Songs of the Empty Place

Jimmy Weiner and Don Niles have published Songs of the Empty Place: The Memorial Poetry of the Foi of the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. This new book contains songs recorded by Weiner between 1979 and 1995 and can be downloaded from ANU E-Press here. All audio was digitised by PARADISEC and is available in the collection JW1. The songs are organised under three main categories: 7 Women’s Sago Songs (Obedobora), 44 Men’s Songs (Sorohabora), and 7 Women’s Songs (Sorohabora) and accompanied by some 40 photographs.

The songs are about a range of topics, for instance: the female sun skipping through the sky; pig-killings; distant children; sorcery. “When men beat the drums during the Usane habora night-time dancing, women are supposed to be irresistably drawn romantically to the male performers. Women, as they make sago, very commonly sing to their husbands, ‘don’t come around with your sweet-talking drum and try to entice me away from work.’ ” (65)

“during a man’s life, he leaves imprints or traces on the land, made for example by setting animal traps or constructing fish dams. When a man dies, the bush begins to cover over these traces and erase them, out of which the Foi construe an image of the most common results of a man’s death.” (130)

“Bebe’s army uniforms, washed and hanging out to dry, remind Kunuhuaka of the leaf of the stinging nettle. She sings of these uniforms, and Bebe’s hat, and rifle: ‘are these things sufficient to replace your brothers and other relatives with whom you no longer live? Will they protect you as well as these relatives do?’ ” (29)

In addition to providing the song texts, the authors discuss the poetic language employed that includes archaic terms, other languages, dense allusions, newly created terms or ghost language terms, all, it seems, designed to challenge the listener. In addition to giving a great insight into the creativity of song use in Foi society, this book also models the use of archival records in a research publication. May there be many more like it!


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