To the Beat of the Garamut


To the Beat of the Garamut

Goran Poletan

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• ISBN: 978–86–85539–13–8


Papua New Guinea is very likely the last unknown part of the world. It is the last inhabited place explored by the Europeans and only the WWII invasion by the Japanese forces, followed by the Australian and USA offensive against the Japanese, opened some parts of the country to the Western World. The native population of Papua New Guinea suffered very much during the war of the outside powers. Both sides, during the war, recruited young and strong native men forcing them to do all the heavy work including digging trenches in the extremely harsh tropical conditions inside the jungle. It is estimated that more than 50,000 male Papuans lost their lives working as slaves for the American and Japanese forces; however their losses have never been officially counted. This is one of the main reasons why the native population is suspicious and very often hostile towards white people. They know quite well that the Europeans and Americans that come to Papua New Guinea only do so to exploit the country and make a profit for themselves. The missionaries and other “good-doers” are the same. Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries that genuinely try to help the people of Papua New Guinea with their new and independent nation.

It is a great pleasure to read a contemporary book on Papua New Guinea which describes at least some of the efforts of Australian scientists, to collect and preserve the original works of art of the native population of Papua New Guinea and to display them in the local museums, in the country itself, as well as attempt to retrieve them from wealthy American and other private collectors.

“To the Beat of the Garamut” is a book written after extended conversations, over a substantial period of time, between the author and his friend, the art historian and anthropologist Dr. William (Bill) Charles. After a decade of regular meetings and discussions and the great friendship that was created between them, the author of the book made a decision to put on paper and preserve the original experiences from Papua New Guinea that Dr. Charles shared with him. The author’s friend Bill (Dr. Charles), initially travelled to Papua New Guinea to teach in a small village school in the middle of nowhere, deep in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. Living in the forest he learned a lot about the native people, got interested in their works of art and started to collect and study them. After a number of years he became the Curator at the National Museum of Papua New Guinea at Port Moresby, the capital city, and the main port of the country. He travelled through the whole country, met many native people, made many friends and at the same time, studied their works of art and created a great and important collection now displayed in the National Museum at Port Moresby.

It is hard for people in Europe and the Western World in general to imagine how difficult it is to travel through Papua New Guinea, penetrating a country where roads never existed, climbing mountains much higher than The Alps, flying small planes hoping to safely land in a field, fighting malaria and other dangerous diseases and encounter numerous obstacles and difficulties, eventually surviving to share the stories. It is very exciting to explore a country in which, despite sophisticated agriculture in some areas, and extraordinary maritime skills along the coast, the main tools and artifacts are made of wood, bone, pottery or stone. Metal was never used, nor was domestic animal power. The wheel was unheard of. Throughout the country sea shells are very valued, as well as dyes, salt and sago. In the Papuan society the male and female population play different roles. Men are hunters, gatherers and warriors. Women carry out gardening tasks, care for the children and animals, and take care of their household in general.

The people of Papua New Guinea learned to be suspicious of foreigners, so they try to remain isolated from their alien culture. Attempts by missionaries and other visitors from Europe and America to learn the local languages were often met with evasiveness. Papuans would never correct errors made by the foreigners and would allow them to learn just 3 to 400 basic words allowing for basic communication. Many missionaries who have spent more than 40 years in Papua New Guinea are unable to understand the local language. Under the influence of their faith, missionaries have a negative attitude towards the native customs and cult practices; they condemn their dances and feasts, the colorful decorations of the male population etc. They destroy their works of art. All that Dr. Charles experienced during his stay in Papua New Guinea has been recorded in this book, the author doing his best to record and explain what he had learned from his friend Bill.

There is no need to retell the basic storyline of the book or even to go into a detailed description; this would then deprive the reader of the pleasure of reading it. I can only wholeheartedly recommend this book to every reader interested in this far away and exotic country. If you are unable to travel so far and experience the life of the native people of Papua New Guinea yourself, learn about their social and domestic lives, their beliefs and above all see their art and skills, then you can rest assured that you will learn a great deal by reading this book. This is a very interesting and useful book, full of facts, very well written, and easy to understand. It gives the reader many details which one cannot find in other works, mainly because it is based on the original experience of a learned and professional scientist who devoted his life to Papua New Guinea, who studied the art of the native population in the field and who learned to love the people of Papua New Guinea. This book will help the Beat of the Garamut be heard throughout the world!

Prof. Dr. Srboljub Živanović
– Member of the Royal Anthropological Institute,
London, Great Britain