Does PNG have Popular Culture? Perspectives on Commercial Music in Port Moresby

By Emmanuel Narokobi

I promised a handful of music lovers about a month and a half ago that I’d put up Oli Wilson’s paper on the recording industry in Port Moresby, so here it is below. He presented this paper on the 27th March this year at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Music and Culture is an enourmas field and I like how Oli has begun his research by trying to tackle one defined geographic location first before expanding his research. I can see this as a progressive work for him and I wouldn’t be surprised if he continuous developing his study in this field till he gets into his 30’s (cos he’s only 23 right now).

I’ll start below with his introduction and a couple of excerpts, but you can download the paper in PDF from the link further below. For researchers and students out there the paper has been accepted for publication in the Wanpisin: Journal of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Papua New Guinea.


Over the last four months I have been collecting data on the recording industry in Port Moresby, as part of my fieldwork toward a PhD in ethnomusicology. I still have many months of fieldwork ahead of me, so this paper is not intended as a presentation of my research results, as any attempts to discuss or predict them here would inevitably be incomplete. Instead, this paper outlines the basis for research on music industry technology and cultural identity, and discusses why the recording industry in Port Moresby is a relevant and significant case study. I will begin by introducing the discipline of ethnomusicology from which this study draws its fundamental methods, and discuss how the study of popular music in particular, is a valuable means to investigate broader questions concerning popular culture and identity. I will explain some fundamental theories concerning popular music by summarising theories of Popular Culture and Mass Culture. I will also discuss how the term ‘tradition’ has been applied in studies of non-western popular music, arguing that an ambiguity, resulting from the over-use of this term both as theory and description, complicates the application of the above theories. I will conclude by considering how these theories may or may not apply to the music industry in Port Moresby, particularly with reference to how they relate to the construction and representation of cultural identity.


…My own research is concerned with the social function of commercial music in a developing urban context, in particular, its capacity to construct and represent cultural identity.  In order to investigate this, I am studying how the music industry, and in particular, ‘globalised’ music technologies, influences contemporary notions of cultural identity in Port Moresby. To explain this further, I will discuss three related areas; music technology, the industry, and how these two influence and effect how music represents and constructs cultural identity…


…These studies provide a relevant foundation for popular music research in PNG. However, they only focus on the guitar and ukulele, and we could be mistaken to believe that these instruments are the only technologies that drive the musical phenomena known as stringband. It is possible however, that the guitar was not the sole catalyst for the development of this style, and also that it was not the sole catalyst for changes in how music is perceived and organised by Papua New Guineans. Instead, the guitar must be considered as only one part of a process that includes many other elements, including human interaction, and other technology…


…Therefore, when investigating the recording industry technologies that are impacting musical culture today, I must acknowledge that musical culture in PNG has already undergone considerable change, none of which can be attributed to a single event or technology. Developments in musical culture therefore can be seen as part of a long-standing trajectory of cultural change…


…Port Moresby music industry is undergoing a digital revolution, where relatively affordable digital recording technologies are becoming commonplace. Port Moresby currently has at least twenty small digital recording studios that are all producing commercial music.  This drastically increases musicians’ access to recording technology, which dramatically increases the regularity with which commercial music is produced.  For example, I estimate that PNG produces 300-400 commercial recordings a year, which is a phenomenal number for a country of this size and demographic…


…Papua New Guinea’s urban centres, such as Port Moresby, have a migrant population that is relatively new, and it would be difficult to argue that their residents are atomised to the extent that mass culture characterises urban subjects. It would appear that people’s social relationships are in fact well defined, and manifest in various forms, for example, through the wantok system. However, because of urbanisation, people are dislocated from the origin of these social systems, and therefore the process of urbanisation alone is enough to have some effect on these social systems. From my observations it would appear that people are using commercial music in order to connect with the places they are unable to connect with physically. For example, the marketing strategies of local record producers is centred around the concept of selling music from one area, to people who identify with that same area. People buy music from “their place”, therefore reinforcing their relationship to place, and thus reinforcing their cultural identity….

Download PDF here:

Does PNG have Popular Culture? Perspectives on Commercial Music in Port Moresby. By Oli Wilson – PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology at Otago University, New Zealand

Presented as part of the MAPS seminar series at the University of Papua New Guinea on Thursday 27th of March, 2008

Accepted for publication in the Wanpisin: Journal of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Papua New Guinea.

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