When David Bridie and John Phillips (of the seminal Aussie ambient band Not Drowning Waving) were asked to score a documentary about canoe makers from Manus Island back in the mid ’80s, Bridie had no idea how the Melanesian culture would impact his life. The mystery and adventure of the region has since become a huge part of Bridie’s existence and, after briefly entertaining thoughts of venturing to the U.K. or Europe for his first overseas sojourn, ultimately found himself on his way to Papua New Guinea.
“That was my first trip outside of Australia,” recalled Bridie. “And it really was one of those life-affirming experiences. Every sight and every sound was fascinating. Being a musician, I looked into the music scene and hung out in music stores and made a whole lot of connections. I then heard this song by George Telek called “Abebe,” and it really got into my head. A little later I met him by accident and we hit it off, and, after a few beers and solving the world’s troubles on the beach one day, we thought, ‘Hey let’s do a record together.'”
Since their formation in 1983, Not Drowning Waving had been one of the most cerebrally innovative collectives to grace the Australian music scene. So it was almost inevitable that the region’s culture would eventually filter into the band itself. In the late 1980s, Bridie returned to Papua New Guinea with the band to join forces with Telek and a collection of fellow New Guinean musicians. It was there that the band crafted their landmark album, Tabaran. The record, a true integration of cultures, presented its listeners with a musical hybrid unlike anything previously heard in Australian music.
“That was a really important record for both Papua New Guinea and Not Drowning Waving,” recalled Bridie. “It led to tours in Australia and in Papua New Guinea with a bunch of musicians from up there. The experience really opened my eyes to the fact that Papua New Guinea was like what I guess Jamaica was like in the ’60s and ’70s, where there was this unique music industry that had grown with its own trajectory. It had so many different elements, including string band music along with wonderful traditional music and a rocking reggae scene, as well.”
When Not Drowning Waving ran its course, Bridie maintained his working relationship with Telek. The Melbourne-based musician has since contributed production to all four of Telek’s subsequent albums, including his 2000’s Serious Tam, which was released through Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. The Bridie and Telek collaboration also laid the foundations for what would become Sing Sing.
“When George came down to Australia, a lot of the aboriginal musicians were very keen to work with him,” Bridie recounted. “I think, for the aboriginal musicians, it made sense to them. There’s this country just to the north of Australia with a population of six million people, and if history had gone a different way, the Australians would be an independent country, just like them.”
And therein laid the groundwork for Sing Sing; the realization that the indigenous people of Australia and Melanesia had far more in common than they did in difference. The result is a 13-strong ensemble that features some of the most significant indigenous vocalists, percussionists, and dancers from the region, and shines a spotlight on one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world.
“Papua New Guinea has a third of the world’s languages, and the region has so many different musical styles,” explained Bridie. “The first Sing Sing concert in 1995 not only brought together the best musicians and dancers form Melanesia and indigenous Australia, but it gave every artist a moment to shine. … Albert David, for example, is from the Torres Straight and is a fantastic dancer and singer, but he can also dance Yolngu style from Arnhem Land. He has learned West Papuan dances, and they’ve learned his songs, as well. So there’s this shared Melanesian presentation.”
But more than anything else, the Sing Sing experience is one of unity and celebration. Having toured through Australia and the Pacific, their upcoming West Coast tour will be the first time the group has performed in the northern hemisphere. And while the cultural experience might be something exotic to local audiences, Bridie feels it also offers a significant relevance.
“For me, as a white fellow and from the outside, you realize that the cultural affinity and connection they have is something that we could learn a lot from. It’s a very joyous thing. There are some very spacious moments in Sing Sing, and at other times there’s a huge wall of sound. Sometimes it’s very serious and sensitive and at other times it’s a laugh a minute. There are actually moments that are really funny and you would have to be a pretty mean-spirited person not to walk away from it smiling.”
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Sing Sing at Campbell Hall on Wednesday, May 6, at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.