Music of Papua New Guinea

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jun 30 10:31:43 MDT 2001

RootsWorld Bulletin: Special Edition


Michael Stone follows the sounds captured by Steven Feld.

Behind the visionary gaze of his dark sunglasses, five gospel horns hanging
from his neck, a testimony to multiple creation, comprehending the compound
coloration of the human voice, the infinite possibilities of sound, Roland
Kirk tossed down an array of sonic riffs whose immediacy was incontestable.
"Music that makes us cry, love that money can't buy, let's all search for
the reason why ." And as the Roland Kirk Spirit Choir intoned in response,
"Can't you hear the spirits up above?"

The people of Bosavi would have understood, and thus a word of caution to
would-be listeners. Read no further, unless you are prepared to enter a
world wherein sound and human sentiment are inseparable, one whose musical
conception offers a radical critique of our unexamined account of reality,
and hence, of the very character of the human condition.

The Bosavi people, some 2,000 in number, inhabit the rainforest of the
Great Papuan Plateau in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea
(PNG). They identify closely with their natural environment and savor the
nuances of its abundant sensory stimuli. With a scintillating sense of
acoustic ecology, they use music and sound to extend their grasp of human
experience beyond the socio-economic and political constraints, and the
perceptual confines, of the visible material world. Music as sound, and
sound as music: as these layer, animate, audition, project, give flight to
feeling and sensation, they weave human sensibilities into the very fabric
of the natural world that sustains life as we know it.

Ethnomusicologist, trombonist, human rights activist, MacArthur award
winner and Columbia University professor of anthropology, Steven Feld first
went to Bosavi in 1976, and since then has extensively documented the
shifting cultural dynamics of life there. His 1991 Voices of the Rainforest
(part of Mickey Hart's Endangered Music Project) is a landmark in ambient
sound and world roots music. It and two new releases reviewed here comprise
a quarter century's sounding, logged in the field during an era of
unprecedented cultural, social, economic and political change that has
transformed Bosavi life.

A remote region largely untouched by exterior cultural influence before the
mid-20th century, constituting what an earlier generation of
anthropologists referred to as a "classless, small-scale" society, Bosavi
people were drawn involuntarily into the developing national political
economy of PNG, and thus assimilated, however incompletely, into the same
grasping, discordant transnational universe that we listeners ourselves

These recordings trace the sense of absence, yearning and cultural loss
written through Bosavi song in a process outsiders gloss cavalierly as
"development." But Bosavi song testifies likewise to an irrepressible will
to survive in the face of paramount threat to local language and culture.
Because whatever else it may be, socio-economic and political "development"
remains a fight over the preservation, survival, marginalization,
domination, dissolution and extinction of particular human cultures. Bosavi
people comprehend this dynamic intuitively, and as their student and
collaborator, Feld presents their critical sensibilities to a planetary
audience whose own disaffection from the culture of global capitalism gives
ample cause to listen and reflect.

Full article at

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list