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 encounters led to a lasting connection to PNG and Melanesia, and were transformational for David’s approach to music. In the second piece you can read about David’s adventure to Papua New Guinea back in 1986, from Port Moresby to Sepik and then on to Manus it was a trip that left a deep impression on him.

In 1986, I followed through on Worthy’s advice and booked myself on my first overseas trip to PNG. I managed to convince four other mates, two men and two women, to accompany me on a holiday that took in Moresby, the Sepik, Madang, Manus, New Ireland and Rabaul. It was to change my life.

Escaping the Melbourne winter – ples bilong ice box as singer George Telek would come to call it – we spent a whirlwind two days in the dry bustling capital of Port Moresby.  We drank duty free gin with Henry – a young man we befriended at Jacksons Airport Customs – at 10 pm on the foreshore of Ela Beach, only to be told the following morning that under no circumstances should you ever go down to Ela beach after dark! Henry drove us around the settlements to visit his wantoks in the wee hours of the morning, my head spinning with the effects of the alcohol and the stunning excitement of being in a place where everything was new. I was gawking at every vista; my antenna was on full alert. It was only on further visits that it dawned on me that Moresby is a place where people come to find work and a party life, but often end up getting stuck there because it is expensive. And apart from the local Motuan people, these migrants of urbanisation don’t have land, contributing to the city’s edgy vibe.

Moresby was very different then from what it is now; an exciting burgeoning city whose time has arrived, with a growing middle class, a sense of confidence and pride and a beauty of its own, largely thanks to many of Powes Parkop’s urban policies of planting trees, placing artifacts in parks and roundabouts and keeping it clean.

From Moresby we travelled to the small bustling town of Wewak in the northwest. This was something different again. After an afternoon of body surfing out the front of the Windjammer Hotel with its puk puk bar, we headed down to the mighty Sepik River – one of the world’s great waterways. We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Sunset over Chambri Lakes (photo supplied: David Bridie).

Sitting in the long dugout canoes as we headed up the tributary to Chambri Lakes, our guides were singing traditional melodies over the drone of the outboard motor.  We passed heavily populated village after village, smoke from riverbank fires gently wafted into the air, sago and yam gardens were visible beneath tropically ascending cloud formations. The Sepik had a heat to it unlike anything I’ve experienced. The temptation to dive in and cool off was mighty, but as Jeff Buckley discovered much to his detriment, these big rivers have a forceful current that you don’t argue with. The current flowed strong and dragged with it large clumps of land that floated down the centre, carrying birds hitching a ride out to the coast.

The Sepik village culture and art is astonishing; the ornate Big Haus Tambarans, the carvings, the people, and the songs rich with story. Lying awake inside my mosquito net in the small haus kunai huts where we slept, I listened to the symphony of insect and bird noises and accompanying village sounds of dogs, chickens and tok ples chatter and tried to take in all that we had witnessed in the preceding few days. This wasn’t my world. This was something completely different. Village life has a thick humid grass-roots atmosphere and ambience to it that I still to this day find inspiring. It is life in the raw. What you see is what you get. It challenges your preconceptions and it can be confronting, with few of the comforts of suburban life. I was in a foreign wonderland.

Grassroots village life makes you see the world somewhat differently. You stop and let life wash over you. Life slows down, colours are intense, sounds reverberate. The western world could learn much from the way these societies treat their elderly with respect, value their knowledge, and look after them with their extended family system. Our technologically savvy children could do well to observe the way children in PNG villages contribute to the necessary responsibilities of gardening, sweeping and caring for the family, not to mention the physical activity of climbing kulau trees and diving for fish and lobster that is everyday life for PNG kids.

Papua New Guinean kids enjoying village life (photo supplied: David Bridie).

Like the art of the central desert of Australia, the Sepik take on carving and design is idiosyncratic and multi-layered. In all my travels since, I have rarely come across a place with such unique and inspired artistic and cultural practice. Chambri Lakes is the home of my great friend the master mambu(bamboo flute) player Pius Wasi. Pius formed a band called Tambaran Culture after leaving Sanguma where he had been a junior member of the band. Tambaran Culture became an integral part of the Not Drowning, Waving touring party and Pius has been a musical companion to me ever since. He is a man of genuine cultural knowledge and we have collaborated on film soundtracks, recordings, festival music and dance performances.

We boarded a trade boat to Madang, sailing past the symmetrically perfect volcanic island of Manam as the sun rose gently on the cool clear morning. Fat schools of tuna leaping out of the shimmering ocean, villages scattered along the distant shore, the gentle rock of the boat, crammed amongst travellers with bilum bags full of kau kau and unfortunate chickens on their way to market.

Then it was on to Manus, the old Admiralty Islands. Through a family friend of Mark’s, Jim Paliau, we ventured by ocean-going outrigger to the small coral Ponam Island.

Ponam Island (photo supplied: David Bridie).

Manus is home to the unique garamut drumming, an intricate ensemble style of drumming where the syncopated rhythms are understood better as melodies and dance accompaniment, played on elaborately carved slit log drums of different sizes. In two years’ time Not Drowning, Waving would venture back to Ponam Island for two weeks of recordings with these master drummers.

From Manus we caught the short flight to bilas peles (beautiful place) Kavieng, the main town of New Ireland province. After a night in the old Kavieng Hotel, where I was confronted with a man stuck in the maddening midst of malarial fever, we caught a liberating ride on the back tray of a copra truck, wind in our hair as we belted down the Bulimiski Highway named after the grand poo bah of the German New Guinea rule pre-World War One. We stayed a night in a glorious cliff top colonial house with an old school plantation owner who was an example of the bad old days, with appalling attitudes to the locals and a revolver in his side pocket.

From Namatanai we caught a short flight into the jewel of the Pacific, Rabaul, the old capital of PNG up until World War Two that gets its name from the Kuanuan word for mangrove. The flight takes you through the volcanoes, circling the harbor onto the runway on the isthmus, an enchanting descent into one of the most picturesque places I have ever been.

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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.