George Mamua Telek comes from the Papua New Guinean island of New Britain, and many of the songs on Serious Tam draw on the cultural heritage of his people, the Tolai, or on the repertoire of the popular “stringbands” of multiple guitar and ukelele players who tour the islands. But he and his band also bring a modern pop sensibility to their music, using not just traditional stringband elements and kundu and slit-log garamut drums, but also electric guitars, synths, loops, and samples.
Telek’s voice has a pure, uplifting tone that somehow evokes the warm sun, sand, and waves of his homeland. Whether he’s singing about a painted leaf used as a magic charm to win a woman’s affections in “Midal” or “Go Ralom,” or the all-too-seductive life of gangs in the capital city of Port Moresby on “Boystown,” in his native Tolai tongue or in tok pigin (pidgin English), Telek’s voice holds you spellbound ’til the song is over.
Probably my favorite song on Serious Tam is “Bunaik,” about a bird that cries “oli oli i ole.” The song starts with samples of bird and forest sounds recorded in Papua New Guinea, then launches into vocals, synth, and percussion, along with a serious drum groove and a raucous chorus that cries loud and long, just like the bunaik. But I also loved “Tolili,” a traditional Tolai fishermen’s lullaby to calm the sea and make the catch plentiful, with its samples of insects crying at night and Telek’s voice rolling out like waves across the ocean, warm and strong and soothing. And I couldn’t help but chuckle at “Waitpela Gras”‘s lyrics about how “the banana skin really shocks me,” and its funky drum rhythms, shakers, and electric guitar.
Real World, c/o Narada, 4650 N. Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53212-1063; http://www.narada.com.