Photo: David Bridie
In a three-part series, renowned Australian musician David Bridie shares the story of how he first came to know Papua New Guinea. These first encounters led to a lasting connection to PNG and Melanesia, and were transformational for David’s approach to music. It was David’s great friend Mark Worth who first sparked his interest in PNG, Mark grew up on Manus Island and often regaled his friends with stories of life there. It was also Mark who bemoaned Australia’s lack of understanding for its nearest neighbour with the words, “for God’s sake Australia, just have a look at the map.”

Australia is a better country when it engages with its immediate neighbours in Melanesia. We are vastly different, but we are neighbours. We should learn from each other, we should be fascinated with each other, we should engage, we should assist, we should respect, we should collaborate and we should definitely listen to each other. If we do so, we will both be better off. More to the point, to be situated so close to this Melanesian wonderland and to ignore it, is foolishness in the extreme

Dip your toes into Melanesia and you will find evolving constitutions of emerging post-colonial states, an astounding array of species of flora and fauna (Google the way the Bird of Paradise turns itself inside out in its mating ritual), bright coloured coral fish that make a Leonid Afremov painting seem dull in comparison, active volcanoes, kustom, culture and conflict.

If you ever get the chance to look at an aerial photograph from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait over to the South coast of the Western Province of PNG, they are surprisingly close; it’s almost as if Australia is land locked.  You could wade through this stretch of water at low tide.

Map of the Torres Strait (English Wikipedia/Kelisi).

My now departed good friend, filmmaker Mark Worth, once wrote a letter to The Australian newspaper venting his frustration at Australia’s lack of concern for Papua New Guinea and the troubles in West Papua with the short sentence, “For God’s sake Australia, just have a look at the map”.

As a young child in the outer suburbs of Melbourne I remember flicking through an Australian atlas my parents had that contained a section on PNG at the back. The accompanying pictures featured intriguingly strange and different flora and fauna. The orchids, birds and death adders fascinated and amazed my active child’s mind. It was a terrain so vastly different to our immense flat dry ancient continent.

Papua New Guinea should have been a source of massive fascination to Australia.  One of only two former Australian colonies, the place of wartime and pre-colonial history, home to a quarter of the world’s languages, and some of the most culturally intact peoples on the planet. People still living on the same land, working the same gardens and singing the same songs as generations of their ancestors.

This is where it was all happening.  But like our adherence to Hollywood, it was the USA’s backyard we fell for, not our own.

Our loss.

Papua New Guinean children shielding themselves from the rain (photo supplied: David Bridie).

At the age of 21 I started a band called Not Drowning, Waving with a wonderful guitarist named Johnny Phillips. In the arty world of the inner suburbs Melbourne music scene we projected films on the wall behind the stage and our visuals guy was the aforementioned fella – Mark Worth, who was also a filmmaker in his own right.

Mark had spent the first 16 years of his life on Manus Island, now infamous as the site of the processing centre for our so called “illegal” asylum seekers.  Mark’s father Geoff was in the navy at Lombrum near Lorengau.

Mark would regale us with stories of growing up in PNG as we sat up late drinking beer after our gigs on tour. He could talk under water, a maus wara as he would be called in PNG – an enthusiast.  He said to me: “David, for your first trip overseas, don’t go to Europe, the UK or the USA. They are much the same as here. It’s an increasingly homogenous world. As a musician, as a person wanting to create and shift your thought patterns, you must go to PNG. PNG is a wonderland, it is life in the raw, and it is like going to another planet, it is, as they say, the Land of the Unexpected”

Hanging around the cultural sanctum of inner suburbs Melbourne in my university days, students and hipsters were more aware of the stories of America’s satellites such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala than we were of our own Melanesian neighbours. It wasn’t as if there was not much of interest going on there; civil wars in Timor Leste, West Papua and Bougainville and the newly independent Vanuatu.

Surely our engaged young minds should have been fixed on our close regional neighbours? But I knew bugger all.  I would have thought any student with interest in the fields of history, science, geology, medicine, botany and especially religious studies would have found a wealth of intrigue in these countries.

Not Drowning, Waving performing with George Telek (photo supplied: David Bridie).

Mark had by now started the Super 8 club in Melbourne and made a film called ‘Duwai bilong Ninigos’, about the canoe makers from the remote Western Islands of PNG who would collect large floating logs that had wound their way out from the Sepik river 200 miles to the south of their remote atoll – master craftsmen of the sea. Mark enticed me to compose the soundtrack to his humble short documentary.  He played me recordings of pulsating Manus Island garamut drumming, joyous ukulele and 4-part harmony stringband music by the influential Paramena Strangers and the wall of sound that was Sanguma.

Sanguma incorporated traditional sing sing tumbuna music from a range of cultural groups all over PNG into their blend of funk and jazz.  When they came and played a gig at The Venue, Melbourne’s principle rock venue, I was gob smacked as I witnessed pulsating garamut drumming, Sepik bamboo flutes, jews harps and cascading vocal chants – sounds I had never heard before. As a musical artist always in search of inspiration and something new, this was one of the greatest gigs I had ever witnessed.

As a result of this engagement from afar, the hooks of PNG had begun to sink into my consciousness.

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David Bridie - Wantok Musik Foundation - Lowy Institute

David Bridie

Wantok Musik Foundation

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SEVEN-TIME ARIA award winning songwriter and composer David Bridie has enjoyed a distinguished career as one of Australia’s most innovative and classy artists. Whether as an International soundtrack composer; a leading expert on and producer of Melanesian music; as a uniquely Australian songwriter or a piano player/ singer with his solo career, Not Drowning, Waving or My Friend the Chocolate Cake, Bridie has certainly stamped his mark. David recently released his 4th acclaimed solo album, Wake. David has composed the scores for films Bran Nue Dae, The Man who Sued God, In a Savage Land, Satellite Boy and Proof. Not Drowning, Waving’s acclaimed album Tabaran was recorded in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, alongside respected musicians from the region. David’s solo album Act of Free Choice garnered international acclaim and was released by EMI in the USA and UK.

David has since developed, alongside respected PNG musician Airileke Ingram, the Wantok Musik Foundation. The not-for-profit music label aims to generate and foster various cultural exchanges between Indigenous Australia and Melanesia by recording, releasing and promoting music from the region. The label has since released music from Frank Yamma, George Telek, Airileke, Ngaiire, Radical Son, Richard Mogu, and more. Many of the Wantok artists have performed worldwide at festivals such as WOMAD, WOMEX, AWME, Glastonbury Festival, Vancouver Folk Festival, and the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics.