The thing about the George Telek/David Bridie collaboration is that it has gone on for years. Twenty years in fact. So not a superficial “world music” bandwagon thing then. This collaboration could not have taken place anywhere else in the world. It is wholly and completely an Australasian sound.
It is a genuine exchange between two artists from differing musical cultures.
I recently saw them live in Logan in the heart of working class suburban Brisbane, playing to a predominately PNG and Samoan community audience, with Ben Hakalizt (from Yothu Yindi) playing absolutely sublime drums, mostly with brushes. Ben must have been in this collaboration for at least 10 years by now as well. The music is unique, nothing else sounds like it.
The base of the Telek/Bridie sound has the poignancy of the blues, but it is not rooted in the second hand blues and C&W that so much, so called Australian music tends to be.
The unique close harmonies of PNG string band style are mashed up with Bridie’s postmodern keyboard chops and a very contemporary rhythmic structure. I would argue that nobody else has dedicated themselves to this kind of exploration towards an Australiasian sound so successfully as these two. Most other “rock” or “contemporary” Australian music I hear just sounds English or American to me. Bridie has dived into, not only the sound, but the whole political and colonial politics of PNG and West Papua…he’s not popped in to make a quick album and a quick buck, he’s changed his life and he takes his cultural/social/political responsibilities as seriously as he takes his musical ones.
The contemporary music in PNG is not just George of course; it’s and wild and developing scene that is right on our doorstep, and we ignore it most of the time while we name bridges in Brisbane after Talking Heads impersonators… ;-).
Bridie first meets George, in 1986, and they musically collaborate two years later on the Not Drowning Waving, Tabaran album.
George is in his 50s, and he began his journey into music on a drum kit while working at a Bougainville copper mine. He went on to play guitar and ukulele and started singing in the 1970s with the Moab String Band. Georges’ voice is remarkable, and a deep learning curve for sound engineers everywhere. It at first appears to be a whisper but it’s actually a roar. The release of Tabaran brought him to the attention of Peter Gabriel who invited him to appear at Womadelaide in 1992. George’s solo CD Telek was released on the Australian label Origin, and won the ARIA for best world music album. The Serious Tam album was then recorded at Real World with other tracks from the Origin album re-mixed. He received an MBE in 2000 for his services to PNG music, and his high status as a musician in PNG has got nothing to do with Real World: he was already well famous long before Mr. Gabriel caught on. He lives in Rabaul with his wife and seven children.
The PNG string band sound evolves from two separate streams of influence, as far as I can tell. The missions and the missionaries with their gospel harmonies, while George says the guitar sounds emerge as a result of black American servicemen during World War II. Once again the blues is there as a universal influence, but it’s there as an influence not as three chords to be to be endlessly (religiously) imitated at festivals in Byron Bay and pubs the length and breadth of this wide brown land. I find the fact that a close neighbour of ours has taken the blues and gospel and twisted them into something unique incredibly stimulating, a huge challenge to the excepted norms of how Australian music has evolved.
The development of the PNG rock music identity, then, is not the result of 1950s C&W and rock’n’roll on the radio and bloody Countdown on the telly; it’s been an organic process, morphing and evolving acquired cultures while not being dominated by them.
I should declare a conflict of interest, of course: I am proud to have played synth “bilas” on two of Georges’ CDs.
I also love Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters as much as the next bloke. But hey, when we talk about “Australian rock” what exactly do we mean?
(This is a guest by post by regular Johnnys’ reader, Eric Sykes)