The Guitar Cultures of Papua
New Guinea: Regional, Social and
Stylistic Diversity
Denis Crowdy

A form of guitar- and ukulele-based popular music known as‘stringband’ has developed since the Second World War in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Stringband ensembles consist of a combination of voices, guitars, ukuleles and sometimes a bass instrument. Unique regional styles and dynamic performance contexts are associated with stringband music. Differences in language, vocal timbre, melody, rhythm and guitar parts contribute to define these styles. This chapter explores the development of stringband music and its performance with a focus on the guitar. My aim is to articulate some important issues regarding global and local culture flow with music in which the local aspect is a significant factor.

My interest in the stringband music of PNG started while working as a guitar tutor at the University of Papua New Guinea, where I taught for eight years in the 1990s. That role mainly involved teaching styles that Papua New Guinean students were less familiar with, and included jazz, blues, and classical. An interest in stringband and other local popular music led to a series of field trips, the purchase of numerous commercial recordings, and many informal sessions playing with, and observing, stringband musicians.

Starting in the late 1940s and early 1950s the number of stringbands in PNG grew rapidly, and by the 1960s stringband was a significant part of village music making. By the 1970s a number of the distinctive regional styles mentioned previously had developed. A number of local guitar playing techniques featured tuning the instruments in unique ways, and the resultant styles have been a central focus of my musicological research in this area. With the development of the cassette recording industry, stringband has moved out of the mainstream of popular music making in PNG, though it still has an important stylistic influence on new music.

This paper attempts to demonstrate that a detailed examination of particularly ‘local’ examples of musical practices can provide an important view from which to critically consider notions of global and local flows of music, information, capital and resultant power. Stringband has developed with strong global influences, both


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