An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
I CAN clearly recall grandpa’s words: “Yu mas singsing tumbuna singsing. Nongut bihain tiksa blong yu askim yu long singsing” (You need to know traditional songs. Who knows, you might one day be asked by your teacher to sing one).
It sounded funny to me, and I took it as one of those many boring grandpa lectures. It doesn’t make sense, I thought.
Not until years later when I came to appreciate my origins more and further realised my cultural identity was fast diminishing.
It was on one of those less starry-nights more than a decade ago when old grandpa Wapar told me that while we were enjoying the warmth of the coconut-husk fire beside his bedside.
He was singing to me after our conversation so as to emphasize his point.
At intervals I’d glance at grandma Sawoi who was lying on a fanga (mat woven from coconut leaves) against the wall and cackled at the way grandfather would struggle to sing and get the words out from his almost toothless mouth.
Grandma would join me then in a chorus of laughter that drowned grandfather’s croaky voice.
But then, eventually, my heart would break at the sight of him whistling the melody hoarsely with tears in his eyes.
The sound of the warm ocean breeze against the coconut leaves and the constant crashing of waves against drifted logs washed ashore provided the background to his continuous throaty humming.
A few dry coughs would abruptly interrupt him.
“I wish I’m still young so you can see how I sing and dance,” he told me emotionally that night.
“You just can’t sing anymore,” I’d thought to myself, sadly.
Four years ago, while doing my second year at the Divine Word University (DWU), his words became a reality.
It was in those weeks leading to one of my most exciting extra-curricular activities, the annual DWU Cultural Show, that I put his words into action.
After having danced the previous year without proper traditional attire, I promised myself to come out shining and in full gear the following year.
However I didn’t expect what was coming, which I grasped with all my heart. I realised later that it was a memorable event in my life.
I joined a bunch of Sepik students in the short walk from the student mess to the practice area on that humid evening in August 2008, feeling all psyched-up.
But when we settled at the practice venue, it hit us that there was no one to teach us something to perform for the show.
All was quiet while we awaited suggestions for a potential group from around Madang town which we could hire to assist us.
Now, a different kind of fire began to burn in me; to stand up and take the lead.
After a few minutes I couldn’t hold back any longer. My hand shot up before I realised. I knew the time had come for me to take pride in my cultural heritage, particularly my Tarawai origin.
I took to the front amidst a few claps and cheers and in no time began writing the lyrics on the white board with ease and accuracy.
“Bika bika narandue…,” I wrote the first line of one of Tarawai’s most ancient traditional songs; the wale b’leh. The song was last sung and danced when I was a kid spending my days naked, splashing in water on the beach of our little hamlet, Muote’.
But the writing was not all, as I had to sing what I had written. Breathing heavily I gathered whatever courage was left in me and managed a few spluttered lines all the while picturing grandpa tapping his wooden head-rest with his pointer and whistling.
This time it was me tapping the nearest table top with the palm of my right hand to maintain the desired tempo.
I sang with my eyes fixed on the wall. I wished grandpa was there to meet my eyes and guide me with his bony fingers.
I didn’t know how I looked in front of my friends that night but the compliments at the end of the practice said it all.
After several days I gained quite a degree of popularity among my fellow Sepiks. Of course it was a relief listening to them sing on their own the two pieces of wale b’leh I had taught.
The sun was up early and we expected the usual hot sunny day in beautiful Madang. The DWU cultural day had arrived and the show was just hours away. Excitement was in the air as were students in varied and colourful traditional attire. The sound of kundu, garamut and the tinklingsea shells filled the air.
Finally, after our call blared over the PA system, I nervously led my troupe of beautifully decorated dancers to the arena.
The wale b’leh comprises various dances complementing the songs, and the one we performed had dancers in two straight lines, one of which I led.
The moment my lips parted to let the lyrics out, I felt nothing else in the world mattered.
With the sharp female voices providing the backdrop and unremitting cheers from the audience, I moved to the kundu beat like I never did before.
“Bika bika narandue….e-e
I knew old Wapar would have been a proud grandpa if only he was there to see me sing and dance.
I thought of myself as a true Papua New Guinean as I had done something to promote my unique identity.
Nonetheless I didn’t get to tell grandpa all about this special event. Wapar died several months into the third year of my study.
Sitting beside his brown wooden coffin just metres away from the fireplace, I chanted a few lines of wale b’leh between heavy sobs.
“Bika bika narandue..e-e…
“E….e-e-e-e a…wiwi wiwi wih”
I guess he must have smiled at me and proudly sang along with his most beautiful voice as he sailed to the land of the dead.
Kuokei, tei beleh’ kileyeunande’!