Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The glory days of radio in Papua New Guinea


Like many other Papua New Guinean children of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s era, I grew up on a constant diet of radio and the voice of that great National Broadcasting commission icon Peter Trist.
Trist, for those who came in late, was the man behind those famous NBC drama and radio programmes of that bygone era.
The great Peter Trist
In those days, before video killed the radio star, Sunday night dramas were a must and every time one of those popular dramas came on, entire families would be huddled around their radio sets.
Many fine actors emerged on radio drama, some from staff of the NBC, others from auditions, including my good mate David ‘Buffalo’ Haro in Lae, Cecily Kekedo, Joseph N’Draliu, Pauline Beni Hau’ofa, Kilore Susuve, Alofa Vaki, Douglas Gabb, Memafu Kapera and – possessing one of the richest radio voices – the late Sevese Morea.
Trist was also the man behind the famous school broadcast programmes of that era, including the unforgettable Peter, Kinibo and Dagu, in which he played the villain Doriga.
The NBC cupboard, sadly, is now bare of those iconic radio programmes.
On Tuesday last fortnight, I had the long-overdue honour of meeting my childhood hero at the University of PNG campus, where he presented a paper at a two-day book workshop in which he discussed the influence of the inimitable Ulli Beier and his wife Georgina on PNG playwriting, poetry prose, performance and publications in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now aged 74, Trist first came to PNG in 1957 and left in 1984, and has not been back since.
As we sit down in the UPNG forum, his old stomping grounds which he first came to in 1966, memories of another day come rushing back.
I am also a product of UPNG, having first come here in 1986, but that was many years later after Trist had left.
“I first came to PNG in 1957,” he tells me.
“I worked with the Australian administration in those days as a clerk with Customs and Department of Native Affairs.
“In 1966, Dr John Gunther (then vice-chancellor of UPNG) invited me to come out and join the administration staff of the university.
“He said that he knew that I’d done a lot of theatre work in Moresby.
“I did the first integrated production with Papua New Guineans and Australian expatriates at the old arts theatre in town.
“It was a product of Gilbert and Sullivan, HMS Pinafore.
“That was controversial and some of the white members resigned in protest, arguing ‘where would the natives get dressed for the show’?
“I issued an ultimatum that unless the Papua New Guinean actors were welcomed, I would refuse to direct the show.
“The play went ahead and was a great success, with mixed audiences enjoying the show.
“Jon Bili Tokome and Cecily Kekedo were among the cast.”
It was then decided that Trist could go ahead and establish a Drama and Arts Society at UPNG.
In 1974, he joined the NBC, and thus began an unforgettable era in the history of PNG radio.
“The (NBC) chairman at that time, Sam Piniau, asked me to form the Drama and Features Department,” Trist remembers.
“I wanted Papua New Guinea material and actors and musicians.
“I arranged for the NBC to pay these artists for their contributions.
“Therefore, it was on a professional, rather than amateur basis.”
The NBC was persuaded to have a clear motivational “carrot” to promote people to send scripts with payments for any scripts used in broadcasting.
There was also payment for actors taking part in radio drama.
Trist remembers that on the day of their “open audition”, after a newspaper advertisement, a long line of hopeful, would-be actors, stretched from the NBC studios almost to Boroko.
Local playwrights such as Russell Soaba, Benjamin Umba, Pius Tikili, Roslyn Bobom, Norah Vagi Brash and the very-prolific John Kolia contributed.
A memorable drama serial based on actual historic events was Albert Toro’s The Sugarcane Days.
This told the story of Molen, who was kidnapped as a young man by the notorious ‘blackbirders’ and conscripted into virtual slavery on a Queensland sugar plantation.
Toro told the events from the perspective of Molen, as an old man, remembering the trials of his servitude as a ‘kanak’.
The great Bougainvillean actor, the late Jon Bili Tokome, played the role of Molen, with strength and sensitivity, while Roslyn Bobom was equally memorable as his mother.
“Cultural programmes were contributed by Ulli Beier at the institute of PNG Studies on topics such as music, folklore, art and customs,” Trist says.
“They were scripted and broadcast.”
Folklore in Melanesia, for example, was a six-part series examining themes in Melanesian myth on topics such as death, creation, the moon, the coming of the Europeans – presented by Beier and Karkah Kais – and was dramatised with acted sequences.
Scripts for this series, and for others, were produced by the institute.
Arts in the Third World, The World through Poetry, and Worship through Music were other successful NBC/IPNGS co-productions.
“I left Papua New Guinea in 1984 to return to Australia to care for my ageing parents,” Trist says.
“In Australia, I continued to direct and produce plays to encourage young people to express themselves through theatre.”
I ask Trist what are the highlights of his 27 years in PNG.
“Highlights would be the formation years at the University of PNG and to witness the very first graduation of qualified Papua New Guineans,” he says.
“It was John Gunther’s vision to get this place going.
“This is my first time back since leaving in 1984, so you can imagine the emotions running through me.”
Trist says that to rekindle those glory days of radio drama and programmes in PNG, there must be strong corporate support.
“It’s time for corporate support,” he says.
“You Papua New Guineans are among the most-creative people in the world.”

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