Magazine article New Internationalist

The Drumbeat of Resistance

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Drumbeat of Resistance

Article excerpt

Our drums build to a crescendo, filling the Melbourne Arts Centre with their rapid rhythms. In front of a cheering crowd, a troupe of dancers steps into the space before the stage, wearing traditional headdresses and body paint, and holding aloft the West Papuan flag. It is February 2017, and this is the Rebel Musik tour, bringing Melanesian culture and the cry for West Papuan freedom to audiences across Australia.

The recent reawakening of Melanesian culture and identity is deeply entwined with the movement for West Papuan independence. Like many First Nation peoples around the world, Melanesians had lived as a sovereign people on their islands for tens of thousands of years prior to European colonization. We are people with dark skin and curly hair from a number of Pacific-island nations, including West Papua and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Many Melanesian nations have successfully fought for, and won, their independence - but the people of West Papua are still suffering under Indonesian occupation, and awareness of this injustice is spreading rapidly through the rest of Melanesia.

The Rebel Musik tour featured performers from West Papua, the Torres Straits and PNG, fusing traditional and modern musical styles, and bearing a powerful message about the fight for West Papuan independence. But Melanesian music is more than just a way to carry a message (effective though that is). It is part of our culture and tradition, and is deeply connected to our identity, our land and our struggle.

The land, the sea and the peoples of Melanesia are profoundly linked through family kinship and communal ceremonies of music and dance called sing-sings. The traditional instruments of our different peoples create a recognizable cultural soundscape that echoes in harmony with the mystical sounds of nature, from the kundu drums of Tok Pisin in PNG, to the tifa drums of Bahasa Melayu in West Papua, to the warup drums of the Torres Strait Islands in Australia. In Papua, the voice of the tifa sends messages of connection and togetherness between village societies. Each ancestral group creates music specific to its culture and values, which also chimes with the shared cultural traditions (or kastom) of our peoples and of contemporary life.

Rhythm of the revolution

In West Papua, our culture and identity as Melanesians are under threat, so it is no coincidence that we are seeing a resurgence in these traditions. The impact of neo-colonialism and imperialism has brought Melanesians to a crossroads between kastom and Western ideals. Arts and culture have a vital role to play, to fight back against the colonization of the minds of the Melanesian people.

Prominent Papuan music producer and drummer Airileke Ingram led the Rebel Musik tour. He treasures the sound of the kundu, his musical weapon of choice. 'The kundu sends a message of unity, community and identity for Melanesian people,' he explains. Ingram is seen by many artists as a leading ambassador for Melanesian culture. Through Rebel Musik, he brought together rising stars from Port Moresby's urban music scene, traditional Melanesian dancers and Australian artists to create 'urgent, political, in-your-face musik from one of the harshest urban environments on the planet'. Kwakumba flutes and garamut slit-drums fuse with rapping and dubstep in a powerful celebration of Melanesian culture.

Renowned bassist, singer and songwriter Richard Mogu is a leading light in the contemporary PNG music scene. He explains that while the kundu drum has different names across the region, when it speaks it is always 'the extension of the Melanesian voice'. As he puts it: 'The kundu drum speaks louder, as it carries the voice of the people.' He believes that art can be a vital vehicle for addressing the issues facing Melanesia: 'Art serves its divine purpose when it talks about the important things that affect people's livelihoods', which is why 'we've been advocating for West Papua's fight for freedom'. …

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