Honiara, Solomon Islands Lots of Napping

If I stoop and look out my window at just the right angle, I appear to be somewhere idyllic. Just a thatch umbrella and a fence between me and the turquoise Pacific.

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A few inches higher and the concrete comes into view. Derelict ships in the harbor. Crushed plastic. Old cars farting black smoke and a swirling mass of pedestrians valiantly enduring the impossible brightness of late afternoon.

Nobody pretends Honiara is anything but a dump, which means that, for once, I don’t have to either. The South Pacific is not proud of its cities.

What’s disturbing about Honiara is what’s disturbing about every other big city in a poor country: tourists don’t come here, but everyone else does. Villages are emptying out and the city is swelling with rural transplants.

Auki, where I spent the last few days, is a small town on an island called Malaita. It’s the population center of Malaita, which isn’t saying much. The thing that struck me about Auki was how disinterested people were in hitting me up.

I’ve been to over a dozen African countries. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere in any of those countries where someone didn’t ask me for money. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere in the South Pacific where anyone has.

The impression I get is that there isn’t a great deal of want here. People don’t seem to think about or talk about what they don’t have. In material terms, they certainly don’t have much, but no one is rubbing their noses in it.

People just kind of hang around. There are loads of kids, and the lack of television and GameBoys compels them to make their own fun.

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Sports are a big deal — like soccer, rugby, and volleyball. So is, evidently, improvised gladiatorial combat.

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I walked by this hut and saw a bunch of teenage boys sitting inside. I had to ask what was painted across the front. "Psycho Lab," they explained. It’s the name of their band.

They have a clubhouse for their band.

A Little Rascals vibe permeates the town.

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Oh, did I mention a lot of Solomon Islanders are blonde? Well, the kids at least. It seems to go away as they get older.

Anyway, the point is, when I get to the cities, civility goes out the window. The frequency of dirty looks rises sharply. It’s like the people there have discovered a dark secret about the world. They’ve been cheated. A cruel joke has been played, and I can’t help feeling somehow implicated.

Auki, on the other hand, was one long marathon of smiles and greetings.

“Good evening,” they would say.
“Good evening.”
“Where do you go?”
“I’m just walking.”
“Walking to where?”
“Nowhere, really.”
“Oh. You go for a stroll?”
“Yeah. A stroll.”
“Okay. Nite nite.”

It took me a while to figure out that the word “stroll” explains everything. These conversations got shorter and shorter until it just became:

“Good evening.”
“Good evening. I’m on a stroll.”
“Oh! A stroll. Okay! Nite nite.”

I did a lot of strolling in the early evenings, after the midday heat and before dinner. Sometimes in the mornings too.

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The harbor at dusk.

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This is how most people travel between the islands. It’s a fairly cramped five hours.

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This shirt has made the journey from ironic to totally non-ironic. Affection for Spam in the South Pacific is pure and unfettered.

One day I climbed to the top of the island.

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The rest of the time I read old Fantastic Four comics and napped. Oh God, I napped.

Napping is essential in this kind of heat. I didn’t have to discover this fact. My body forced it upon me. I’m generally not much of a napper. I tell myself I should do it more often. It always feels like time well-spent.

When you think of the Solomon Islands, I want you to think of a smallish, lumber-built room. The floor is wallpapered and most of the furniture exists to hold it down along its seems. There is a plastic chair in the corner that would bend and collapse if you sat on it. There is a ceiling fan that loves you and comforts you for as long as the electricity holds out. There is a thin bed in the corner. The pillow is stuffed with pebbles. And you are lying on the bed, napping.

This sounds unpleasant. It’s not. At least it wasn’t for me.

My hotel was the only place I found that served meals. I learned not to deviate from the thing they did well, which was lightly fried yellow fin tuna with steamed rice and green mystery veges. Sometimes they had sweet potato fries. Christian missionaries stamped out any hope of alcohol and the soda here is slightly moistened blocks of sugar, so the only liquid options are lime juice and water. The result is an entirely nourishing, satisfying meal.

