In 1990, I got hold of a new album by the always hard to categorise Australian band Not Drowning Waving. That album was Tabaran – it changed my life, because it was the starting point of my relationship with Papua New Guinea.
Like most Australians, I knew something of PNG – our nearest neighbour, our former colony, the heroic efforts to defeat Japanese forces on the Kokoda Trail. By 1990, I’d even written about PNG – and the then developing conflict on Bougainville – for the now defunct regional news magazine Pacific Islands Monthly.
But the music of Tabaran opened a door for me – that door remains wide open to this day. One of the PNG musicians who appeared on the album is George Telek He’s been making music with PNG string bands since the 70s, and by 1990, had become a very big name on the local music scene. David Bridie and his fellow members of Not Drowning Waving were in PNG to work with local musicians around George’s home town near Rabaul, in East New Britain province. George recorded his song Abebe for the Tabaran album, where it appeared preceded by a spoken word introduction in Tok Pisin – the lingua franca of PNG – and an essential thing in a country where about 800 languages are spoken.
“Hullo tru long yu olgeta man meri na pikinini bilong Australia.” It was familiar and intriguing all at once, and I was mesmerised by the rich cadences, the music inherent in the words and the delivery. I played that bit over and over, learned the words, deciphered their meaning, found books on Tok Pisin, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, Pacific music. I spent the next few years immersing myself in the music and cultures of our Pacific neighbours. By 1996, I was the ABC Pacific correspondent, and in 1999, its resident correspondent in Papua New Guinea. My relationship with our northern neighbour continues to this day, and in a few minutes I’m out the door to see George Telek and David Bridie perform in Cairns.
David and George have been making music together ever since Tabaran, George went on to become one of the early and enduring international successes of the world music scene. Their continuing musical friendship is one of the loveliest manifestations of the long, deep, complex relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea. And if those two men had not hooked up all those years ago at Pacific Gold Studios in Rabaul, I may never have found my way to PNG and would have been much the poorer as a result. Whatever I paid for Tabaran in 1990, it was the best investment I’ve ever made. David went on to form My Friend The Chocolate Cake, and has just released his latest solo album – Wake.
Listen to David and George talk about how they met, the ins and outs of the PNG-Australia relationship, the Wantok Musik Foundation, and more.