J.K.Leahy memoir stories ©
“I have a song”, I told my mother over the phone. The regular 30 minute costly international call between PNG and Australia started with muffled voices. And then, depending on who had used her phone, my mother came on when the phone was passed back to her. Sometimes Mother had to find a good spot to get the best reception. And sometimes her voice changed and I knew other ears were listening. Not all will be discussed, some things will come in the future conversation.
“Hello Ma. Are you there?”
Someone is talking in the background and she is telling them to be quiet. I smiled at myself as the picture of her room flashed in my head with the village dogs barking in the background.
Family discussions and on-going feuds took up the 30 minutes so quickly. As creators of art and music, my mother and I had agreed on many occasions that we would rather sing and ‘stori’ then exchange on family heartaches. Telling stories about happy occasions and things we enjoyed often took up between ten to five minutes of the entire call.
“What song?” my mother responded.
“A song for the church opening”, I replied in Bukawac.
My mother is the village composer and musician. Not me. I am a dancer, creator of crafts and beautiful things and a fisherman.I cal also catch eels but not my mother. And Mother is not a dancer so Tinang, my grandmother and my aunts taught me. My mother did not teach me to compose nor play instruments, but we still sang together. If I wanted music – she played Skeeta Davies and Jim Reeves and Elvis. She also played her flute.
“Which opening – our village one?”
We sang every day in the evenings with my grandmother when she was alive. There was a ten-pact short biblical songs we sang at dusk. They were my favourite. If we sang at home in the village, all my aunts joined in. My mother returned to the phone after telling someone to close her door.
“Do you want to hear my song?” I said.
“Yamandu? (Really?)” she said.
“Yamandu!” I repeated. That means “true”. I wanted so badly for her to focus and listen my song.
In Wagang Village, all families were asked to contribute to the new village church opening. This was last Christmas. Monetary contribution was at the forefront of this event. In the past when I was growing up, each family whether they were crafts people, hunters or fisherman would be invited to contribute what they had, made and grew. Not anymore. Money was first.
“I may not have enough to give to the church so I wanted to gift a song,” I said. That sentence went to a silent respond. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. I suspected it wasn’t what she anticipated. Perhaps there was more to the silence that I wasn’t aware of.
I let the silent pass. In the background I heard my sister scolding my nephew. I didn’t want to ask my mother why my sister was doing that.
I had composed this song one afternoon at my studio. It just happened. And tonight was the first my mother heard of it. She probably expected me to just send some money. She waited for me to explain.
“I will sing it for you Ma,” I said in Bukawac. “I had composed this song for the opening and you and your sisters can sing it on our behalf”.
“Okay” she said.
The church project was instigated by the provincial government in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. The villagers had been waiting for a church for over three decades. The first church was built by the people themselves – each family contributed the materials showing their craftsmanship through handwoven walls, brackets of pulled and dried rattan, carved seats, and hand sewn sago palm leaves. It was a church none of us growing up with it would ever forget because of its aesthetic beauty and the fabric of a cohesive and supporting community sewn together. In time the church building deteriorated. The maintenance did not happen. The relationships in leadership, the respect between the elders and the younger generation became difficult to maintain and the cohesiveness slowly came apart. Termites slowly and quietly menaced their way into what was left of the handcrafted building. It was sad.
“Ma! Are you there?” I asked her.
“Mnem!” (Sing!) she said. I gathered my thoughts. I was only singing to my mother, but it suddenly felt like I was about to face a grand stand with thousands of people.
My mother is known in our family and the community for her music. She was the composer of original songs and songs she translated from different languages into ours – Bukawac and Yabem. Her music contributes to the Lutheran church for openings, ‘sam katong’, large church gatherings of multiple congregations, and many village events. She was a trained muscian. Germans during the colonial era taught her flute, guitar, harmonica and singing at Bula Girls School, not only did she get trained by Germans to nurse, but also to sing and play numerous instruments. The flute was and still is her favourite.
“It’s called “Conversation with God,” I gave her the title. “It’s between God and I,” I said.
“Mnem!,” mnem ma au wangu”, she said. “Sing! Sing it so I can hear it”, she said and although she softly spoke, I detected the excitement in her voice.
“Ae ngoc geng masi, ae ngoc ming masi, ae gameng gebe yagung yawing aom.” (I have nothing, no words, but I came to sit with you).
I sang the first verse and chorus and then stopped and there wasn’t a single sound from the phone. I wrote the song in Yabem. This was the ‘church language’ like many church hymns – they were in Yabem. I learnt this language by listening to my mother, her parents and two brothers speak it to each other. My grandfather was a teacher and most of his teachings were in Yabem. My late Uncle Kwaslim mostly communicated in Yabem – it was his favourite language.
“Mama! Mama!” I called into the phone.
“I’m here”, she said.
“Did you like the song?”
She was very quiet. Then she said, “It’s beautiful! I don’t know what else to say”.
Three months later my mother tells me that she also composed a song for the opening and she sings it over the phone to me. It was very beautiful – but that is another story.
(If you like my stories, please share them). I thank you all for being here. If you’re new to my blog – welcome! For all my friends who have been with me for a while, I appreciate you and I want to sincerely thank you for your patience. I have been away for a long while and working on other projects. I will share the news here soon.