Ninalik Ndawi (Dancing Turtle Records, 2008)
In choosing to use the blue and white striped Bintang Kajora, as the graphic backdrop for their album cover, Ninalik Ndawi, the Lani Singers are making an act of defiance, as significant as the music contained therein. The flag symbolizes hope of a free West Papua, where currently any expression of Papuan culture, including raising the flag, puts an individual at risk of long term imprisonment, torture, rape or disappearance by the ruling Indonesian military occupation, described by Dominic Brown, in the comprehensive sleeve notes as, "one of the most brutal legacies of modern day colonialism". A brutality that the Lani Singers Benny and Maria Wenda have experienced first hand. Surviving bombing raids, two assassination attempts and twenty five years imprisonment in 2002 on treason charges, Benny was smuggled across the border to the refugee camps of Papua New Guinea. It was here that he could be reunited with his wife Maria and new born daughter who also took the perilous jungle route to safety, themselves also fleeing death threats and intimidation.
It was during this period of fear and uncertainty that Maria wrote most of the fifteen original compositions that make up this album. Characteristic of the spirited and passionate raw roots music that ignites the spirit of resistance, determination and hope is the song Elengeniro, written whilst Benny was in prison. Maria’s gentle strumming of the acoustic guitar creates the rhythms over which she delivers her vocals, sometimes gently and sometimes with a definite urgency, as in Wologwe, singing her heart out whilst Benny adds vocal harmonies and picks out a melody on the ukulele.
Listen carefully and you can also hear some gentle percussion form sticks., stones and the snake skinned drum. Punctuating the predominantly string band style numbers of the album are three beautiful, plain vocal harmony tracks steeped in traditions of the Lani Tribe, Waiyaowa, Umaiyek Dearowod and Yieowai. Sacred songs of nature and the environment, referred to affectionately as their Stone Age Songs, evocative of a time when little had changed for the Papuans, a time before colonialism and the current Indonesian occupation.
It’s a tribute to human resilience that the songs retain a reassuring air and with their catchy melodies, beg to be sung along to. Whilst there is perhaps a disappointing lack of lyrics, the CD packaging is put to good use with comprehensive sleeve notes documenting a brief history of West Papua, its music culture and the remarkable story of the Lani Singers. In a climate of repression this album cannot be underestimated in terms of both creating a cultural legacy for the next generation for the next generation and for its part in encouraging the struggle of freedom for West Papua.
Ninalik Nadawi is available through Dancing Turtle Records. Benny and Maria have been granted political asylum in England. In addition to being fine musicians and performers they run the Free West Papua campaign and work as part of the West Papuan government in exile.
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Author: Jill Turner
Jill Turner contributes to Songlines Magazine, World Music Central and is on the fRoots critics albums of the year panel. Her radio show GondwanaSound broadcasts on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM to the fourth largest city in the UK and is carried on both Radio Groovalizacion and African Internet Radio.