SONGS OF THE VOLCANO:
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World renowned guitarist Bob Brozman travelled to Papua New Guinea – one of the last places on the planet to have guitars arrive from afar – to capture a sound largely untainted by outside influences; a raw, unique sound developed in isolation. The energetic and distinctive blend of voice and instrument performed by the Rabaul community’s local stringbands reflects their unfailing optimism in the face of adversity, be it war or the volcanic eruptions that have destroyed the town twice in one century, making this album truly ‘Songs Of The Volcano’.
In addition to this extraordinary album, this package features a full length, behind the scenes DVD documentary of the making of the album.
Songs of the Volcano - The Music
One of the few accidental, yet beneficial, side-effects of colonialism has been guitars washing up on shores all over the world. Papua New Guinea is no exception. Home to a huge indigenous population speaking more than 800 languages, it lay largely undiscovered until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and hence is one of the last places on the planet to have guitars arrive from afar.
Rabaul, in Papua New Guinea’s far flung province of East New Britain, is a town which has had its share of hard times. In the same century it has been destroyed twice by massive volcanic cataclysms and once by a devastating war imposed on it by outsiders. The Tolai people of Rabaul have suffered greatly from these natural and manmade disasters and yet, somehow, have always managed to bounce back and keep their spirits high. One of the main contributing factors to their capacity for optimism is their music, an energetic and unique blend of voices and instruments performed by the community’s local stringbands.
Bob Brozman is a world expert and leading exponent of the National guitar. An ethnomusicologist fascinated by the global voyage taken by the guitar over the last 500 years, he has collaborated with local musicians all over the world.
To create Songs Of The Volcano, in his capacity as Adjunct Professor of Music at Sydney’s Macquarie University, Bob went with filmmaker Phil Donnison to five villages in East New Britain to perform with five different Tolai stringbands. The purpose of filming and recording the performances was partly to document this fragile music before it disappears, and partly to facilitate the musicians in Papua New Guinea where there is an astonishing lack of musical infrastructure.
Rabaul is the location where guitars first arrived in Papua New Guinea, and the music carries a fragile innocence and beauty reminiscent of what guitar music may have sounded like in Hawaii in 1860, or Mexico in 1830. Most music travelled throughout the Pacific Ocean on boats, with sailors leaving behind instruments and ideas to then percolate in isolation. Hence, the music on this album will seem at once exotic, yet somehow familiar. Even today, there is still very little mass media penetration in Papua New Guinea, though that is changing and makes the preservation of this raw and unique sound more necessary.
This album and accompanying film present the story of this creative collaboration, a joint effort between an indomitable group of island musicians and one of the world’s greatest guitarists. Unlike Bob’s other world music collaborations, where there is a blend of styles between Bob and another established artist, Songs Of The Volcano has Bob in a more supportive role, playing simply as a member of each band in their own style.
The creation of this project not only yielded some great friendships, an unforgettable story and some remarkable results, but will enable the musicians to continue their pursuit of a musical life.
The musicians on Songs Of The Volcano are the first recipients of instruments, strings and musical supplies from Bob’s ongoing Global Music Aid Foundation, which seeks to provide donated instruments and materials to musicians in developing countries.
Songs of the Volcano - The Film
An account by filmmaker Phil Donnison
I first went to Papua New Guinea as a teenager in 1960 when my father was sent to run an expatriate teacher training course at Malaguna Technical College in Rabaul, East New Britain.
There were a number of other significant firsts for me in that year; it was my first trip in an airplane; my first overseas trip; the first time to experience the tropics in all its sweat, vibrancy and colour; and it was the first time I passed Latin, which says more about my mother’s lack of supervision than the credentials of the school and its tutors.
Rabaul was a flower-laden paradise. The wide streets, engineered by its German colonial masters, were lined with magnificent trees – mangos, casuarinas and kapoks, giant fragrant frangipanis and sizzling flames. Surrounding its magnificent harbour were no less than five volcanoes. One, Tavurvur, was still semi-active, with sulphurous, stinking steam wafting over the town when the trade winds blew in the right direction. The Tolai people were colourful, handsome and happy. Reminders of the Japanese and Australian involvement in the last World War were scattered along the beaches and in the dense jungle clad hills and mountains. We climbed inside the crater of Tavurvur, snorkelled on the reefs, swam amongst myriad colourful fish, visited villages, copra and cocoa plantations, and browsed the many Chinese trade stores – overflowing with amazing treasures from the east. We played with the village kids who showed us hidden paths in their secret jungles, visited the markets, ventured into Japanese tunnels and practised our pidgin.
