Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tony Subam and the legend of Sanguma band


For someone whose music rocked Papua New Guinea and the world, the late Tony Soru Subam, one of the founders of the legendary Sanguma band in 1977, was a quite person, who kept to himself and avoided the limelight.
Tony Subam performing in Port Moresby during the 1970s

I found this out myself a couple of years ago, when I tried to do a story on him after doing one on his band mate, Buruka Tau, however, Subam said the time was not yet right.
Sadly, I will never get to do this one-on-one interview as on Christmas Day, while most of us were celebrating, Subam passed away after a short illness.
Tony Subam performing a solo during a trip to Japan
His father was from Yabob village in Madang province while his mother was from Kairiru Island in East Sepik.
I will never forget that night at Theatre Lae in 1980 when, as part as of the South Pacific Festival of Arts, Subam and Sanguma took PNG’s second city by storm.
He is survived by his wife Juta and five children.
On Wednesday evening, while I was trying to piece together this story at University of PNG’s Creative Arts Strand, where Subam was head of music, Juta, workmates and Sanguma band mate Thomas Komboi agreed that he was not one who liked publicity.
Ironically, it was at this very same place exactly 34 years ago, in 1977, that Sanguma was formed.
Komboi, in fact, suggested that we wait until other Sanguma members like Aaron Murray, Raymond Hakena, Sebastian Miyoni, Leonard Taligatus, Buruka Tau and Paul Yabo got together so that I could do a proper interview.
Sanguma band performing one of its early concerts at the UPNG Amphitheatre in the 1970s. From left are Aaron Murray, Sebastian Miyoni, Tony Subam, Apa Saun and Thomas Komboi
“He was a very nice person,” Juta reflected.
“He was very quiet, both within the house and outside.
“He only spoke when he had to.
“Otherwise, he was in his own little world, writing his thoughts.
“His life was devoted to music.
‘He got along very well with his kids and was very protective of them at the same time.”
 Sanguma, arguably PNG’s greatest ever band, developed its own avant-garde style of music.
With forward-thinking PNG musicians like Subam, Miyoni, Komboi, Yabo, Saun, Hakena, Taligatus and later Ben Hakalits, PNG music went through an inimitable epoch in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“I think Sanguma even today is very unique in itself,” Tau told me in a 2004 interview.
 “Sanguma was way ahead of its time. 
“Sanguma inspired a lot of people internationally, even though we were not a commercial band.”
“Up until today, it’s one of the most unique bands that have come out not only in PNG, but internationally.”
Sanguma, a band formed by students of the National Arts School (now Creative Arts Strand), eventually disbanded because they simply weren’t making money.
“It was basically survival,” Tau reveals.
“It came to a point where we had to survive. 
“The music was way ahead of its time.
“We did our last gig at the Expo in Brisbane (1988). 
“Sanguma reunited in 1992 for a concert with Yothu Yindi.”
Komboi told me that Sanguma started in 1977 after a creative workshop at the National Arts School.
“That year was that first year that the music school opened,” he recalls.
“Tony Subam, Paul Yabo and I came from Kerevat National High School, Tony finishing in 1975, while Paul and I finished in 1976.”
Subam, Yabo, Komboi and Miyoni were pioneer members of Sanguma together with Josepha Tamelagai, Robinson Guta, Hillary Laris, late Bill Stevens, Jesse James Pongap and Peter Piruke.
“The following year (1978), Buruka Tau, Raymond Hakena, Paul Yabo, Apa Saun and Aaron Murray came in,” Komboi adds.
“The band started because at that time, we were doing cover versions, even copying, songs of outside artists.
“Our teachers encouraged us to create our own music, such as that of Osibisa and Santana.
“We were all tasked to come up with a traditional song from our village.
“That’s how we started going into it.
“As we did that, we started writing our own stuff.
“We started to believe in what we were doing.”
Cyril Lumbia, technical officer at the Creative Arts Strand who has known Subam for more than 20 years, said he was someone who wanted the best for his music students.
He said Subam worked part-time there until 2006, when he became a fulltime contract officer.
“He took over as head of music in 2009 till today,” Lumbia said.
“He has passed a lot of students.
“He was very open-minded.
“He related very well to others and was very well respected in return.
“His approach to work was based on professionalism.
“That’s the kind of person he was.
“When it came to work and commitment, we must achieve all of our plans.”
Fellow musician Playton Gombo, lead guitarist of Bluff Inn Soles, another great band of that era, said PNG music would never be the same.
“He (Subam) was a very private man, despite being a public figure,” he said.
“He has followed us on many of the trips we had around the country.
“To us, he is a brother-in-arms, a fellow comrade musician.
“He was a front man of contemporary music and we shared those moments with him.
“These are the moments we will treasure for the rest of our lives.
“We were pioneer musicians.
“We believed in what we were doing, that was showmanship, which was the vision Sanguma and Bluff Inn Soles shared.
“I’d like to encourage young musicians to come and do what Sanguma and the Bluff Inn Soles used to do, which was performing live!”
Interesting, an interview with Sanguma band members including Subam in 1977, is now available on YouTube .
One Friday afternoon in November 1977, on a National Broadcasting Commission programme ‘University On Air, some of the band members, including Subam, were interviewed and played live some of their music, which is now online for anyone interested in hearing about the beginning of Sanguma.
Listening to Subam’s voice from 34 years ago was very emotional for me, more so, when he led Sanguma in his first-ever hit from his beloved Madang, ‘Naiyo, naiyo’.
“From different cultures we may come, speaking in different tongues, yet deep within, our souls touch each other through the language of music,” he is quoted on the clip.
“We communicate and talk in a common language with one talk. Throughout Melanesia.”


