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The story of Yothu Yindi drummer, Ben Hakalitz

Ben HakalitzSCOTT WAIDE | My Land, My Country

LAE - Nearly half a century ago, when Ben Hakalitz first picked up the drumsticks, little did he know that he would become one of the most travelled Papua New Guinean musicians.

Now 52, Hakalitz is a master of the trade; a drummer whose skills are highly prized and sought after by the industry.

He was born at Angau Hospital in Lae the 1965 to a Morobean mum, Anna, and a Bougainvillean dad, Joseph.

Musical talent ran in the Hakalitz family. As a gifted self-taught guitarist, his dad spent his free time jamming with friends and family. It was in this household that the young Ben grew up.

“I picked up the sticks when I was very young. We used to bang away at mum’s saucepans. Then I started playing in the school band.”

By the age of 12, Hakalitz was on his way to becoming a serious drummer. With older brother David already drumming in live performances, he said it was natural to follow in his footsteps.

The post-independence era of the late 1970s was an important time for Papua New Guinea music. Bands experimented with available studio technology, producing rough-hewn cover versions of popular songs that played on the radio.

It was also a time when creativity and skill flourished.

From Irian Jaya, on the Indonesian side of the border, Black Brothers exported their music to a Pacific audience as Papua New Guinea’s Sanguma Band experimented with a blend of kuakumbas, kundus, garamuts and modern instruments.

These original sounds captivated the imaginations of the young independent nation.

Bougainville was also a developing hub of talented musicians. By Grade 8 in 1978, teenager Ben Hakalitz had already established a small reputation as a skilful drummer within the Arawa community.

“Then I had to go to college,” he says. “I went to learn to be a boiler maker.”

While music was important, education was vital. John Hakalitz encouraged his son to get educated and learn a trade. But finding a job after school didn’t come easy.

“While all my friends, applied and got employed, I was still sending out applications.” Hakalitz says. “Then I said, ‘I’ll just go and do what I’m good at’.”

In the early 1980s, fortune turned in his favour. The manager of a new band – April Sun - called him from Rabaul for a job as a drummer.

“I had to speak to my dad. He was very supportive.”

April Sun travelled the Niugini Islands with Hakalitz on drums. It released tracks that made it to airwaves.

But back home, an important task was incomplete. Hakalitz senior called for his son to return to Bougainville and complete his apprenticeship as a boiler maker.

But even after leaving April Sun, the Hakalitz skills did not go unnoticed. After working a day job for two years, in 1986 Hakalitz got another call. This time from Sanguma band legend, Tony Subam, in Port Moresby.

“Tony called me and I agreed. They wanted me to pack up and leave. I said, ‘I can’t leave now. I have to formally resign from my job’. By then I has been working for two… three years.

Ben Hakalitz at the drums“Again, I had to talk to my dad. As a musician himself, he understood and he supported me.”

The Sanguma experience from 1986 to 1988 gave Hakalitz the opportunity to work with a group of professionally trained musicians.

“I never studied music. I didn’t have a diploma or anything. I was home grown.

“Tony and the other band members, like pianist Buruka Tau, read and wrote their own music.”

To work with the group, the boiler maker developed his own method of reading and writing music.

“I wrote notes that guided me. They were like street signs along the way. After that, you worked by hearing.”

Meeting Tony Subam, led him to a new part of his life journey as a drummer and musician.

Years after going their separate ways, he was asked by Subam to regroup as part of Sanguma. This time it was for an opening act for a new Australian band, Yothu Yindi, led by Mandawuy Yunupingu.

Yothu Yindi marked the start of a new chapter in the spectacular musical story of Ben Hakalitz.

“I signed a contract for three months. Then it was extended to six months.”

Eventually, Hakalitz became Yothu Yindi’s longest serving drummer turning his initial three month contract into a 20-year stint with the band.

Mandawuy YunupinguHe blended into a group that carried an indigenous Australian message of unity, political rights and equality. But in 2013 Mandawuy Yunupingu (pictured right) died of renal failure leaving a large void in the band.

“Officially, Yothu Yindi has not disbanded. But Mandawuy left huge shoes to fill. He was an elder, a leader and an icon.”

Over the 20 years with Yothu Yindi, Hakalitz also played with gospel band, P2UIF. Together, they released several successful albums in Papua New Guinea. P2UIF remains an important part of his spiritual life today as he ventures into new ground in the music business.

Over the next 12 months, Hakalitz expects to release branded drum kits he is currently designing.

““We have to develop a product that we can export. They will have Papua New Guinean designs and built out of maple wood or birch wood. Eventually, we will use PNG wood.


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Pawa Kenny Ambiasi

A raw talent being displayed. The story itself speaks of how brilliant Papua New Guineans are. Papua New Guineans are not to undermine their potential to do wonders in anything they do.

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