NOOSA – The sudden death last week of one of Papua New Guinea’s best known entertainers has both saddened the nation and raised the hot issue of how PNG treats its gay community.
Moses Tau died soon after collapsing at Port Moresby’s Lamana Hotel, triggering an overwhelming response as thousands of messages of condolence inundated the social media.
The Post-Courier newspaper noted perceptively that Tau had “made a place for the gay community in PNG by forcing this place through his music and performances”.
Government minister Justin Tkatchenko wrote on his Facebook page describing the singer as “vibrant and a true showman”.
“I have lost a wonderful friend who supported me without fear or favour and was so loved and admired by our people. He put fun and joy into our lives,” Tkatchenko said.
Joycelin Leahy observed in her Tribal Mystic blog:
“From simple beginnings, this very colourful and dangerously outrageous talent started a music career. Little did Papua New Guineans truly understand what Moses was up to. Many ridiculed and laughed at Moses’ rhythmic hip pulsating dance movements and high pitched feminine voice which quickly became recognised and loved not only in PNG but across the Pacific islands.
“When Moses stepped on stage, a new era was born in a country closed to gay rights, dominated by men and the ruled by the cultural Melanesian ‘big man’ mentality.”
Tau himself once said:
“It is a very difficult thing in PNG to show your sexuality … is very scary, because it is not an accepted thing in PNG. I just want to do what I have and who I am. I also did it not for myself but for the suffering of we people through many years ago.
“And I told my friends: look, I’ll try it out, if I fail I fail. If I go through it with success, we will all benefit. So I’m targeting to educate the people of this nation to really know that there’s gays living in Papua New Guinea. So I did it. I went through it. It was very painful.”
American law professor Ryan Goodman wrote of Tau’s emergence:
“By the late 1990s, gays were well and truly stigmatised in PNG,” “That was when a gay Motuan gospel singer from Central Province a little to the east of Port Moresby was wooed away from his village gospel group by the PNG recording giant CHM Supersound Studios, who urged him to go solo.
“He adopted a generic Pacific style of singing, using falsetto voice, and so his first song Aito Paka Paka was born. It was an instant hit, and was soon followed by others. The accompanying video clips were all designed by Moses himself: the island-girl dancing style and costumes, lavishly replete with flowers, brightly coloured sarongs, outrageous hats and of course, the Pacific-signature swaying grass-skirt.
“He even managed to work a selection of tropical fruit into the dance scenes—the symbolism is obvious. It was the first public display of cross-dressing and trans-genderism in the country—and it worked wonderfully. Moses became a star.
“Nevertheless, it wasn’t all easy.”
It certainly wasn’t. Tau’s own Motu people through the Motu-Koitabu Council took offence, the chairman stating:
“We [Motu Koitabuans] … do not approve nor do we encourage homosexuality in our society—traditional or contemporary … [we] are disgusted and not happy at all—to say the least—to have a very important and serious aspect of the culture portrayed at a festival for homosexuals.”
Throughout his life, and even in death, Moses Tau continued to be a controversial figure in a PNG society in which many people denounce homosexuality and gay rights with extreme passion.
But as Tau himself said:
“We have these kind of people, this kind of community of people, that live in this country. We have no choice, we can’t change them, but let’s give them a chance to show their package, what they have. Give them a freedom for what they can do, for them to enjoy life. We can’t keep them in a cage for them to live in fear all the time.”
Elvina Ogil tweeted after his death: “Moses Tau gave more to PNG over his life than a few recently deceased Papua New Guineans but Papua New Guineans would rather issue homophobic condemnations than celebrate and respect a man who lived his truth.”
As Ogil suggested, Tau was much more than an entertainer. As a person of insight and purpose, he also understood his community role, “travelling around villages at his own expense, distributing condoms and promoting awareness about gay rights, HIV, the dangers of consuming homebrew alcohol and marijuana”.
“He loved to please! His passing is premature and his music and contribution to the entertainment industry will surely be missed. He sang, he wrote lyrics and most of all he entertained us. I salute you, Moses Tau, and thank you for bringing laughter and music into our lives.”
Moses mother, Shirley Tau, said Tau had throat cancer and had been fundraising for his surgery. She said he always had time to help people in need even as he fell ill in the weeks leading up to his death.
“When Paradise Foods donated him boxes of biscuits after hearing of his fundraising for surgery overseas, Moses took the boxes and drove around the village handing it out to people who needed them” Shirley said.