Not Drowning, Waving and the musicians of Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
Featuring George Telek
Available on LP, cassette and CD through WEA Records
Reviewed by Norm Dixon
I was apprehensive about Melbourne band Not Drowning, Waving's new album. Was this to be a repeat of the Graceland fiasco, when Paul Simon reduced the vibrant and powerful music of South Africa's townships to mere backing tracks for his introspective and apolitical pop songs? Would the PNG performers and their music be presented in their own right, or simply used as a marketing gimmick?
It took only seconds of the title track for those fears to be put to rest. Lead PNG performer George Telek sings wonderfully in the Tolais language of the powerful spirit, Tabaran, whose influence touches all the people in and around Rabaul, the capital of East New Britain island. Not Drowning, Waving subtly provides the backing rhythms.
That track sets the tone for the whole album. While NDW's pleasant blend of mainstream pop and ambience is always present, it does not dominate the PNG musicians' contributions. NDW is prepared to step back and allow us to hear the remarkable quality of traditional and contemporary PNG music on its own terms.
There is a genuine collaboration between locals and the visitors. If anything, the variety, inspiration and freshness of the PNG musicians save NDW's music from its tendency towards blandness. The album combines the band's own songs (clearly influenced by their PNG experiences), songs written and performed by the PNG artists and songs jointly composed by NDW and the Pacific Gold musicians.
Tabaran is a courageous and innovative album. It wouldn't have been made if commercial interests were the band's only priority. It had its genesis five years ago, when NDW made the soundtrack for a documentary on PNG. In 1986, band members David Bridie and James Southall holidayed in Rabaul and became fascinated with the vibrant music scene there. They met the people who ran the local Pacific Gold recording studios. In 1988, NDW was invited to Rabaul by Pacific Gold to record this album with the local musicians.
Tabaran showcases the talents of George Telek and his Moab Stringband. Stringband music, a popular style throughout PNG, is based on acoustic guitars and ukeleles introduced by missionaries who had worked in Polynesia. Two tracks, "Pila Pila" and "Abebe", feature Moab's pacey bluegrass sound.
Other tracks highlight traditional music accompanied by NDW's instrumentation. "Sing Sing" and "Funeral Chant" feature chants, "Feast" the sounds of a panpipe orchestra from Bougainville, "Call Across the Highlands" the haunting sound of bamboo flutes and "Lapun Man" the harmonies of the Manupit Choir. "Azahe" spotlights the powerful beat of the garamut drummers of Ponam, a reef island that is home to just 200 people. NDW's sound production person, Tim Cole, deserves special mention for his tapes of insects, the lapping of waves and other sounds that add tremendously to the mood of the
Politics is not ignored either. "The Kiap Song" describes the arrogance of the Australian expats who remain in government, own plantations or manage businesses and exploit the PNG people. "Blackwater" tells of the refugees fleeing from oppression in Indonesian-occupied West Papua and their wish for freedom.
A beautifully presented 24-page booklet includes comments from writer Robin Osborne, Sandoun Province Premier Andrew Komboni and West Papuan refugee Magdalene Hamadi, briefly explaining the issues in West Papua.
NDW will be touring Australia in the coming months with George Telek and three of the musicians featured on Tabaran. Both the album and the tour deserve great success, and perhaps some adventurous people in the music business may let us hear more of the music of PNG.