- Guitar Style, Open Tunings, and Stringband Music in Papua New Guinea
The Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (ipngs) continues to produce [End Page 518] important new works on the musical and cultural diversity found in Papua New Guinea. In this latest ipngs publication, ninth in the series “Studies in Papua New Guinea Musics,” Denis Crowdy presents a detailed examination of guitar playing, style, and tuning in select areas of the country. Crowdy draws on his extensive background in Papua New Guinea, as well as his experience as a guitar performer, in this thin (140-page) monograph, which is a revised version of his master’s thesis. The strength of the work lies in its discussion of guitar techniques and playing from a guitarist’s perspective, and from the detailed analyses of the instrument’s music.
In the introductory chapter, Crowdy places his work within the larger body of literature on string-band and Papua New Guinea musics. Within the diversity of PNG string-band styles and using an approach that is “essentially musicological” (3), he examines tunings and guitar playing and their associations with distinct regional styles. Crowdy explains that he collected data both from commercial sound recordings of string-band music and from ethnographic fieldwork. The regions that he visited for the study include the Hood Lagoon area of Central Province and the northern area of Madang; in Port Moresby, he examined and recorded music from East New Britain and other areas. Before studying the music in detail, chapter 2 outlines some of the major historical developments in Papua New Guinea that led to the formation and popularity of string-band music in both village and urban contexts.
By far, the most extensive part of the book is chapter 3, titled simply “Analysis.” Here Crowdy examines specific music examples in detail using different methods of notation, while linking guitar tunings and playing styles to specific regions. Although the corpus of musical examples analyzed is limited, the discussion does show linkages between guitar style and regional style. The end of the chapter is of historical interest and describes guitar styles from the 1960s in two villages, based on interviews with older musicians.
The musical analysis found throughout is strengthened by Crowdy’s background as a guitarist and his experience in learning to play in specific string-band styles. Throughout the text, he includes narrative commentaries about his experiences that bring a welcome personal viewpoint to the book. Standard staff and tablature notations are included, but Crowdy also constructs a form of graphic tablature notation in three dimensions, which provides “a better view of the kinetics of guitar playing” (53). Indeed, the kinetic aspect is an important part of the analysis, and the graphs, by illustrating the guitar’s fret-board, show the locations of selected pitches on the instrument, movements of the left hand, and the frequency and use of open strings. The resulting analysis of tunings and specific pieces shows clearly that in some tunings performers use certain fret-board positions, with selected melodic figures drawn from these positions.
Chapter 4 briefly describes the current social and cultural performance contexts of string-band music today, especially through celebrations and competitions observed by the author. [End Page 519] Crowdy discusses several ideas here that could be developed into future research projects, especially the representation and articulation of string band music as cultural heritage and “tradition” in Papua New Guinea today.
The inclusion of the compact disk is a welcome addition, as the four recorded examples coincide with those studied in detail in the text. Some readers, however, might expect a broader spread of recordings or at least additional performances to those included. Some readers might also question why the recorded...