“We are going to miss you. Rest in ever lasting peace my dear friend your Music lives in us forever.”
Meanwhile, the details of his death are yet to be released.
From simple beginnings, this very colourful and dangerously outrageous talent started a music career. Little did Papua New Guineans truly understand what Moses was up. Many ridiculed and laughed at Moses’s rhythmic hip pulsating dance movements and high pitch feminine voice which quickly became a recognised and loved music (and name) not only in PNG, but across the Pacific islands. When Moses stepped on stage, a new era was born in a country closed to gay rights, dominated by men and the ruled by the cultural Melanesian ‘big man’ mentality.
Moses Tau—‘A very brave man’60
By Ryan Goodman, 2001
There are exceptions to this seemingly endless process of discrimination and abuse. By the late 1990s, gays were well and truly stigmatised in PNG. That was when a gay Motuan gospel singer from Central Province a little to the east of Port Moresby was wooed away from his village gospel group by the PNG recording giant CHM Supersound Studios, who urged him to go solo. He adopted a generic Pacific style of singing, using falsetto voice, and so his first song Aito Paka Paka was born. It was an instant hit, and was soon followed by others.61 The accompanying video clips were all designed by Moses himself: the island-girl dancing style and costumes, lavishly replete with flowers, brightly coloured sarongs, outrageous hats and of course, the Pacific-signature swaying grass-skirt. He even managed to work a selection of tropical fruit into the dance scenes—the symbolism is obvious. It was the first public display of cross-dressing and transgenderism in the country—and it worked wonderfully. Moses became a star.62
Nevertheless, it wasn’t all easy.
When [the Aito Paka Paka clip] came out, it sort of brought this whole thing to the public, and those who were known as geligelis were harassed, they were called names … it came out to expose the lifestyle, and at the same time, had a negative side of it … it was sort of an awareness thing when Moses came out … he overdid that [the sarong and the flowers] … when Moses came out with his video clip, that was an issue among also the people here, and poor guy, I heard that he had a bad time too … people started stoning his car whenever they saw him, they were calling him names … very brave (Len).
He’s a very brave man (Adam).
Figure 5.4. Aito Paka Paka, flowers, brightly coloured sarongs, outrageous hats … and fruit.
Source: Image taken from the video, Moses Tau, 2005, ‘Aito Paka Paka,’ in The Best of Moses Tau.
But Moses was more than just a new pop singer sensation. He was a gay on a mission.
It is a very difficult thing in PNG to show your sexuality … is very scary, because it is not an accepted thing in PNG. I just want to do what I have and who I am. I also did it not for myself but for the suffering of we people through many years ago. And I told my friends: look, I’ll try it out, if I fail I fail. If I go through it with success, we will all benefit. So I’m targeting to educate the people of this nation to really know that there’s gays living in Papua New Guinea. So I did it. I went through it. It was very painful (Moses Tau).
Moses was invited to Cairns shortly after, for Independence celebrations.63 Then early in 2001, he was invited by the PNG community in Sydney to take part in the famous annual Mardi Gras parade. The PNG community there was constructing a float in the form of a lagatoi [seafaring canoe], to feature Moses as the ‘Pacific Queen,’ dressed as a traditional ‘Hiri Queen.’ Sponsorship was offered by PNG’s commercial radio station NauFM, ‘because he has not only developed into a prominent musician but has developed a good character. He has also developed a good following and has really lifted the image of PNG music.’64
However, this decision was not an instant hit with many. The Hiri Hahenamo [celebration of Hiri culture] refers to an annual Port Moresby festival which celebrates the Papuan tradition of the Hiri trading expeditions from the Central Province north-west to the Gulf Province, returning again as the winds change towards the end of the year. Special lagatois are built and a feature of the festival today is the Hiri Queen competition, open to girls from all surrounding Motuan villages who dress, dance and sing in a traditional manner. The Motu-Koitabu Council, which represents the Motu and Koitabu villages surrounding Port Moresby, took offence, its Chairman saying,
We [Motu Koitabuans] … do not approve nor do we encourage homosexuality in our society—traditional or contemporary … [we] are disgusted and not happy at all—to say the least—to have a very important and serious aspect of the culture portrayed at a festival for homosexuals.65
We are totally against the Hiri Hanenamo [sic] concept, which promotes morals and good behaviour, being taken and abused at such a morally wrong festival … we do not approve of or encourage such practices, and if Moses Tau wants to represent his personal beliefs and ideals, we suggest he represent himself personally by tailoring his own outfit on a theme which does not threaten to bring our name and culture into disrepute.66
This statement was followed by letters to the Editor and an FM-Central government radio talk-back show in which callers were divided.67 Many Motu-Koitabuans protested the desecration of their culture but others supported Moses, praising his talent, his openness and his right to perform as he wished.68
Moses was very troubled. He claims a deep respect for traditions and culture, and points to his background in the church and his family’s tradition as gospel singers.69 He immediately called a press conference and denied the reports of the lagatoi float and the Hiri Queen costume. He said his Mardi Gras appearance was to promote his album and not to represent the PNG gay community.70 The matter was kept in public view by a further news item showing Moses receiving his visa from the Australian Deputy High Commissioner, and relating how Sydney radio stations were carrying reports of the difficulties he was facing and the concern of the Mardi Gras organisers.71 But in the end, Moses did not ride on a lagatoi float or wear traditional Hiri Queen costume—instead, he wore yet another of his ‘Pacific’ creations, and danced his way along the street.72
After Moses returned from Sydney, his success and position were assured, with club appearances,73 sky-rocketing music sales and even a brief squabble between recording studios over him.74 Club performances of ‘Mardi Gras’ nights were staged, and were so successful that when another was proposed, Moses called on his gay friends to do a ‘queen’ show. To his surprise, many Filipinos also took part. These shows became a great success, attracting cosmopolitan audiences and many other clubs followed suit, and became the foundation for the drag shows of today.
But it was about more than fun. Moses took the opportunity to promote awareness after every show, saying,
We have these kind of people, this kind of community of people, that live in this country. We have no choice, we can’t change them, but let’s give them a chance to show their package, what they have. Give them a freedom for what they can do, for them to enjoy life. We can’t keep them in a cage for them to live in fear all the time (Moses Tau).
He continues his community outreach work, travelling around villages at his own expense, distributing condoms and promoting awareness about gay rights, HIV, the dangers of consuming homebrew alcohol and marijuana. Although he receives no funding support for this work, he has achieved a strong measure of fame throughout the country, and in January 2006 was invited to sing at the funeral of Bill Skate, the first PNG Prime Minister to die in office.
Opinion is divided as to whether the recent trend towards coming out was due to Moses or not.
One of the break-throughs I think especially in Moresby was Moses Tau’s [Aito Paka Paka] clip. That made people talk about it. That’s the turning point, it’s like an awareness that there are these sort of people around (Barry and Colin).
Before ‘she’ [Moses Tau] brought out the clip [Aito Paka Paka], we came out to the public before, the younger ones. As far as from what I see, those bigger ones, we’ve got plenty but because of the culture and the traditions … people are still hiding and some are forced to get married, and some, they just keep themselves locked up … like the group now we have here, like as for myself, at first I didn’t come out … but through those ones, I can see that … it’s not Moses Tau, it’s these ones … they’re the ones like, coming out, all this stuff (Palopa, indicating others in the meeting).
Even if Moses was the catalyst, the gains have been small and there is still a long way to go, even for committed activists, as Victor’s Tale above demonstrates.