The Sacred Flute

Sacred Flute Music From New Guinea: Madang / Windim Mambu

Here is a nicely presented two disc set of anthropological recordings originally released on David Toop’s !QUARTZ label as !QUART001 and 002 in 1977 and 1979 respectively, now released on Ideologic Organ which is, as I’m sure you already know, is a sublabel of Editions Mego, and curated by Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))).

The first disc holds four longish pieces of duration between seven and a half and nearly fifteen minutes of field recordings made in 1976 by Ragnar Johnson of an indigenous rural community from New Guinea; the second disc twelve much shorter recordings from the same time period. For all I know, the community may not exist now or perhaps do not live their lives in the traditional way they did even forty or so years ago. Having said that, according to Wikipedia: “Large areas of New Guinea are yet to be explored by scientists and anthropologists. The Indonesian province of West Papua is home to an estimated 44 uncontacted tribal groups.” There are plentiful accompanying photographs of carved wooden slit gongs, or garamuts, and the thatched buildings and various other objects.

There is an essay, presumably written by Johnson during or shortly after his visit, which begins with the assertion that “…flute blowing is used as a mediator between the human and spirit worlds in many parts of New Guinea”. Furthermore, these flutes are “…made, owned, played and kept secret by adult men. Women and children are forbidden to see the flutes and are told that the cries of the flutes are the voices of actual spirits.” However, in the text we are told that in relation to men’s role in the community, the flutes “…should not be seen as the basis of an overall dominance by men over women outside the immediate ceremonial context.” This raises a question of whether significant, spiritual musical ritual should have been recorded by Westerners – however altruistic their intent – in order to fill a need for “entertainment”.

In this case, I could draw an analogy of the stage magician’s illusions being exposed as exactly that. More recently, there has been some debate about the tendency to repackage recordings of musics acquired from local sources around the world. I’m immediately thinking of Awesome Tapes From Africa and Sublime Frequencies who, on the one hand, produced and put into the marketplace some great recordings by some great artists who arguably are benefitting from their work being more widely distributed and available on the American and the European markets – Group Doueh being one example of musicians who are benefitting from the exposure; Aby Ngana Diop perhaps not so much. How these recordings are acquired – in terms of ownership – is unclear, although in the case of Awesome Tapes From Africa, the process involves head honcho Brian Shimkovitz trawling Ghanayan street vendors’ stalls.

Is this reminiscent of the way old blues and jazz people were treated by the music industry (Nina Simone being the famous example); about actual payment and permissions and ownership and publishing and when or is it okay to purloin another culture’s material? Although, as is well documented, in the early days of rock n roll all musicians were treated the same (badly) by record companies in terms of remuneration regardless of their background. Is it okay for westerners to go to far-flung parts of the world – and “ransack” is a strong word – in order to appropriate music as a raw material to satisfy a market that is constantly demanding something new to listen to? The Music Industry as a whole may have historically tried to turn the argument back on itself to its own benefit by citing how it loses money through the lack of effective copyright legislation outside of the US and the EU, (as well as masterminding the “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign and Metallica’s war on file-sharing), but I don’t want to get bogged down in that subject here. Equally, I don’t want to be unfair to the labels that I have mentioned; I’m sure they have a set of core business ethics that they always adhere to. Nonetheless, this is an interesting reissue and essential for anyone who enjoys anthropological recordings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.