• Joel Dwek

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Amette - George Telek

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

A mixture of Melanesian melancholy and pop bangers, Telek shows why he is tearing up the music scene across all of Oceania

From the opening drumbeat of the first song, Sonny, I knew I was in for a treat. In fact, just looking at the album artwork you know something good is coming. It’s such a beautiful photo of George Telek in traditional garb looking directly at the camera with a determined expression on his face. It’s incredibly evocative and easily one of my favourite album covers of our journey so far, and it also shows a musician proud of his background. Telek himself is a member of the Tolai people of Papua New Guinea, and speaks the Kuanua language, which is one of an astounding 851 languages found in Papua New Guinea. Though the most widely spoken language in Papua New Guinea is an English creole language called Tok Pisin, Telek still sings in his native language for the most part (though he does sing in Tok Pisin too at points) which to me shows a determination to express the diversity of language in Papua New Guinea. This album, Amette, is particularly pertinent to this point. It was his most acoustic album to date, and incorporates traditional Tolai songs, rhythms and musical styles, including string band music and three-part harmonies. I also greatly admire his persistence in singing in Kuanua, even though the temptation would be to sing in English to appeal to a wider audience. I should add there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that at all, but it can lead to a musician not expressing themselves as they would in their native tongue – think Shakira’s endearing but odd lyrics on a song like Whenever, Wherever. There is a cliché that in great specificity there is universality, and I would wager it is a cliché because it is broadly true. By singing in a language that only around 60,000 people can understand, and singing with sincerity, he bypasses the need to be understood by a person like me – the emotion and feel of the song is made more than evident.

“It’s a really beautiful combination, and one unlike anything else I had heard up to that point.”

But back to Sonny, and wow, is that an excellent song. It has all the catchiness of a 1990’s indie radio hit, with none of the cheese or dated musicianship. The propelling beat and the funky acoustic guitar all combine together in a very catchy chorus. The album continues in this vein, combining Papuan music and themes with Western pop music, which could be the reason why Telek is one of the few Papuan musicians to gain a following outside Papua New Guinea, having gained a popularity in Australia where he won an Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) music award in 1997 for his self-titled debut album. This album marks a move to more acoustic music than he had played before, and I very much enjoyed the stripped-down approach Telek took to this album. Very often the music is focussed around his voice and a guitar. This is evident in a song like Mama, which uses acoustic guitars, strings, Telek’s voice and a typically Melanesian vocal harmony in the chorus. It all comes together in one smooth-flowing sound that is endlessly listenable. Lima N Galie is an even more stripped-down song, featuring only those vocal harmonies, drums, and the occasional twang of guitar. It’s a really beautiful combination, and one unlike anything else I had heard up to that point.

That said, Telek knows when to bring out the pop bangers, and it’s not all barebones melancholy acoustic music. Sonny is maybe my favourite of the bunch, but both Abebe and Amette are excellent in their own right, sounding Melanesian by evoking those aforementioned islander musical vibes while also feeling like acoustic pop that wouldn’t be out of place on a Western radio station, as they are catchy and accessible. West Papua is another song in this vein, and is also sung in Tok Pisin, perhaps showing Telek's ambition to speak of Papua New Guinea as a whole through the song. Though it makes the album a bit long, it is this musical variety on the album that I enjoyed so much, as it eases potential listeners in with the smoother pop music, and then introduces them to the more diverse musical offerings that the Tolai people, and Papuans more generally, have to offer, and having previously known very little about both, it was a wonderful education to find out. All in all, it’s a glorious combination that makes for great listening.