG wards in his electorate with dinghies. The dinghies serve their purpose at communal level in the areas of health, education and certain awareness programs that come under the auspices of AusAID and UNDP, including insertions of programs from various NGO entities such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics and VITAL (vernacular initiatives in scriptural as well as literacy workshops). These programs would not work easily or successfully without the availability of these Samarai Plastic products such as the 23foot banana boat or the 18/19foot outboard motor. For that Charles Abel as much as his group of dinghy operators from Suau to Midino must be commended.

Secondly, the Cape Vogel Basin remains quite certainly the most ignored area of the country by the PNG Government, not outsiders, and this has been evident for the last 40 years. During the last 5 decades no development program under the trade mark of this government or those previously has reached the Cape Vogel area. We have seen glimpses of one man’s efforts so far, and these come in the form of dinghies and their smooth operators that we talk about. Michael Somare has never in all his years as Prime Minister heard of Cape Vogel.  

Turn the coin, however, and what do you see? This particular area, though remote and insignificant in the eyes of innumerable PNG governments and their land developers, braces to welcome the global community as the final and certainly the largest of resource locations there is ever to be found. What the people of this area are doing nowadays is preparing themselves for that day. How will they handle the enormous wealth that lies buried deep within their land and under their seabeds?  

For the present each village makes do with whatever its people can afford; in lighting up a village with generators, for example; or working in collaborative partnerships with certain NGO factions in the areas of health, literacy and education. And though the whole region (Rabaraba District) looks agriculturally poor, there is often abundance of food and meat made available.

A well-respected politician and academic from the Nipa-Kutubu area, who had never made it to Parliament, thank God, once looked at that area of the Milne Bay Province and remarked: “You people are the tiller at the end of the boat that steers the nation along. Liken Papua New Guinea to a dinghy that tilts its head up when the 40hp engine is revved up. There, you can see your significance as the operator of the nation clearly.”       

Friday, 5 November 2010

Poetry is the right word the right time

The ever popular Hetei Dickson singing "Sail Away" at the Murray Barracks.
A genteel folk and jazz artist like Tracy Chapman would probably ruminate for days before settling down to pluck out the right words at the right time on her guitar. Words surely don’t come easy in poetry, eh?

But in the Milne Bay Province they do.

There, poetry is always the right word sung at the right time. It does not matter when you sing it: in the 50s, 60s, 70s or the 80s; or right up to the present; it comes naturally through the avenue of the five key bars on the guitar; and at any time. And anytime is always the right time.

Come away to the islands
Down eastern Papua way

See what storyboard means? Whether it is Harry Belafonte, BB King or Chet Atkins one has in mind these would be synonymous with Kulusia and Hetei Dickson. Kulusia and Hetei Dickson are indeed the blues and jazz, the country and folk of the Milne Bay Province. In the 60s and 70s young people throughout Papua New Guinea came to schools and even to towns humming Kulusia or Hetei. And if those tunes weren’t about those idyllic settings of swaying palms and lovely beaches then they would be about a certain location called Logea, the centre of Milne Bay music.

How many of you men and women of the 60s and 70s today, for example, can deny ever singing or at least humming Kai, kai, kai Logea mo? Storyboard has contemporaries from the Eastern and Western Highlands who can sing Kai Logea better than he. And they can handle the five key bars very well, too. By which remark we mean to say that Kulusia and Hetei Dickson are our national heritage, our treasures in poetry, music and dance.

And that is part of an idea which storyboard went to witness at a fund raiser organized by prominent lawyer and musician, Allan Baniamai. This was two Saturdays ago at the Sergeants’ Mess of the Murray Barracks. A fair crowd gathered there, consisting mostly of little family groupings from Milne Bay. And it was nice hearing Hetei sing again.

Baniamai’s idea of such gatherings is to bring music and poetry together, a little like what John Kaniku did around Port Moresby in the 70s and 80s. In these gatherings, and as each family enjoys the food and feasting, there must be a poem read, a song sung, a little drama performed and a new format of choreography put to test – all the time ensuring that creativity stays alive and useful as a communal pastime. But most of all to promote new and upcoming Milne Bay musicians right in the midst of celebrities like Hetei Dickson. 

The new and popular band being promoted at this Murray Barracks fund raiser was Peter Philemon & The Charms Band. They were fantastic in representing songs in all the languages of the Milne Bay Province. They sang all the songs. When they came to singing a song called “Niworoa”, in the Are language, a language closer to where storyboard comes from, the rain fell.

But beyond all that Allan Baniamai wanted to express something deeper: that as Papua New Guineans music has always been part of our lives for the last, one might say, 50 years. That is, speaking strictly in “contemporary” terms and from our perspective. We do have a rich culture of music prior to that, but when it comes to translating part of that onto the bars of imported instruments such as the guitar and the ukulele, our very life in that bracket of the music world has been in existence since soon after World War II.

And it was out of that imported experience that we would in the 50s and 60s have musicians such as Kulusia and Hetei Dickson emerging into national prominence. Those were also days when names such as Skeeter Davis, Slim Dusty, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, etc, proved influential in our musical sensibilities. But despite all that “influence” notice what Kulusia was doing to Milne Bay music overall. When interviewed by Radio Milne Bay in 1972, his reply to the code word “how” was as awesome as any ethnomusicologist would want to look for and discover: “I walk along the beach with a kipa board. I hold the board against the wind. How the wind strikes a strand of that kipa board is the first note of my song.”

Thus, the creation or composition of the classic Mana eo bagodu (Wind and waves).

The word “kipa” is not, by the by, a Suau word, the lingua franca of the Logea/Kwato area. It is a Cape Vogel word. The kipa board in modern terms translates as the keyboard instrument. Kipa is part of a sago palm. Shed the leaves, split the palm in half, scrape the inside a little and you’ll see the strands, as fine as guitar strings.

None of that recorded interview with Kulusia survives today, either at the studios of Radio Milne Bay, Alotau, or at those of the National Broadcasting Commission, Port Moresby. Modern technology has driven much of the old apparatus of tape recorders and tapes into the archives of negligence. No one cares about preserving these when the ear plugs and mobile phones have come upon us suddenly to control our musical lives. But thanks to Google and the blogger much of what Kulusia had said then and which is stored away in human memory can now be transcribed, however little, for the world to read about.

In the same year (1972) a string band competition was held at the Samarai Town Hall. Contestants from all over Milne Bay, including Central, participated. In the end, the winner of that competition turned out to be no one else other than “Sipoma”, meaning, yours truly, Kulusia. And the winning song was Mana eo bagodu.

Much needs to be written about Kulusia and Hetei Dickson. Also about what music and poetry have done to our lives during the last 40 or 50 years. As storyboard shared this thought with Hetei Dickson at that Murray Barracks gathering, poetry is “a lived educational experience.”

At the opening of this article storyboard mentioned Tracy Chapman – and deliberately so. Artists like Chapman revolutionized as much as preserved their folk heritage. We would like our young generations to do the same for Kulusia and Hetei, not just through music but also through poetry such as what the poet Kitaluwa from the Medical Faculty (UPNG) does and who came by to read her work at that gathering.  One of her poems is represented below.

                                         Easter Sunday Gale
Willy wags chirped jubilantly
As she whistled through the Rosewood trees
Grass bowed in obeisance
Their white heads in motion, like waves over the sea
Windows rattled, doors banged
And fly screens screeched in protest
As she meandered her way into every niche
Sweeping, lifting and turning
Dust of forgotten past twirled and ricocheted in shame
As she mercilessly lay bare hidden tales
Then… all was still.
Just as she came
 She was gone!