Guitars and ukuleles were played everywhere, and it was not uncommon to see people sitting under the dense shade of a casuarina tree playing and singing. These instruments could be purchased from the Chinese trade stores and fishing line easily replaced any broken strings. My first guitar, a Kapok, came from Seeto’s store and had a colourful stencil of a cowboy on a bucking horse on the lower bout.
I had started playing ukulele and singing with my musical family from about the age of five, so in the evenings, whenever the fabulous sounds of harmonising male voices drifted across the manicured gardens of Malaguna Tech to our Administration supplied quarters, I would sneak out and stand outside the hut. There I would hear the twenty or thirty strong Technical College choir rehearsing, and soak it through to my core. I had never heard singing like it.
In 1961, for my fourteenth birthday, I was given a pair of flippers to aid in the exploration of the many beautiful reefs around Rabaul. My first chance to try them out arrived when we caught a copra boat early one Sunday morning, and motored the two or so hours across to the Duke of York Islands, and the beautiful tropical island of Mioko where we’d been invited. We’d scarcely anchored in the deep turquoise lagoon when I jumped overboard, fully flippered, and to my dismay both fins were ripped from my feet and twirled away into the blue-green depths below.
Bugger! I didn’t feel bad for too long as there were many new experiences on this beautiful island to distract me from my disappointment. I wasn’t to know that forty-three years later I would anchor once more in that same lagoon, this time on a different adventure.
Nor could I know that in less than ten years I would return to Papua New Guinea as a high school teacher – first in the wild highlands, and later in the steamy, soggy Sepik region – and witness the nation emerge through the course of self-government and finally independence.
In my days off as a teacher I played in various bands, listened to local music and at Brandi High School in Wewak, formed possibly the first and last Papua New Guinean jug band. It wasn’t a total disaster but the idea of a jug, washboard and tea-chest bass was apparently less appealing to the students than it was to me. I returned to Australia in 1976 and started a new career in the burgeoning video production industry as a cameraman and director. I also continued my musical career in tandem and around this time I first heard a great American band lead by Robert Crumb, the renowned cartoonist – it was called R. Crumb and The Cheap Suit Serenaders. It boasted two National steel guitar players, one of whom was outstanding – his name, Bob Brozman. I also owned a National guitar and could play a bit of steel. Bob’s playing was inspirational, but it wasn’t until 2000 that I finally got to meet Bob when he commenced his first tour in Australia. I picked him up from the airport and from that time on we have remained great friends and now collaborators. It was indeed a pleasure beyond imagination for me to make a film of my greatest musical hero, at work, in the most beautiful place I have ever been and incorporating my two loves of music and filmmaking.
Songs Of The Volcano was filmed during two trips in 2003 and 2004, on location in and around Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. The camera I used stood up remarkably well considering what we were up against. On the first trip, the shooting conditions were pretty extreme. The volcano Tavurvur, which had destroyed eighty per cent of the town in a violent eruption in 1994, was still spewing out tonnes of fine volcanic ash, which sometimes got a bit lumpier and fell like snow. Generally it was a bit like bull dust and could find the tiniest gaps to enter, except its razor sharp granules with a bit of friction worked like sandpaper and could wreck anything. Coupled with the incredible humidity and torrential downpours, it was a mighty challenge to keep equipment clean and working properly. When we were shooting outside, I was constantly lens-cleaning with a can of compressed air, brush and cleaning tissues, usually under my shirt or another cover of some sort.
The film explores the highs and lows of this musical journey, the joys and the difficulties of recording in a society of subsistence farmers, where even a microphone is a luxury. It opens a window on a vibrant and contemporary culture largely unseen outside Papua New Guinea. It visits one of the world’s most exotic and out of the way places and witnesses the creation of firm and lasting friendships. And, it presents and records for posterity some of the most original, untouched and unforgettable music, at a time when the onslaught of global culture means it is fast disappearing from the face of the earth.