  1. Anonymous7:18 PM

    The link to the 1977 Sanguma Band interview on NBC Radio is incomplete so does not work. Here is the correct link -

  2. Anonymous3:31 AM

    I managed Sanguma for more than 4 years from 1984 to 1985. I returned to the U.S, my home, and was trying to set up another tour here of universities and academic institutes. The
    Smithsonian and 4 colleges had already said they were interested but Sanguma was burned out after two international tours of two or more months each. I got involved with other projects and we, sadly, lost touch with each other.
    Two weeks ago Raymond Hakena called to say that Sanguma was talking about reuniting. "Are you in, Peg?" After I stopped laughing, I reminded
    Raymond that I am now 78 years old. That got some chuckles from him. He asked me to write a profile on myself for use in something being published about them being given an award. I am so sorry now that I wasn't able to do it.
    Love and grace and beauty and wonderful memories to all who share my gratitude for being part of their lives. Peg Reed

    1. Anonymous8:15 PM

      I grew in PNG and had the pleasure of knowing Raymond and other members of Sanguma. Over the years i have never forgot the group as they had a big impact on the short time they where in my life and have often wondered how they are and where they all are now. 30 years later and they still very vivid in my mind. A magic group they are and will never be for gotten . Bibiana Ramos....

  3. Tony was a great man to be around with. Simple, kind and easy to talk to and a great teacher. I recall one time when he was tutoring at Goroka University in the late 80's, I had the chance to be one of his students. That time after usual class hours, using one of the guitars from the creative arts faculty at Goroka University he taught me to do finger picking (classical type) in the guitar which was very fascinating to me. During our time together, he would tell me about the Sanguma band. Tony RIP.

  4. Two of my brothers Paul & Apa with the band itself is just like our personal thing.and even today through the capacity of my own judgement I can truly say no band ever in the world did play the sound work like the Sanguma band did in the late 80s even today to compare the Sanguma sound work, no body in PNG

  5. I met Tony at the FCA at UPNG in 1993, when I was Leturer in Brass & Woodwind. Tony was an inspiration, and a great friend. I miss him!