Ethno Blog Post #3 ‘Oceania Case Study: Papua New Guinea’

Hey class. For this weeks blog post, I’ll be presenting a case study on the corner of the globe referred to as Oceania— narrowing my focus specifically on the musical traditions and culture of Papua New Guinea. I’ve picked this region because of the fascinating and impressive diversity that exists there, which lends itself to a rich and unique culture of music.

‘Oceania’ is a tropical and sub-tropical region which encompasses a substantial chunk of the Southern Pacific Ocean. The area includes the countries of Australia and New Zealand— but also includes the nearly 25,000 islands known collectively as the Pacific Islands (Miller/Shahriari, 62).

To the North of Australia lies the country of Papua New Guinea. While roughly the size of California, PNG is home to around 7 million people and is considered a developing country— seeing more recent economic growth due to the mining of natural resources (Wagner).

I was struck by a fact in our reading this week that PNG is home to over 700 unique languages! Another source said the number is at least 846. It is a truly impressive fact, considering the vast majority of the population is indigenous Melanesian (

Sadly, due to the presence and influence of Christian missionaries, many musical and dance traditions were lost. The Christians believed the ceremonies and performances were “erotic” in nature (Miller/Shahriari, 69) and did their best to kill off any traditions they deemed inappropriate. While this ‘cultural genocide’ of a beautiful and complex artistic history has permanently damaged the culture of indigenous Papua New Guineans, there are still plenty amazing and vibrant musical and cultural traditions that have survived.

My research into these traditions has revealed (and not surprisingly) a rich diversity of sounds and styles. In the video below, there is a relaxed and etherial vibe to the music. A flute of some kind, possibly an ari, plays a constant and circular note who’s pitch is sometimes subtly bent up or down, and occasionally even finds a higher octave. The sound has a distinctly ‘rainforest’ vibe to it to my ears; perhaps similar in some way to the sound of some sort of bird or insect. Late in the video, some drumming and chanting begins. The traditional drums have a quick and powerful attack to them, and the vocalists (both men and women) chant together in a repetitive, trance-like fashion.

This next video shows some traditional dancing and presents a drumming style that is perhaps more technically challenging or virtuosic. To my ears I hear an almost samba-esque groove to this song and style. You can see the intensity of the dancers in this video, and it speaks to the forward, driving motion of the music. While music is nearly always tied to dancing or movement, you can clearly see and feel the importance of the connection between these two art forms here:

The last traditional music I have selected is a video of a soloist playing on a susap mouth harp. I love the bouncing twang that this traditional Papua New Guinean instrument provides. To me there is something so strange sounding about the susap, but also something totally familiar to me. There is also a reverberation-type sound that strikes me with the mouth harp— a quick, ‘springing’ sound that a hand clap will initiate in the right tunnel or room.

Popular Music Traditions:

There is a very cool and fairly unique tradition of pop music that exists in PNG today. Much of the popular music that I explored was highly enjoyable to me and seems to blend the more traditional sounds and instruments with more western pop influences. The same strange flute sounds that can be heard in the first video I posted in this blog seems to greet listeners during the intro of my final musical selection, a pop song by popular Papua New Guinean band, ‘Side Doors’ (below). The singing in the track has possible roots in Christian chants and hymns that were imported to the country decades ago. There is a distinct ukelele-type instrument backing the vocalists, which, combined with the major key, gives a slightly ‘island’ feel to the piece; I hear sand and sunsets and easy-living emanating from the music on all sides. Take a listen and let me know what you think:

Thanks as always for reading my ramblings! I look forward to reading and checking out your Oceanic musical discoveries as well! Have a great week!


Works Cited:

Miller, Terry E., and Andrew C. . Shahriari. World Music: A Global Journey. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print

Wagner, Carey. “Papua New Guinea, Where Violence Can Seem Like the Norm for Women.” N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2014. .

“East & Southeast Asia: Papua New Guinea.” Central Intelligence Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2014. .


One thought on “Ethno Blog Post #3 ‘Oceania Case Study: Papua New Guinea’

  1. Chris,
    Nice post. Interesting region, isn’t it? Some of my favorite music. I don’t have much to critique as far as content goes. You raise some interesting points, you cite your sources, and it is overall a compelling read. As for media, this is video heavy. Not only is is browser intensive, but it’s just too much of the same type of media. Use photos! Photos will really help the flow of your writing, and it can support your research without in a very fluid manner. Give it a try, and maybe pick only the essential 2 videos. PK

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