There were movies every night in the lobby. They were movies I’ve heard of. I remember seeing the ads and I know they played in theaters, but I’ve never seen any of them. I also don’t know anyone who has seen them. They’re movies that come out in September and February and usually involve a plot to kill the president, or maybe a serial killer. These movies will continue to be made forever and ever because of the international film market, where there’s an unquenchable appetite for anything that involves a recognizably famous guy shooting at other less famous guys.

I came here to find out about Rorogwela, the song I used in my dancing video. This was ridiculously easy. I asked Collin, who managed my hotel, and he brought me to Wilson, the local police chief. Wilson brought me to his "cousin-brother," David, who lives about 50 feet from the hotel.

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I interviewed David at length. I’m not a journalist. I did my best. YouTube videos have a way of getting around on their own, so I shoehorned the whole story into the video for people who aren’t reading this entry. Anyway, here it is.

The next day David brought me to his older cousin-brother, Patrick, who is the nephew of the woman singing in the recording. He seemed more uneasy around me, so I didn’t shoot an interview.

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Patrick remembered the recording, which he accurately dated around 1971. He described the French man and his wife who made the recording, and the device itself, which he said was powered by a hand crank.

Afunakwa died a long time ago. I’ve read 2003, but Patrick said it was more like 10 or 15 years back. She has a son, Jack, who is still alive. He still lives in the same Baegu village, about a half day’s travel from Auki.

Everyone on Malaita knows the "Sweet Lullaby" song. They’ve heard it on the radio. Patrick confirmed that, at least to his knowledge, no one has ever received any kind of payment for use of the recording in an international hit pop song or its reuse in – ahem – a fairly popular internet video. Everyone is vaguely aware that some sort of payment is warranted, but no one has any idea what to do about it. And that’s how things have stayed for 15 years.

Patrick said someone came around last year asking about the song. They wanted to go to the village and meet the family, same as me, but he didn’t cooperate because it would simply be more exploitation without any real benefit for them, and the inquiring party didn’t seem to have any interest in a greater understanding beyond the recording itself.

I’m not sure whether it was the money or the greater understanding that weighed more heavily, but I made it clear that I wished to know as much as they could tell me about their music, and I’d be happy to give payment to him and to the family. I explained that I had used the recording in a project and done very well with it, and I wanted to help them out in return.

That seemed to do the trick. We discussed plans to head out to the village. Patrick said he would have one of the elder members of the family perform the song for me, as well as several other songs from the village, and they would all be translated into English. Unfortunately, things fell apart when we got down to timing. They couldn’t go out there for several days, and the trip required two nights. There was no way I could make it work without getting stuck in the Solomons for an extra week and blowing over a thousand dollars in non-exchangeable plane tickets.

We agreed that I would come back another time and arrange with them in advance. No one is in much of a hurry here, so I’ve decided I’m not either, but I’m already half-planning to work it into my Asia trip early next year.

Wilson and David warned me that other people would approach claiming a relation to Afunakwa. They weren’t kidding. Word got around town about a white guy handing out money for information and I had several parties come to the hotel toting relatives and presenting their credentials.

I don’t know that any of them were lying, as these families can get pretty extended. And conversely, I suppose some doubt should be cast on the authenticity of Patrick’s claim. But here’s a thing I’ve learned: the person you actively seek out is much more likely to be on the level than the guy who comes knocking on your door. Also, my gut tells me Patrick is telling the truth and the other guys were peddling crap.

Oh, and the other thing I came here to do: dancing. Took care of that. No problem. Marched into the primary school before assembly, explained what I’m doing to the principal, and shot the clip just before the start of morning classes.

