Literature, Music and the Environment in Traditional and Contemporary Papua New Guinea

Literature, Music and the Environment in Traditional and Contemporary Papua New Guinea

Apisai Enos & Steven Gagau

This article was prompted by Phil Fitzpatrick’s series on ‘Literature in Papua New Guinea’ in PNG Kundu, and our involvement recently in preparing a paper on aspects of traditional and contemporary literature and music, and how culture and the environment play an integral part in it. This paper was our contribution to a recent exhibition at the Chau Chak Wing Museum of the University of Sydney entitled ‘Pacific Views’. This exhibition of historical photographs of the Pacific was combined with songs and poetry created by artists of the Pacific. Two of these artists, Apisai Enos and John Kasaipwalova, were from Papua New Guinea.

The traditional cultures of Papua New Guinea, including that of the Tolai, were, and still are, oral. Our stories, our poems, our drama, and our music are not written. They exist in people’s heads to be told and sung to children and youths and to be passed on from generation to generation. The problem is if they are not written or recorded for future generations’ use, they naturally die out with the people and are lost in the tombs of history.

Traditional literature and music were and still are popular functions and integral parts of the whole way of life of people of Papua New Guinea with active roles in the process of upbringing, initiations, and socialisation of children and youths to live in their villages and tribes peacefully and harmoniously. 

Storytelling and singing are the two most popular things people do in their daily life. In the evenings after meals and in the moonlight the parents and elders of the village tell their children and youths stories from their tubuna (ancestors) folklore and mythology. Stories about how their tribe originated, how the coconut tree came about, why thunders roar and lightning explodes in the sky, where do their relatives go when they die. They also love to sing and dance to their kundu drums and garamut and to dress and decorate themselves with feathers and plumes of Birds of Paradise, kina shells and necklaces, possum teeth and beads and to paint their faces and bodies with traditional paint of bright colours like red, yellow, blue, and black. Feasting and singsing is a popular part of their traditional life.

3 books

Besides music for feasts and ceremonies, they have music for children, music for initiations and celebrations, music for courtship and love, music for marriage, farewell and welcome music, death and mourning music, magic music, music for warfare and peacemaking, music for completion of a new house or garden, music for building a new canoe, and music for building a new kundu drum or garamut.

There are different kinds of traditional music in Papua New Guinea and they reveal two important features.

There is hardly an occasion, whether ceremonial, social, or connected with work or a time of life from babyhood to death at which music does not play a part, and despite differences in the actual musical sound in different parts of the country, most people have the same kinds of music, which is performed on similar occasions or for similar purposes. The differences are like variations on a common theme, which the traditional societies share.

Traditional oral literature is alive and dynamic.

It is not just an archive or museum of the past, but a living function created by the people to serve them. It is a part of them and as such they will continue to compose new stories, poems, and drama to express their experiences, their attitudes and perceptions, their visions, and dreams about the drama of the life they live with each other and with their environments in their villages and tribes.

Traditional literature and music are functional parts of the people’s relationship and interaction with their environments. The environment is viewed as consisting of mountains and valleys, forests and bushes, oceans and rivers, and the ground on the one hand and of cosmic spirits, ancestral spirits, and spirits of the dead on the other hand all living together in one world—the world of nature and the supernatural world of spirits. People are viewed as part of the environment because they originated from it, and they depend on it for their survival.

They are also related to their environment because the spirits of their dead relatives live in the environment and because cosmic spirits empower their magic, rituals, and sorcery practices. Not only that but through their relationship to spiritual contact, and associations, songs, stories, bilas for singsing are revealed to people in dreams by the spirits. As such, the people must treat their environment ecosystem with love, respect, and care. They must look after and care for the trees and plants, the birds and animals, the insects and reptiles, the fish, prawns, and crabs because they use them for bilas and singsing, for food and traditional medicine. These traditional views, perceptions, and attitudes of the people towards their environments regulate and control their relationship and interactions with their environments.

