08 February 2011

A Film on Music in the Trobriand Islands

The Trobriand Islands are usually assumed to be well known, thanks to the research of Bronislaw Malinowski and numerous subsequent anthropologists. But in spite of the abundant documentation of other cultural components, the music of the area had been little studied and is almost inaccessible aurally to listeners outside of Papua New Guinea. Therefore, the film 'Kama Wosi' ('Our Songs' in Kilivila language), shot in 1975 by Les McLaren and released in 1979, was a very welcome addition to knowledge of this area. What immediately strikes the viewer familiar with Malinowski's photographs of Trobriand life from 1915-1918 is that few things seem to have changed in 65 years. Even traditional music had not been supplanted by string bands, as the opening credits reveal: 'Although some music was performed expressly for the film, it still functions integrally to Trobriand society.'


The commentary of the film relates basic information concerning the socio-political system, gardening, magic, intersexual relations, kula trade, and religion. Each of these subjects is illuminated by the music - either through its contextual importance to the topic being discussed or through the relevance of the song text. For example, the discussion of the kula trade is followed by songs performed at various stages during the voyage, as well as songs with textual references to kula canoes and concern about success during the trade. Kilivila texts can be very complicated metaphorically, as can be seen by examining annotated translations (as in, for example, those done by Baldwin 1945 and 1950, and also by Kasaipwalova and Beier at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies in 1978). Undoubtedly some of this was lost in translating song texts for the film, but the translators did a good job in conveying some idea of the poetry involved.

No attempt is made to conceal the fact that a camera is filming and that the people being filmed are aware of this. Such honesty can be an effective technique. Two young men sit on a veranda. One of them is carving an intricate design on the handle of a drum. While carving, he speaks to the filmmakers, and, ultimately, to all outsiders: 'Carving is nothing special - what are you taking pictures for? Day and night, day and night - taking pictures for nothing. You take these pictures and take them away - what about us? People will laugh at us.' 'Don't worry about him... I think that's their work. They go and get their pay.' 'I'll do this carving. I'll spoil my design.'

A variety of songs are presented throughout the film. The majority are those known as wosi baku, which are composed on numerous topics and sung while walking in the bush or sitting in the village. Quite a few different solo singers are heard, ranging from a very young boy telling how perfectly he will dance, to well-known singers. In fact, the people of the Trobriands have great respect for singers and composers. Sebwagau is one of the most famous. In June 1981, when I showed 'Kama Wosi' at the government headquarters of Losuia and at Tukwaukwa Catholic Mission, both in the Trobriands, everyone present knew Sebwagau, although his village was not nearby. In the film he sings a newly composed song about a caterpillar, asking it not to eat his taro. His song was learned by the audience from these showings. Additionally, wosi moyovau (kula songs) and valam (mourning 'cries') are heard. Regarding the latter, as in many parts of Papua New Guinea Trobriand Islanders do not classify their mourning as 'song,' even though poetic texts are included. Rather, it is considered a type of crying.

In the Trobriands, as in many other parts of Papua New Guinea, songs are much more important than purely instrumental music. We do, however, hear some examples of the latter, particularly the loloni, an end-blown flute made of a papaya branch. The distal end is alternately opened and closed to produce the corresponding overtone series.

At the end of the film, a portion of a choreographed usu mwaya dance called Bwetayobu is presented. The dancers (kasa), who are all male (and do not sing), wear women's skirts (doba) and hold pandanus streamers (biyala). They dance in a circle around drummers (towaisi kaisosau) and singers (towosi or tokaiwala), a group collectly known as kepou. Two sizes of drums are used: katuneniya (a small drum, which signals changes of dance movements) and kaisosau (a larger drum, which provides a rhythmic back-up to the katuneniya). The mweki (literally, 'go with') dance is commonly presented at national festivals on 'culture days,' although it has only developed in the Trobriands within the past 30-35 years. Boys hit their buttocks and both boys and girls thrust forward their pelvises while chanting sexually explicit texts. Mweki is disliked by elders, not because of its overt sexual references, but because it lacks the seriousness and poetic metaphors of other music. (Information contained in the three preceding paragraphs is the result of fieldwork undertaken by the Music Department of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, 1974-1981.)

'Kama Wosi' suffers a bit from scenes included to conform to a Westerner's fantasy of the idyllic tropics, but they do not tarnish the overall sensitivity of the presentation.

[This is is an edited version of a review by Don Niles of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Boroko, Papual New Guinea. It was originally published in the journal Ethnomusicology (Vol. 26, No. 3, September 1982, pp. 505-506). Although Niles used a 16mm print and transcript to write the review, the film is now available on DVD from Documentary Educational Resources in the US and from Ronin Films in Australia. Further information on Melanesian music and the music of Papua New Guinea is available here.]

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