Written By Voice Of Baptist Papua on March 17, 2011 | 9:35 AM
In West Papua, singing is a way of life, and the means by which people greet, flirt and protest. And, as Jay Griffiths reports, it is used as a potent form of communication around the world
Out on a mountainside one night, myself and a small party of West Papuans were trying to dry our socks by the fire. Well, drying them was a little over-optimistic – making them a bit less wet is more like it. Leaning back against the walls of the makeshift hut, the men – guides and friends – began singing, as they did every evening.
They sang of the sock-soaking rain, turning everything to mud. They sang of the rush of heady sunshine in these rainforest highlands. They made up a new song that had them in fits of flirty giggles: "We saw the girls in the grass skirts today, whe-hey." Their laughter was infectious and "whe-hey" needed no translation. And then they sang a part-song, with a basic melody held by one singer, the others extemporising around it, in a syncopated rhythm.
After a while, I shyly joined in the round-song that went round the circle of the fire, the ring of toes and wet socks propped up on sticks, until it resonated inside our chests, interrupted as one person would break away to relieve himself outside or cadge a cigarette or just laugh out loud for pleasure. Laughter is a lingua franca here. One of the guides, when he knew he was about to fall over laughing, carefully lay down first, then honked his laughter like an almighty anthem.
I had gone to West Papua to meet the country's freedom fighters, seeking independence fromIndonesia, which illegally invaded almost 50 years ago. I was also there for the music. In West Papua (half of the island of New Guinea, with Papua New Guinea a separate nation to the east, and Australia 150 miles south), songs and freedom are indivisible.
Scientists now believe our human ancestors sang before we spoke, music preceding language. Songs communicated emotion and developed social bonds: this exquisite idea has been well-documented recently by the psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist. Singing with others is an unmediated, shared experience as each person feels the same music reverberating in their individual bodies. Singing is part of our humanity; it is embodied empathy.
In many traditions, the world was sung into being: Aboriginal Australians believe their ancestors did so. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, Om was the seed syllable that created the world. Here, in the West Papuan highlands, people call the soul etai-eken, which means the "seed of singing". It is the most beautiful definition of the soul I have ever heard.
Everywhere I walked in West Papua, the land was resonant with song. People yodel greetings from one mountainside to villages over the valley: "Aiieeeeeee" ("Put away your bows and arrows, we're friends," it says). Playing mouth harps, drums and guitars, people sing village songs, tragic songs, love songs, flirting songs and songs of independence. Improvising long and funny songs in blank verse is a common skill. In Dominic Brown's brave and beautiful film of West Papua, Forgotten Bird of Paradise, the unselfconscious soundtrack is people singing of loss, anger, love and freedom.
Benny Wenda, a Lani man from the highlands, is a Papuan leader now in exile in the UK, and a singer. There are songs for everything, he says: songs for climbing a mountain, songs for the fireside, songs for gardening. "Since people are interconnected with the land, women will sing to the seed of the sweet potato as they plant it, so the earth will be happy." Meanwhile, men will sing to the soil until it softens enough to dig.
West Papua is a land of contrasts: mountains in the clouds and fringes of coastlines; the gleeful chutzpah of the penis gourd (long or short, curly or straight, some topped with feathers, some used as a pocket for a wad of tobacco or a bit of cash) and the miserable degradation of human rights abuses by the Indonesian military. Mud and music. Guns and ukuleles.
While I was there, the guides sang the routes of paths in the mountains, music which mapped the land. I asked Wenda if this was a version of the Aboriginal Songlines, in which the paths the ancestors took in the Dreamtime are memorised in songs, like musical maps. With them, people can travel across country they have never seen before. Wenda agreed, telling me of a specific song for his people's mountain, Beam, their creation site and home of their ancestors, and how, as people climb that mountain, they sing that song. Another man told me of visiting "dream shrines" on the mountains, where people asked the ancestors for a dream to guide them on their path in life.
