Living in Melbourne, but a Moresby boy at heart, PNG-born Airileke brings his mix of traditional music and rhythms, high-end production and everything in between to Boomerang this October long weekend.
Airileke, could you tell me a little about your cultural heritage?
My family come from Gabagaba village in Central Province PNG. Gabagaba village itself goes back about 18 generations. Our ancestral people are the Koiari from the foothills of the Kokoda Track. Gabagaba literally means ‘Drum Drum’ – our people were drummers and dancers and the village became the grounds for ceremonies and big dances in Tok Pisin called ‘Sing Sing’.
Can you tell me how that influences the music that you produce?
I have many influences, mostly any good music that inspires me is potentially influential… from traditional music to reggae, hip-hop, electronic, krump, orchestral, Indian, whatever. But for my own music everything stems from the roots. The drum from my village is called Gaba. It’s like the kick drum in a band… it holds everything together, the heartbeat, which keeps all the other parts of the body working in synchronisation and connected in the one flow.
I am also influenced by traditional music from other parts of PNG and the Pacific, like Garamut from Manus Province and Sepik Province, the Kwakumba flutes of the highlands, and chants from Markham Valley. I grew up with all of these musics and have been playing them pretty much my whole life. Unfortunately the traditional music of my own village of Gabagaba is close to extinction now; not many of my generation know how to dance the old traditional ways. The peroveta style of Sing Sing – which was introduced by Polynesian missionaries – and string band music pretty much took over from the old traditional Gabagaba dances in the past 50 years or so. So I am really inspired by people like my Bubu Billy, who are some of the last songmen of the old pre-colonial era. Bubu Billy taught me traditional music, and his music and the spirit of our ancestry is an influence on the way I think about music and relate to other music.
All log drumming of the Pacific inspires me. While growing up I was fascinated by the stories of how the log drums have travelled around the Pacific over the centuries. I lived in Rarotonga for a little while and learnt about Cook Island drumming, then I learnt about Tahitian drumming while I was in Hawaii.
I guess understanding the full picture of roots, and how cultures and drumming styles have evolved over the past millennia, gave me a good understanding of where to take it next. What things are sacred and should remain where they are, and what elements of our cultures can be used for entertainment and expressing new ideas.
Heavy beats, usually.
Garamut drums, 808 kicks, Kundu, Warups, all the sounds of Melanesia mixed with MPC, basically. I like rootsy sounds that have some kind of story to them. I don’t usually sample much vinyl anymore; I usually sample recordings I’ve made myself in the islands and use them in the MPC so the samples themselves are part of the story.
Is it possible to tell the story of a region like West Papua with a soundscape?
Yes, and we need to tell that story. But there are so many stories to be told. There are so many sides to West Papua. It is such a complex, beautiful yet violent, and unique place that you could never give the full story with a soundscape. But perhaps you can communicate a feeling, a sense of beauty clashing with violence, of ancient culture clashing with oppression, of human beings living in complete balance with nature clashing with the world’s largest gold mine, who ruthlessly exploit their land.
The whole island of Niu Guinea, from Sorong to Samarai, is the only place you will find the Birds of Paradise. They are possibly the most beautiful birds in the world. And these birds are represented in the dances and songs of our people. These birds flying above lands where massacres have taken place. There is over 500,000 West Papuan deaths under the military of Indonesia, that’s half a million stories to be told. They need to be, but with music we can only give you a feeling of it. It really is the responsibility of international media to tell these stories and for the free world to demand they be heard.
What about urban Papua New Guinea – how does that influence your music?
Well I guess it’s more than an influence. Most of the crew in my band live in Moresby, Markham, Dadiigii, Paluai Sook Sook, so what you see on stage is urban PNG. So I guess I am part of that story. I grew up in the city, pretty much between Darwin and PNG. Many stories there have inspired my music, like the Pagahill Art Resistance, where a settlement resisted eviction and takeover by a major real estate company. They used art to spread awareness about it and to engage and unite the young people. Moresby is one of the best places you can visit if you have the time to meet people. Once you get over the fear factor about ‘rascals’ and actually connect with real people and places you will find it’s one of the most beautiful and fascinating places, and a pretty successful multicultural city. The settlements are not just breeding grounds for crime, but some like Pagahill are more like urban villages, with their own system of family and community, from which some of our region’s most talented and creative minds are emerging.
I have heard that Melbourne was apparently #1 most livable city, and Port Moresby was third from the bottom of the list. But it’s funny, because I live in Melbourne but I’d rather live in Moresby.
What should we expect for your performance at Boomerang?
Penis gourds and phallic dances, headhunters and cannibals.
Ha-ha, not really. PNG: they call it Land of the Unexpected.
Boomerang Festival, October 4–6