Remembering Phillip Lamasisi Yayii

by Don Niles

Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies

Phillip Lamasisi Yayii was an extraordinarily talented musician and music researcher. Many of us are still in shock after hearing of his death in Vienna at the age of 55. This short article attempts to honour some of his many accomplishments.

Phillip was born in Paruai village, in the Kara-speaking area of New Ireland, on 24 November 1953. He completed primary school education in his village from 1961 to 1965, and then attended Utu High School until 1969.

After graduation, he received a scholarship to do secondary studies at Armidale School in New South Wales, Australia, 1970–71. Upon returning to Papua New Guinea, he began studies at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1972. In 1976, he received a Bachelor of Agriculture degree.

Phillip’s final three years of study were sponsored by the Papua New Guinea Development Bank. After graduation, he worked with the bank for a short time, but then resigned because he wanted to be involved more practically in the field. In July 1976, just one month after his resignation, he began work in the Music Department of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, a government institution devoted to cultural research.

Although Phillip had no formal background in music, he had played the guitar since his early teens. He also began composing his own songs. During his time at university, he also performed them whenever possible. Some of these he recorded with the National Broadcasting Commission.

His song “Come Independence Come,” performed with his band Pabung Sakha, was included on an LP record of songs called Papua New Guinea Independence Celebrations released in 1975 by Viking Records in New Zealand.

In 1977, the National Broadcasting Commission began releasing cassettes for sale. Although they were not the first local company to sell music cassettes, this development was of tremendous importance to the growing commercial music industry.

NBC’s first two releases were of traditional music. Their second two were of Central stringband music. Their fifth release was Pairap bilong Gita, Volume 1 containing examples of stringband music from other parts of the country. This cassette contained Phillip and Pabung Sakha performing “Leave Us Alone”:

I can remember my early days back home

Those times I never knew what was coming

You came long ago and you spread your words around

My people blindly bowed their heads to you

Now that I’ve grown up and realised what you are

I will fight my best to keep you out

Cause you’ve done the worst with the thoughts that you’ve laid down

It’s really like an ulcer that can’t be healed

Can’t you leave us alone?

Why must you pester us?

We have our values that we all are proud of

So pack yourself and leave us alone

You tell us to love and not to hate each other

But you’ve got problems from where you came

Why don’t you go back there and straighten yourselves?

We can do much better without you.

Were these thoughts directed towards the recently departed Australians, a comment on missions, or a caution on foreign influence in general? Perhaps all of these and more. Certainly the song is a celebration of Papua New Guinea cultural traditions, something Phillip always felt passionate about.

Such thoughts definitely stood out in the stringband music of the 1970s, and still do today. The poetry, sentiments, and singing of “Leave Us Alone” also reminded listeners of another important poet-musician of the period, so Phillip was sometimes called the Bob Dylan of PNG.

NBC’s ninth release was From the Bismarck Sea, appearing in 1978. While bands from East New Britain and Manus were represented on side A, all of side B was devoted to Phillip’s songs: “If You Think,” “The Children,” “A Drunkard’s Lament,” “Sindaun Wantaim,” and “Fly Home with the Wind.” Once again, Phillip pushed the boundaries of poetry and music.

For example, “Sindaun Wantaim” combines a Tok Pisin and an English text, commenting on the gap between talk and reality, and making an appeal that we should all embrace today:

Ol toktok i olsem win tasol

I kam long yu na yu no harim gut

Nau yu ken luksave

Ol pain i wok long senis nau

Yumi traim long ting long yumi yet

Nau yu ken luksave

Ol spia i wok long kamap gen

Ol akis i no moa hevi nau

Ol brata na pren i pret nau

Planti man i laik long stap wantaim

Toktok oltaim long bung wantaim

Sindaun brata na sista wantaim

Tasol ples i tudak yet

Sampela i wok long nogut tru

Sampela i wok long kisim pen

Baimbai inap we ol wantok?

Why, why do we have to fight?

Why, why don’t we trust each other?

Can’t we sit down and think of living together?

Can’t we stand up and help to work together?

Let’s try now for once and live together.

Although no more of Phillip’s songs were ever released commercially, a couple of these earlier ones would be included in a collection called Riwain! Papua New Guinea Pop Songs (1986) to encourage the use of local songs in learning to play the guitar. Produced by staff at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and what was then Goroka Teachers College, this publication was later distributed to schools throughout the country by the Education Department. This exposed a new generation to some of Phillip’s artistry.