It seems to me that there are versions of Songlines all over the world, and it is possible that the idea dwells deep in the human psyche. Our eyes are alive to paths on the land: we are irresistibly drawn to them, following them as they tell their tales. The human brain, too, is threaded with tracks, neural pathways. In Papua New Guinea, Kaluli people have a word, "tok", which means path, but it also, when used about a song, means map. The song is a journey, and singing about a place makes it wriggle into life, and listeners re-experience the emotions the land evokes.
Saami people of northern Europe sing "yoik" – songs that similarly conjure a landscape; or animals, moods, people. So powerful was the yoik that Christian missionaries killed the singers, at least until the late 17th century. Saami singer and shaman Nils-Aslak Valkeapää wrote: "Even an old man of more than 80 years of age was executed because he was irresponsible enough to yoik."
In Australia, one Aboriginal man told me of a Songline he could follow for almost 400 miles, but, he explained, the church had stopped the Aboriginal ceremonies, so people couldn't practise the songs, and many of the Songlines were forgotten.
Shamans in the Amazon say that to use a plant as medicine, you must learn its song, and these songs are maps of knowledge. Here, too, missionaries, as recently as the late 1980s, persuaded people these songs were "of the devil", and singers have been murdered. Shamans believe the songs – ethereal, half-whistled and half-voiced – heal by creating harmony within the body, and, importantly, harmony between people and the environment.
"The law is in the ground," I was told in Australia. These songs promote order and harmony between people and the land, and offer ethical guidance as well as geographic. In West Papua, there are songs of respect for the land and songs of anger against its devastation.
A Papuan band, Black Paradise, investigating human rights abuses around the Freeport gold and copper mine, has also collected protest songs from local Amungme people, who consider the mountain sacred. Political music "gives people strength," says Wenda, "and motivates them."
In 1978, a West Papuan anthropologist turned musician, Arnold Ap, formed a band called Mambesak (Shining Bird). He sang protest songs against mining, he recorded songs from the length and breadth of the land, and played the songs of his ancestors. He sang, above all, for freedom from Indonesia. Amnesty International says at least 100,000 people have been murdered by the Indonesian military under its illegal occupation over the past half century. British and American companies have supplied much of the weaponry. The cultural genocide and mass murder is widely ignored by the international community. Why? Because Papua is cursed with resources, and international corporations are making a killing.
For Papuans, Ap was a hero. He was John Lennon and Bob Dylan and the Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, all rolled into one. People tenderly cherish almost worn-out cassettes of his music; women sell their sweet potatoes to buy batteries for doddery cassette players. Wildly popular, he fostered a renaissance of Papuan pride. Like Chile's Victor Jara, he was his country's icon of protest song. Like Jara, he was killed for singing. Arrested and tortured by Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces today being funded by the US, he was killed in 1984. While facing execution, he wrote his last song, The Mystery of Life, recording it on an old portable tape player; then he wrapped it up with a letter and sent it to his wife. "The only thing I desire is freedom," he sang, making it his personal and political epitaph.
Mambesak musician Eddie Mofu was killed with him, and other Papuan singers have died in mysterious poisoning attacks. Indonesia has created the opposite of Songlines. Instead of law, an illegal invasion. Instead of the song of life, mass murder. Instead of land evoked and beloved, an environment devastated and destroyed. Indonesia is annihilating a nation of singers.
But the spirit of Arnold Ap is still alive, says Wenda, in the cultural self-respect he nurtured. "Music is our life. Indonesia oppresses us and kills us, but song brings the human spirit alive. It is an act of resistance. Never surrender." The Indonesians may kill the singers but they cannot kill the song.
• Jay Griffiths is author of Wild: An Elemental Journey. On 16 March, 7-9pm, the Idler Academy in London hosts The Songlines of West Papua with Benny Wenda and Jay Griffiths, and a screening of Forgotten Bird of Paradise.