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Melanesian cultural authenticity lies in the hands of the people


A VIDEO clip of dance groups participating in a recent provincial cultural show triggered past memories.

Growing up, I remember participating in singsings in my village. They lasted three weeks.

The first week was night dancing, typically a youth affair and less formal. We locked arms, formed a big circle and danced into the early hours of the night.

This transitioned into two weeks of daytime singsings, the entire community participating. Now there was a significant and different tenor. Fully decorated, we stood in a long line and danced to the beat of our kundu drums until dusk.

Body decoration for the singsings took several hours to apply and provided an ideal opportunity for the elders to remind us about the deep-rooted rituals, rites, norms and behaviour that governed our lives.

As we danced, the elders sat in front, gazing at us and reviewing our performance. Their observations and comments ranged from light-hearted to disheartening.

All the while, they re-affirmed our inherent leadership qualities, fighting skills and, at times, predicted the potentially ill-fated outcome they may await some of us.

The entire singsing series was a celebration and expression of our community identity. We danced, laughed, experienced sheer enjoyment and feasted on slaughtered pigs and possums.

More important than fun and joy, these events reiterated values based on sacred thoughts and concepts. They gave us a sense of our autonomy, peoplehood and identity. They provided the social and cultural glue that held us together and provided an internal combustion that drove our external behaviour.

In the last 40 years, however, the singsing events and the expressions of cultural identity have taken on a different meaning.

The shows are now sponsored by institutions like provincial governments and schools. The ceremonies are packaged, coached and staged. They are rewarded with cash and other prizes based on performance criteria arbitrarily established by committees.

These committees usually consist of PNG’s educated elites and some members of the expatriate community. Their judging is based on the staging and the optics of commercial appeal.

And so the events have become marketing opportunities for the hospitality industry. The participants willingly oblige and perform for an audience whose values and understandings are different.

The schools are part of this change by encouraging one-day cultural experiences. This is based on a misguided notion that wearing bilas for a day somehow will substitute for the daily hands-on participation in the community.

Without daily community engagement, the children end up spending the remaining 364 days watching videos and occupying in activities other than cultural engagement.

Cultural expression needs to be based on values rooted in a way of life, norms and practices. Values provide the compass that drives our behaviour and measures who we are.

Traditional singsing events embodied the authenticity of the Melanesian way of life.

They were about accepting ourselves and  embracing virtues like hospitality and friendship, welcoming and feeding strangers, respecting mothers and sisters, promoting peace and harmony, listening to elders, exercising humility and kindness, loving each other, making individual efforts and encouraging collective success.

Above all, they would appreciate and reinforce the spiritual context from which the Melanesian values drew strength. All these virtues ran deeper than tribal boundaries and language groups.

The true keepers of our cultural treasures are our people - families, parents and elders - not government-mandated programs, schools, museums or the hospitality industry.

We need to teach our children the same time-tested truth and wisdom our elders taught us to help preserve the uniquely Melanesian well-being, peace and harmony of our community.

From this firm footing, we can be discriminating in choosing the external values that presently we are unwittingly chasing after.

Joe Herman grew up in Enga and now live in the city of Seattle in the United States


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Michael Dom

I'm on this schedule.

Grace Painale

Great inspirational story.

The trend has changed now and those events no longer exist but are performed in schools and at events outside the originating settings of the cultural dances.

Lindsay F Bond

Transitions beyond traditions,
to 'grand slams' and 'expositions'?
What grandeur in the whelming of willing which was bipo.
As evident in comments following Joe, yearning is a lingering.
Yet it speaks of an age not of lingerers but participants.
Participate, says Joe. Choose. Cultivate food, also cultivate mode.
If it lies in hands, first it lives in minds, then warms in hearts.
I am impressed by the energy I saw visiting Enga.

Timothy Kevin Yati

That was an amazing story that I had heard from my parents that that occasion was used to took place during that time and Joe Herman was participated in it, so as the other cultural activities. Thus he was one the judged guy during those times that he would be somebody in the future, the elders had predicted via their talented anointing wisdoms given by God.
Thanks Dad Joe Herman 💔💓❤️ safe stay in USA.

Emmanuel Yopo

Excellent piece of writing. I am in support of Daniel that this must be written and compiled. Kept in museums and so on.

And yes an awesome piece by Joe who I only hear stories about. A long time since he left us but yes your story telling as if it happened yesterday. You were once my father's best friend who named my first born sister after your name which is Joemy.

Aimos Joseph Akem

Joe Herman participated in thhe Kepelam Malis in his days. The Last of the Kepelam Mali was in 1999 but ended prematurely due to a tribal warfare. We miss those Engan Malis, Sangai, Akali Anda Mana pii and many more. I sometimes wish I lived in the past like Daniel and Joe did. We the current generation is not in the past nor in the future but in a lost in between culture that has no roots. We are indeed lost. Thanks for this piece apan Joe.

Aimos Joseph Akem,
Kepelam, Enga

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

I can remember you dressed in traditional dress once - with the many 'yambales' (aprons) and giant mushroom shaped wig made of human hair with a couple of Miok bird of paradise feathers swaying in the wind. And a ‘agarenge’ (headband) on your forehead. Was it at Pausa High School during Cultural Show in 1972? And do you remember some of us students from Kandep including late Simili Alonk also attired in our own 'Kandepen' way of bilas?

Later in adult life, I took part in three other singsings at home and yes elders had predicted something or other about me based on the way I danced and presented myself in public. One of their predictions came to pass.

Those days are over and beginning to be replaced by a contemporary PNG life style like Martyn rightly says. Nobody can reverse it - it seems. The best thing we can do is record all our experiences down now - in whatever form - for our children to read. What we write now will stay written and will be invaluable one day.
Let’s see more of it coming. I can see that your memory is still sharp despite living away from Engaland for many years. CHEERS

Martyn Namorong

Not to mention situations where one kind of tribal performance is meant to represent a province.

I don't go to any of the "cultural days/shows" any more. They're full of clichés.

I know some young people go just to check out other young people and collect phone numbers. Its showbiz and booze with little or no traditional cultural value.

I find it hilarious that some people actually take these events seriously and see them as a way of "preserving culture".

Having said all that, I think what has evolved over the past 40 years is a product of PNG urban society's cultural adaptation to the realities of modernity.

And so let's celebrate this adaptation for what it actually is - contemporary PNG culture flavoured by traditional motifs, song and dance.

In that sense I guess we're witnessing the evolution of traditional culture into contemporary PNG culture.

Michael Dom

I reiterate Barbara: Excellent. Very true.

However, the writer does not pose a solution to the problem which he so clearly expounds upon.

Merely stating that parents have the real responsibility for upholding culture, cultural learning and identity is not a solution.

The well described poor scenario casts full responsibility on parenting and family, but forgets the key input provided by community.

How do we use the existing avenues or what new avenues (for parents?) do we introduce?

Barbara Short

Excellent. Very true.

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