Here comes the sun

En­rap­tured by Narasirato’s mu­sic, Jane Corn­well ac­cepts the band’s in­vi­ta­tion to travel to their re­mote is­land home­land to see where it all be­gan

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

THE dinghy’s out­board mo­tor slows to a steady putt-putt as we leave the coral la­goon and hang a left up a nar­row river flanked by man­grove swamps. Af­ter a five-hour jour­ney across open ocean from Ho­niara, the cap­i­tal of Solomon Is­lands, we’re fi­nally close to Oterama. The ham­let (pop­u­la­tion 142) on re­mote Malaita is­land is home to one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary bands this side of par­adise, Narasirato.

A sprawl­ing col­lec­tive of farm­ers and fish­er­men, Narasirato play an ar­ray of bam­boo in­stru­ments — stomp­ing tubes, slit log drums and that most mis­un­der­stood of eth­nic in­stru­ments, the pan­pipe — in haunt­ing, funky and com­pelling ways. Their stage shows, which see them body-painted, shel­ladorned and bare­foot in bark loin­cloths, have wowed au­di­ences ev­ery­where from Roskilde in Den­mark to Fuji Rock in Ja­pan and the Glas­ton­bury fes­ti­val in Eng­land. Next month they play Wo­made­laide’s 20th an­niver­sary and re­lease their new al­bum Warato’o. In the mean­time they’ve in­vited us here, to their (nearly) lost world.

‘‘ If you visit us, you will un­der­stand us,’’ said Narasirato’s mu­si­cal di­rec­tor and lead pan-piper Do­na­tion Man­u­asi, speak­ing at a fes­ti­val in Nor­way where I met the band: a 14-piece group when tour­ing and up to 50 mu­si­cians when at home. Af­ter com­ing off­stage to a stand­ing ova­tion the band’s mem­bers — charis­matic lead singer Aloy­sius Ma’asi­no­rao; dread­locked thong-o-phone player Wil­lie Ai­takara; burly dancer and pan­piper Peter ‘‘ Peter the Great’’ Ha­hau — had changed into hood­ies and jeans and were sit­ting in a hud­dle in the fes­ti­val bar. Most ques­tions were an­swered Me­lane­sianstyle: silently, with a back­ward tilt of the head and a swift raise of the eye­brows.

‘‘ You will see how we live,’’ said the 45-year-old Man­u­asi, a good-na­tured fa­therof-five. ‘‘ Our life­style is un­der threat from log­ging, min­ing, cli­mate change. We want the world to sit up and take no­tice. To see that our cul­ture is our life.’’

So along with Narasirato’s man­ager Ja­son May­all (son of the Bri­tish blues leg­end John May­all and pro­gram­mer of Fuji Rock, Ja­pan’s largest mu­sic fes­ti­val), two of his friends, four re­turn­ing vil­lagers and a week’s worth of sup­plies, I set off in an early morn­ing rain­storm from Ho­niara’s port, the World War II grave­yard that is Iron Bot­tom Sound. The few Western­ers who have vis­ited Oterama in the past (an­thro­pol­o­gists, mu­si­col­o­gists, mis­sion­ar­ies) have done so on the once-a-week, 24-hour slow boat called Small Mala. Hitch­ing a ride on an OBM (out­board mo­tor­boat) is a treat.

The past few hours have been spent in blaz­ing sun­shine. Which seems only fit­ting: Narasirato means ‘‘ cry for sun­shine’’ in the lan­guage of their Are’are peo­ple, a dis­tinct tribal group­ing within trop­i­cal, moun­tain­ous south­ern Malaita. ‘‘ Ev­ery time Narasirato play the sun comes out,’’ says rock’n’roll­hard­ened May­all, 50, drag­ging on a roll-up. ‘‘ Glas­ton­bury was so wet that Wil­lie stepped on a nail while walk­ing around bare­foot and had to have a tetanus shot. But when the band played the clouds parted.’’

But right now, as we chug along­side man­groves, the sun is ob­scured by thick vir­gin rain­for­est, and the river criss-crossed by shad­ows. The air is heavy, moist. By the time the boat pulls up next to a sandy land­ing pad, as we un­lock our legs and step into calf-deep water, some­thing doesn’t feel right. Aside from the odd noise of the jun­gle — bird song, mosquito buzz, the splash and scut­tle of mud crabs — it’s quiet. Too darn quiet. When a conch shell blows and a flimsy spear comes hurtling out of nowhere, hit­ting the side of the boat with a tink, there are gig­gles. Chil­dren’s faces daubed war­rior-style peer out be­hind trees; other spears are hurled equally in­ef­fec­tively. ‘‘ Don’t hurt us!’’ we say, grin­ning. ‘‘ Just take us to Narasirato.’’

The mem­bers of our pip­squeak wel­come party holler, turn tail and bolt off down a muddy track, a bare-bot­tomed tod­dler wind­milling his arms be­hind them. ‘‘ That’s one of my boys,’’ says our skip­per, pan­piper Michael Manepaewa, 40. ‘‘ He al­ready plays the pan.’’

Then just as sud­denly, we hear them. Pan­pipes trilling. Stomp­ing tubes stomp­ing. The thwack and bounce of bam­boo per­cus­sion. The same poly­phonic sounds with which the Are’are (pro­nounced ari-ari) have en­ter­tained each other for more than 75 gen­er­a­tions, us­ing unique tun­ings, melodies and sounds that mimic those of na­ture and vil­lage life.

Pan­pipe or­ches­tras are well known in the Solomons, an ar­chi­pel­ago of nearly 1000 is­lands (and more than 70 lan­guages) stretch­ing 1400km across the south­west Pa­cific (Ho­niara is a three-hour flight from Bris­bane). In a place where cus­toms are handed down through gen­er­a­tions, where Are’are cul­ture wasn’t recorded in writ­ing un­til the 1960s, the­o­ries on the ori­gin of the Me­lane­sian pan­pipe vary: maybe a pro­to­type came in with Span­ish ex­plor­ers in the 1500s. Per­haps some­one heard the wind blow­ing over a piece of bro­ken bam­boo in the for­est.

The great Swiss-french eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Hugo Zemp, who lived with the Are’are peo­ple in the 1970s, was told of the myth of the pur­ple swamp hen, a bird that pil­fered gar­den pro­duce un­til it was lured by the sound of a flute cut from bam­boo stalk and killed. Tubes of var­i­ous pitches were then tied to­gether, cre­at­ing the first pan­pipe — the ‘‘ tradewinds bam­boo’’.

To­day’s pan­pipes range from small so­prano in­stru­ments to huge blown bass pipes that swivel on stands. Some pipes are for en­sem­ble play­ing; oth­ers are played solo. The hu­mon­gous thong-o-phone, which fea­tures open-ended tubes hit with rub­ber wedges (a legacy of the san­dals worn by Amer­i­can sol­diers in the 1960s, which re­placed co­conut husks), can be wielded by up to four peo­ple at once.

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