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The kids were understandably mystified by the gigantic American who wanted to dance with them, and it took about 15 minutes to find the trailblazing boy who would embarrass himself in front of the rest of the school by dancing with me. Once he broke the ice, it took another 5 minutes to build a crew of the brave and the bold. Everyone else stood on either side and watched. It was weird and sweaty, but it worked out fine. I slipped the principal a donation on my way out and barely caught the plane back to Honiara.

It took me four days to work up the nerve to go into the school. I remain terrified at the prospect of offending some principled principal and getting booted out the door. But so far they all seem to get it…sorta.

So that’s all for now on the Rorogwela song and what ever happened to Afunakwa. I’m looking forward to a time when I can come back here and close the book. It’s an interesting project that I feel an obligation to pursue.

But that’s a long way off. Closer on the horizon: Papua New Guinea.

25 Responses to Honiara, Solomon Islands Lots of Napping

  1. jdhoskinson

    Matt, your story just gets better, deeper, and more interesting. Unprecedented levels of awesome! Can’t wait to read the rest of this story.

  2. Jenni

    I love that you took the time to dig into the history of the song. Very interesting story here, I look forward to when you go back and we get to hear more!

  3. Man, I love what you do, I love what you notice, I love how you tell it.

    I found Patrick’s face haunting. Not for any reason, but for no reason. Because it’s an expression on the edge of smiling or furious or neither. I want to ask him ten thousand questions. I don’t want to bug him at all.

  4. Rich

    There are literally millions of things to read on the internet. Your journal entries are at the very top of my list. :)

  5. toni

    i think it’s really lovely that you were able to track down the origins of the song and local people who know about it. sounds like it might give you a chance to give back some of the joy that it’s brought to all of us. i’m happy you did this.

  6. Michelle

    I love that you got to the origins of the song you used…it’s haunting and familiar to me. Somehow it resonated with people even though they didn’t know what the words meant…I find that thrilling. Looking forward to the next installment.

  7. Celsus Talifilu

    Hi matt,

    Just to correct you on some of the information you got from my uncle patrick Biruere Una, in terms of the recording Hogo did was by himself his wife did not accompanied him. In fact the recording was taken with the help of my father Saverio Talifilu who was the headman of the Baegu region at that time and the year was 1964 and not 71 as patrick has stated.

    Next time you come I do really want to meet you and tell you the true story of the origins of the song. My name is Celsus Talifilu and am working at our National Parliament.

    cheers

    celsus

  8. Mitch

    The original vocal track of the Rorogwela song is very interesting. If you listen closely, you can hear the sounds of a bird in the background as she sings the last few phrases.

  9. Great work Matt!
    I was really fascinated by that video you made. David’s calm way of talking is mesmerizing.
    I have been fascinated with Oceania for a long time but I have never been there.

  10. Great work Matt!
    I was really fascinated by that video you made. David’s calm way of talking is mesmerizing.
    I have been fascinated with Oceania for a long time but I have never been there.

  11. Via

    Just found your videos and blog. They’re wonderful.

    I hope you can continue to write and create videos, because I enjoy what I’ve seen, and you have a great writing voice.

  12. Via

    Just found your videos and blog. They’re wonderful.

    I hope you can continue to write and create videos, because I enjoy what I’ve seen, and you have a great writing voice.

  13. David

    A very noble tribute to Afunakwa and this song. I remember the 1990s Deep Forest version, but knew nothing about the song until today. I hope that you have a chance to go back and find out the rest — maybe from Celsus, above. Oh, and dance like no one is watching — even though everyone is! ;oD

  14. Kevin stachel

    I bought the deep forest cd back in the 90’s. I always associate sweet lullaby with a dream I had one night while the cd played as i slept. It was a VIVD dream in which a child came to me and said that he had no mother or father… Very interesting after all these years to hear the translation.

  15. Lesleigh

    Since then have you found out more about Afunakwa and her song. Lyrically it seems so beautiful and spiritual. I guess I would like to know more about her – I hope you do continue your efforts with her.

