Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea

This remarkable triple-disc set created from the fieldwork over decades by Steven Feld from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings covers the intersection of traditional and modern musics generated from the Bosavi people, who inhabit a remote region of Papua New Guinea that was largely isolated from the outside world prior to 1970, when oil exploation and evangelical Christian missionary activity entered their insulated world.

The first disc captures the gentle guitar-based music that has enveloped Bosavi since outside contact was established.  The titanic changes to their society from the 1970s onward, but especially during the 1980s, includes connections to education, Christianity, outside employment and other elements, including exposure to other forms of music and instruments.

Consequently, the recordings from 1994 to 1999 capture a sound that had only been in the making for about a decade previously, anchored by a lead singer, usually female, backing vocals from a few males, and the lilting and folksy playing of guitars and, sometimes, ukulele and percussion, also played by men, who mainly compose the pieces.  These expressions of gita gisalo (literally, "guitar songs") are plaintive and captivating.

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The second disc, from recordings made in 1977, covers "Sounds and Songs of Everyday Life," dealing with joint work done within the community, including the building of a bridge, a woman calming a crying baby while making sago (a starch derived from the sago palm tree) or clearing space in the rainforest for a garden.  Other performnces are from people relaxing and enjoying each other's company--a reminder that for most of human history and in many places today, music is not to be distinguished much, if at all, from everyday activities.  The disc ends with a nearly half-hour "composite soundscape" captured in a Bosavi village during a twenty-four hour period in 1982.  Much of these pieces are reminiscent, to this listener, of the music from the Mbuti pygmies in the rainforests of central Africa, covered in this blog not long ago.

While the everyday songs were still being performed regularly at the time these recordings were made, the pieces tied to traditional Bosavi ritual and ceremony were rapidly dying out, due principally to aggressive evangelizing efforts.  Examples here include the mournful and very affecting funerary weeping songs, group ceremonial efforts for seances involving spirits, work songs, general leisure, the ritual killing of pigs and poetic texts paying homage to features of the rich natural world in the Bosavi's land.

The eighty-page booklet is filled with detail on the Bosavi, their history, their music and the individual songs and performances over the three discs.  There is also a gallery of photos depicting the Bosavi and their land.  Particularly noteworthy for this listener was the "Brief History of Bosavi Encounters" which discusses the massive changes affecting the Bosavi in recent decades. much of which has turned the worldview of these people upside down and the consequences of which are still in flux.

That's what makes this set so interesting from a musical and historical perspective--it is a striking document of the conflicts inherent in the exposure of traditional societies to modern forces.

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