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Missionaries almost erased a tribe's history, but for a Pasadena man's tape recorder




Roberts, left, and Gesok, right, post-drum initiation ceremony. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.
Roberts, left, and Gesok, right, post-drum initiation ceremony. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.
Christopher Roberts
Roberts, left, and Gesok, right, post-drum initiation ceremony. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.
The Kam River. Credit Christopher Roberts.
Christopher Roberts
Roberts, left, and Gesok, right, post-drum initiation ceremony. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.
Accomplished songwriter and translator, Paga, shows Roberts a ceremonial drum lizard. Credit Christopher Roberts
Christopher Roberts
Roberts, left, and Gesok, right, post-drum initiation ceremony. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.
A close detail of Roberts' short-scale bass. The filled-in bullet holes reveal it to be the bass from Some Like it Hot. Credit Chris Greenspon/KPCC.
Chris Greenspon
Roberts, left, and Gesok, right, post-drum initiation ceremony. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.
Composer Christopher Roberts, hiking through Papua New Guinea with his short-scale bass on his back. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.
Christopher Roberts


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"Even when speaking, people would become so animated in their voice, it would turn to song in front of you." —Christopher Roberts

Christopher Roberts hiked into the mountains of Papua New Guinea to hone his musical skills in nature. He hoped to find indigenous singers to record; instead, he found a tribe made up entirely of songwriters.

After he graduated from Juilliard in 1980, Roberts, a Pasadena native and classical bassist, followed his curiosity to study musical prosody — our natural ability to compose — in Papua New Guinea. He'd been fascinated by the island since he saw the documentary "The Sky Above, The Mud Below" as a child.

Roberts took his bass and tape recorder with him to the Bultem region, in the Kam Valley near the Indonesian border (circled on the map below), and there he met the Wopkaimin people. To his surprise, every member of the tribe, including small children, could compose songs.

(Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

When Roberts arrived, the Wopkaimin had only recently been exposed to Western technology and languages via the construction of the Ok Tedi Mine in the nearby township of Tabubil. English words and scenes of demolition started entering song lyrics.

When Roberts' stay was over, Wopkai elders implored him to return and record more songs before they were changed any further.  Roberts wrote to the Bechtel Corp., which built the Ok Tedi Mine, to request a grant for another year of research, and to his surprise, Bechtel agreed.

(Bechtel's Ok Tedi gold and copper mine. Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Roberts.)

Singing was a crucial part of daily Wopkaimin communication. Wopkai lyrics gave agricultural and historical accounts of the region, but there were also love songs, initiation rites, and comical bedtime stories.

Based on subject matter, Wopkaimin songs followed certain motifs, or melodic patterns of speech. Each song has its own unique motif, based on an ancient archetype. Roberts says that these motifs came naturally to singers — like a a guitarist's licks — and were often meant to be aural portrayals of the stories being sung. (Tribesman Kayankim's tale of a boy sent on impossible tasks was sung so swiftly, Roberts could not sing it properly.)

"Even when speaking, people would become so animated in their voice, it would turn to song in front of you," says Roberts.

When the Wopkaimin sang together, one singer would start with a phrase and hold the last note until "everyone else jumps in with shortened or upside down versions of the phrase, maybe in a different octave."

Songs were important as a means of passing on ancestral knowledge about the wilderness to Wopkai children. One of Roberts’ main recording liaisons was the ritual curator Gesok, who in 1982 arranged for Roberts to join the Wopkai boys’ initiation for both drums and songs.

Roberts believed this "double graduation" to be "an emergency measure reflecting the amount of change happening around them." Some missionaries burned Wopkaimin ritual houses, which Roberts likens to burning a library. To ensure that their songs were preserved for future generations, the Wopkaimin set aside gender-based customs and allowed Roberts to record songs customarily meant only for men or women to hear.

The Cult House at the center of all of the Wopkaimin hamlets. Courtesy Christopher Roberts.

In his book, "Music of the Star Mountains," Roberts transcribed 200 songs exactly as they were performed and included with it a 73-track CD of his recordings. The book and CD are now important cultural artifacts because by 1984, a year after Roberts’ study, missionaries had stopped Wopkai women from singing anything but church hymns, preventing their children from learning the traditional songs. The book and CD are in the process of gaining distribution in Papua New Guinea.

Of his time with the Wopkaimin, Roberts says he learned that "Everybody can compose. It's a natural gift we all have.”