Immediately upon beginning work with the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Phillip began to record traditional music for our Music Archive. Already in 1976, he recorded on the islands of the Louisiade Archipelago in Milne Bay for two months. In the following year, he collaborated with Austrian ethnomusicologist Florian Messner for four months, recording in New Ireland, Manus, East Sepik, and the Western Highlands. And in 1978, he collaborated with IPNGS director Ulli Beier and writer John Kasaipwalova to record epic songs in the Trobriand Islands.

The collaboration with Messner, however, proved to be of great significance. Messner was very impressed with Phillip’s research abilities, musical knowledge, and enthusiasm. He thought Phillip would greatly benefit from formal training in ethnomusicology at the University of Vienna in Austria. In March 1978, Phillip travelled to Vienna to begin formal music studies for the first time.

However, before he could even begin his music courses, Phillip had to study and become fluent in university-level German. Over the next few years he also had to learn Latin, as it was a required subject for all graduate students at the university.

Although learning these languages was certainly a difficult task, Phillip’s enthusiasm for music and his music studies never diminished. He excelled in the Western music and ethnomusicology courses he attended. His studies also involved fieldwork activities in other parts of Europe, experiences from which he learned much.

In 1982, Phillip returned to his home province to undertake fieldwork that he hoped to use in a dissertation to be called “The Malanggan Ceremonial Songs of the Kara People of North New Ireland.” This visit also enabled him to participate in the Conference for Ethnomusicologists organised at Goroka Teachers College.

In contrast to all the other local and international participants who presented papers in English, Phillip presented his in Tok Pisin and passed out an English version to help those who needed it. The English version was published the following year as “Some Aspects of Traditional Dance within the Malanggan Culture of North New Ireland” in the journal Bikmaus. This article is an outstanding piece of research and remains an essential source of information to anyone researching malanggan traditions.

Returning to Vienna to continue his work, Phillip also visited Berlin during initial arrangements to repatriate recordings of Papua New Guinea music housed in an archive there. Thanks to Phillip’s assistance, those recordings have been brought home.

In 1988 Phillip spent a number of months in Australia, participating in and making presentations at a number of international gatherings: Colloquium and Study Group meetings of the International Council for Traditional Music and a conference of the International Music Society. Phillip’s presentation at the Colloquium was published in 1992 as “Documentation of Music and Dance: What It Means to the Bearers of the Traditions, Their Role, and Anxieties Associated with the Process.” Based upon his own experiences, Phillip here offers valuable insights as both a researcher and a bearer of tradition.

When Papua New Guinea’s prime minister signed the Lomé Convention in Togo in 1990, Phillip was there. Perhaps he represented something of the intended cooperation between European and Pacific nations. Phillip was always an excellent ambassador for Papua New Guinea.

Living and studying in Vienna was not easy. Phillip started working at Bank Austria to earn money for survival in 1990. However, his music and his homeland were always a very important part of his identity. When I last saw him in 1999, he was playing 1960s rock ’n’ roll in a Viennese pub. He quickly explained that he did that simply because it was fun. But he said that he was also in another music group exploring fusions between Western, African, and Papua New Guinea musics with some friends.

On 26 May 2009, Phillip happily returned home in Vienna after work and pedalled on his exercise bicycle as he waited for dinner. He suddenly collapsed. Paramedics came quickly, but could not resuscitate him. He had died of sudden heart failure.

After informing relatives in Papua New Guinea, Phillip’s funeral took place in Vienna on 12 June. Many people came to show their love and respect for Phillip. The vice president of the Austrian South Pacific Society spoke. Two Papua New Guinea friends sang traditional songs for him. Musician-friends honoured him with drums and guitar, singing some of Phillip’s songs, and a recording of Phillip himself was played as well. Prayers were in German and Tok Pisin. Regardless of where he was, Papua New Guinea was always with him.

This sad event has made me recall many special moments with Phillip: riding on a bus with him outside of Melbourne singing his songs of a decade earlier; Phillip preparing Wiener schnitzel for the two of us and later giving me his German dictionary to help in my own language struggles; secretly listening to his amazing blues harp playing so as not to disturb his joyous creative outburst.

The staff of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies mourns Phillip’s passing, and extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends in Austria and Papua New Guinea.

Note: Don Niles is a Music Researcher at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.

Photo captions:

1. Phillip during research in 1982.

2. Phillip having a cup of coffee in Vienna in 1997.

16 June 2009