  16. Mike

    I’ve got to ask – what were the transcribed lyrics of Rorogwela? In the video, I can see you guys doing some translation, something about an orphaned girl taking care of a younger orphaned boy. What was the final output of that transcription?

  17. Ellen in Drayton, SW Ontario, Canada

    Looking forward to more about Afunakwa and the translation of the song and its history. Do it soon! Go for it Matt!

    Nice to see you also in my birth city Amsterdam. (I am 25 years in Canada now) and elsewhere in my old little country.

    And DO come to Canada (second biggest country in the world, except for Russia with Siberia). All my friends here have watched your video dancing around the world with others. To see that, all people and kids dancing, just absolutely fabulous, makes us smile and cry. Thanks Matt, you give us hope!

  18. Ellen in Drayton, SW Ontario, Canada

    Looking forward to more about Afunakwa and the translation of the song and its history. Do it soon! Go for it Matt!

    Nice to see you also in my birth city Amsterdam. (I am 25 years in Canada now) and elsewhere in my old little country.

    And DO come to Canada (second biggest country in the world, except for Russia with Siberia). All my friends here have watched your video dancing around the world with others. To see that, all people and kids dancing, just absolutely fabulous, makes us smile and cry. Thanks Matt, you give us hope!

  19. Hi Matt,

    I have been doing some surface research on Afunakwa and Rorogwela. I found a web site,
    link to soundjunction.org

    called Sound Junction. It talks about the song’s origins and how Deep Forest took some poetic license with the origins of the song, saying that the song came from a pygmy tribe in Africa or some nonsense.

    It actually plays a clip of just her singing Rorogwela, and then compares it to a clip of what Deep Forest did with it. I think that this is the version you used in your first video. I am tearing my hair out to get a copy of this first version, and can’t find it anywhere except for that clip on Sound Junction.

    Where can I find this music? I’m dying to know!

    Your work is amazing. You have given me hope when I thought that all hope was gone for good. Thank you for that. I suppose that’s why I am looking so deeply for this version of the song. It had such an impact on me.

    Thanks again for lifting up the spirits of so many people. Including me!

    Catherine

  20. Lieve

    The story of Afunakwa sounds a lot like Solomon Linda’s. Never heard of, sayst thou? There’s 99,999% certainty you do know one of his songs though: The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Granted, it’s not his version, but it’s a re-arrangement based on his song. He died in total poverty in South Africa.
    I learned about him through the Rolling Stone-article and TV-docu made by Rian Malan, at the beginning of this millenium.
    You can read the article here: link to 3rdearmusic.com
    When searching for it, I found another article: link to southafrica.info
    Seems there’s been done (sort of) justice to the daughters of Solomon Linda! Alleluia!!

    So Matt, how about you being Afunakwa’s Rian Malan?

  21. francisco.

    I found your Dance 2008 video yesterday. I still keep reading about you and watching your videos. Very inspiring work!

    THANK YOU!!

    f.

  22. Alison

    Hey Matt
    Its a great song – we listen to the Deep Forest version. And what a brilliant story! I enjoyed your views on Malaita … I am working there next month. When we last spoke you asked me about mobile learning in Africa … I might be able to put it into practise in Solomons. Have you been back?

  23. Hi Matt, your video inspired me to blog about my impressions of “Rorogwela”. Most people do not pay much attention to the correlation between the original song and the final title “Sweet Lullaby”…when you do a “roro”, its sweet, its comforting to a sleeping child. I think that’s essentially the translation of the song title, at least in my opinion. So Deep Forest at least got that right. My blog is A simple Mind, on http://lynnold.solomon.com.sb – maybe a good idea to read some Solomon Islands perspective.

  24. janaz

    Hi Matt,

    I am researching the story behind Afunakwa and the ethical considerations involved in world music “borrowings”. I would love to hear if you went back to the Solomon islands since your last entry! Have you heard any new information from the family of Afunakwa or if any financial settlements have been reached?

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