The composition and content of traditional literature and music is inspired by the relationship and interaction between people and their environment and by the mixing up of the supernatural, natural, and the human experience into one flash back consciousness from which a composer of a song or a story composes not in a sequential and logical way but according to what comes to his or her mind when composing. Without accompanying notes or explanations about the background of the song or story and the symbolism used, a full understanding and appreciation of what the song or story is all about is not possible.

Apisai Enos

Contemporary literature is written and usually associated with the new written culture of Papua New Guinea introduced by the coming of Europeans and missionaries to Papua New Guinea in the 19th century. The coming of the Europeans also meant the introduction of writing and the European Culture to Papua New Guinea. It also meant the introduction of Christianity to Papua New Guinea. It was the beginning of cultural change and development in the country and, as a result, we now have our traditional cultures and the European Cultures which are closely associated with their class-oriented and aristocratic societies in which literature and arts have become adjunct for the elites and intellectuals rather than a popular function for the people like our traditional literature was and still is.

Contemporary literature in its written form is a new medium of communication in Papua New Guinea and as such it is still unpopular because the majority of educated Papua New Guineans have not really developed the love for reading books and printed information and because of the impact of modern technology on the people especially the young educated generation who prefer to see and listen to television, radio, films and movies, live shows and events, the internet, digital media for music and drama entertainment rather than read books and develop an interest in writing.

Steven Gagau

Music on the other hand is different because in music and in music alone, it is possible for the artist or the composer to appeal to his or her audience directly without the intervention of a medium of communication in common use for other purposes. The architect must express himself or herself in buildings which have utilitarian purpose. The poet must use words which are bandied about in the daily give and take of conversation. The painter usually expresses himself or herself by the representation of the visual world, and the novelist by the printed word.

Only the composer of music is perfectly free to create a work of art of his or her own consciousness and usually with no other aim than to please, though all arts have the same common purpose to please. As such contemporary Papua New Guinea music being created and composed by individual artists and musical bands in Papua New Guinea is popular locally and internationally because music is the soul of man. Music composers of contemporary PNG music are writing their songs in English, Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, Tok Ples and they are also mixing up a bit of all languages to maintain audiences and because they are including traditional musical sounds, rhythm and styles into their composition, it gives traditional cultural flavour and identity.

In the past, it has been the outsiders writing about Papua New Guinea and Papua New Guineans. Now it is time for the Papua New Guineans to present to the world their inside views about who they were yesterday and who they are today and to continue to sing their songs about the life they will live even if there is no more reason to do so.

A bird sings
not because he has a reason
nor because he knows why
but because he has a song.

                                    Apisai Enos 1972

About the authors

Apisai Enos is the author of publications in the Papua Pocket Poets series namely High Water: Poems (1971), Warbat: Magic Love Songs of the Tolais (1971) and Tabapot: Poems and Designs (1975) amongst others unpublished.

Now 80 years old Apisai is a retired public servant, educationist, writer and poet. He hails from Vunakaur village, Toma-Vunadidir LLG, Gazelle District of East New Britain Province and is of the Tolai cultural heritage. He has worked at all levels of governments (national, provincial, local) for six decades from 1960s–2000s. At the time of the Pacific Views exhibition in Sydney, he still had the same passion as a seminal contemporary poet and artist.

Steven Gagau, a Tolai of Gunantuna cultural heritage, is a consultant, researcher and community collaborator with the University of Sydney, involved in developing strategies and projects for community-led engagement with archival and curatorial materials for the preservation of language, music, and culture. Based at PARADISEC (Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures), he works on Pacific collections, Pacific exhibitions with Chau Chak Wing Museum and supports ANU based CoEDL (Centre of Excellence in The Dynamics of Language) on PNG’s Tok Pisin language projects.

Steven is a leader of the PNG, Melanesia and Pasifika diaspora community in Sydney and is affiliated with various professional bodies, voluntary, cultural and community organisations.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

Leave a Reply