Chasing Waterfalls

If your musical interests extend beyond the industrialized world, you're sure to run into field recordings sooner or later. But that doesn't mean you have to like them. Field recordings are for scholars, obsessives, eccentrics, obscurantists, and pseuds. As resources, realms of knowledge, the musics they preserve are invaluable. But because they're local by definition, their value isn't designed to travel, much less resonate with the unacculturated. Back in the '70s—after living in the Bosavi region of Papua New Guinea for months, becoming fluent in Kaluli dialect and intimate with the many Kaluli songs he heard and recorded—Steven Feld composed and performed and was ultimately moved to tears by his own mourning song for two anthropologist colleagues who'd returned to the States. Only then, he believes, did he begin to get inside the way music felt to the Kaluli themselves. This, Feld suggests, is something all too few ethnomusicologists manage. So how is a simple rock and roller or "world music" fan going to do the trick?

This puzzle hasn't stopped MacArthur laureate Feld from constructing several albums of Kaluli songs and sounds, all author royalties to the Bosavi People's Fund and the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. And for me and whoever else happens to grok this sliver of the audiosphere, his inconsistency betokens a large mind. As rafts of scholars, pseuds, and Banana Republic customers have demonstrated, you needn't get terribly far inside something to get something out of it; one might even argue that such expectations are puritanical. And so, while remaining unmoved by ethnographic recordings from Indonesia to Nubia to Alabama to Belize, I've connected big time to Smithsonian Folkways' rich and lovely three-CD Bosavi.

Bosavi is a major rain forest in the foothills of the extinct volcano for which it's named, home to 2000 people all told. Twelve hundred of these are Kaluli, who like all Bosavi people sleep communally in scattered longhouses and spend their days fishing, hunting, gardening, and scraping a starchy staple called sago from the wild palms that grow around their homeland's many streams. Or anyway, that's how they lived before white explorers zapped them in 1935. What with Christian missionaries threatening hellfire, governments regulating burial and such, and logging and mining companies tempting their young with money and commodities, things have gotten a lot more complicated. In fact, most of the ceremonial songs on Disc III are nearly extinct in ritual form. Some of these were recent imports, brought in by visiting carriers or relatives from other Bosavi locales. But gisalo was the pride of the Kaluli, and the performance by Halawa on Track 5 took place at the very last all-night gisalo ceremony, in 1984. Maybe the ritual will come back—Feld's work has already helped fuel an indigenous neotraditionalist tendency. But it will obviously never be the same.

Ulahi, the Billie Holiday of Melanesia
photo: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Ulahi, the Billie Holiday of Melanesia


Listen to Robert Christgau's "Dean's List" Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m., on Village Voice Radio.

It's impossible to read Feld's Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression without experiencing this runaway evolution as loss. Here is a tiny people that developed a complex poetic-onomatopoeic grammar for its seven-voweled language (beet, bait, bet, bot, boot, boat, and bought but not bite, bit, or but) brimming with bird imitations and water sounds. Kaluli deploy (or deployed) a metaphor system based primarily on place names—7000 are cited in the 1000 songs Feld has transcribed—and designed to provoke weeping. Often weeping itself is (or was) literally sung, by women emulating the melodic contours of certain fruitdove calls. Most Kaluli musical terms derive from the vast vocabulary they use to describe waterfalls, as perhaps does the overarching aesthetic Feld translates as "lift-up-over sounding," in which musical elements are layered in patterns whose apparent imprecision is intrinsic to their lifelike movement. It's outrageous that Christian evangelicals could treat this culture with the ignorant contempt sketched in the CD booklet—if anything, the superiority lies with the heathens. But does that mean I'm tempted to follow the text of Halawa's gisalo, to which Feld devotes 50 pages?

Unfortunately, but also inevitably, no. The place names of Kaluli metaphor compound geographical specificity ("this tree by that creek . . . ") with psychological specificity. They graph unique personal interactions within a topography only Kaluli who've roamed Bosavi for decades can comprehend. So even if a musical tourist were to penetrate the narrative references and subtle grammatical and rhetorical poetics called into play, a bare semblance of emotional connection would be the most he or she could hope for. For me, knowing about all this is fascinating and satisfying enough. And as Feld, who is intensely aware of the contradictions of his calling, understands full well, I would never have gotten that far if the Kaluli—who since white people started watching have devoured musical novelties from as near as eastern Bosavi and as far off as the U.S.A. (they preferred Feld's Sidney Bechet cassette to his Bird cassette, which they found way too fast)—hadn't embraced a new fad: guitar bands.

With their imported instruments, unison vocals, modern-to-Christian concerns, and roots in interlonghouse competitions set up by the government-run regional high school, the guitar bands are the musical manifestation—which in such a sonic culture means the definitive one—of the destruction of everything Feld holds dearest in Kaluli life as well as Kaluli music: "lift-up-over sounding" 's out-of-phase synchronicity, coming-together-within-chaos, self-starting cooperation, participatory discrepancy. At first, he feared and even deplored what the new music represents, but he's made his adjustment. Where the Papua New Guinea name for the style is "string band," the Kaluli call it gita gisalo, linking their pronunciation of "guitar" with their signature genre. In addition to radiating the kind of instant charm that often graces undeveloped guitar musics—low on bass though they may be, their declarative tunes and guileless vocal projection are hard not to like—the 19 guitar-band songs that fill Disc I of Bosavi take up themes of loss and sharing that are consciously Kaluli. Feld also notes that many of the bands are fronted by married couples, and that one performs the first Kaluli song ever about the pervasive practice of wife beating—genuine progress, cash nexus or no cash nexus.

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