Care at the core for voices capturing rich cultural traditions

By: David Bridie   |   Artistic Producer and Musician

The lead singer of the pioneering Papua New Guinean band Sanguma, Tony ‘Soru' Subam, was staying at my house in Melbourne three weeks before Christmas in 2011 having just returned from a festival in Vanuatu. Tony was a good friend, an amazing musician, a humble, thoughtful, cultural man. Hailing from Kairuru in East Sepik and Yabob in Madang, he had been a big influence on me when my band, Not Drowning Waving, recorded our album ‘Tabaran’ in Rabaul in 1988. Sanguma combined music from the cultural traditions of Papua New Guinea with Western instrumentation and were the first band to showcase traditional PNG music on the international stage.

David Bridie, Artistic Producer and Musician

Soru and I sat up talking until late in my living room that evening. He was tired, unwell, broke and feeling empty. He felt the work he was doing wasn’t respected enough, and that his life-long commitment to his ancestral customs and his country's musical culture had been forgotten. It was a confronting conversation and one that resonated with me. After dropping Soru at the airport the next day to return to PNG, I was left with a sense of dismay and sadness. That Soru, a person who had contributed so much to his country and our region, should be afforded such little respect. His work should have been lauded and appropriately remunerated so he could, at the very least, adequately provide for his family. Eleven days later, on Christmas Day, I received the devastating news that Soru had passed away due to illness. Like so many other Melanesian friends and artists, he had passed away too young, at only 53. 

That last conversation I had with Soru has undoubtedly influenced the guiding principles that the Wantok Musik Foundation continues to operate under today.  

The extraordinary Vanuatu Water Women Drummers performing at Gaua Island, Torba province, Vanuatu

These core UN principles are what Wantok have always embraced, what Soru believed in and strived for.  Projects such as Nevenek (Vanuatu), recorded and filmed in makeshift studios, under stilt houses with the captured sounds of chickens and children playing in the background, a reflection of village life. The women from Guau Island in Vanuatu’s Torba Province water drumming create rhythms taught to them by their ancestors, the language the same.

Soru was, in fact, a founding board member of Wantok Musik. A not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to not only promote the rich cultural work that our artists produce, but to care for their well-being; to promote custom, language retention and cultural performance; to fairly remunerate musicians for their work; to provide a conduit for which our artists’ music and story can reach out to the world; and to care more broadly not just for them personally, but for their family, their village, their communities and their language groups. 

Soru had been a leading part of Sing Sing, a Wantok Musik initiative that brought together First Nations Australian musicians with artists from across the Pacific. Sing Sing has toured in India, Australia, PNG, and in the USA, and at the 2012 London Olympics ‘River of Music’ Festival. These tours showcased the richness of our region’s culture and provided the perfect platform to bring global audience interest in the art and music of Oceania. 

2022 – 2032 has been declared by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, to draw attention to the critical status of many Indigenous languages around the world and to promote action, preservation and retention. Language is central to culture, and music, storytelling, dance and songlines are ways in which language can be shared, celebrated and documented.  

 

Tony ‘Soru' Subam, Sanguma lead singer and founding Wantok board member -©JaimeMurcia

The rich, historical multimedia art installation, ‘a Bit na Ta’ (Rabaul, PNG) tells the story, from a Tolai perspective, about a century of war, colonisation, missionary influence and independence – but more importantly celebrates cultural resilience and pride in the Tumbuan society. ‘A Bit na Ta’ was first exhibited at QAGOMA in 2016 and in 2019 returned to Rabaul, projected on the side of trucks in crowded markets with young children and adults alike pointing out their family members with laughter and a palpable sense of pride. 

Song for Elijah’ featured artists including Archie Roach, Emma Donovan, Jida Gulpilil, Tjimba Possum Burns, David Leha, Illana Atkinson, James Henry, and myself all gathered together by Wantok artist Kutcha Edwards to raise money for the family of Elijah Doherty who lost his life in an injustice near Kalgoorlie in 2016.

Wantok Musik is one of a kind. We have quietly, but assuredly, practised our own form of cultural diplomacy over many years. We are proud of our artists, our achievements and the many connections we have made. Our brief is broad, but in many ways simple.  In the words of my friend and mentor Tony Soru Subam:

“Music is what we all share. It’s our history, our lore, it’s our future, our education, it’s our hurts, it’s our joys, it’s our injustices, our struggles, it’s our future, our love, and our hope. This is how it is for all cultures, this is common, and it’s through music that we hear, share and learn these things. Music can and has crossed every cultural barrier imaginable and will continue to do so. There may be different sounds, different beats, different instruments, but we are singing the same things, we are talking with a common language – with one talk.”

www.wantokmusik.org

Jul. 15, 2022

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