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November 02, 2007

Honiara, Solomon Islands
Lots of Napping

If I stoop and look out my window at just the right angle, I appear to be somewhere idyllic. Just a thatch umbrella and a fence between me and the turquoise Pacific.

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A few inches higher and the concrete comes into view. Derelict ships in the harbor. Crushed plastic. Old cars farting black smoke and a swirling mass of pedestrians valiantly enduring the impossible brightness of late afternoon.

Nobody pretends Honiara is anything but a dump, which means that, for once, I don’t have to either. The South Pacific is not proud of its cities.

What’s disturbing about Honiara is what’s disturbing about every other big city in a poor country: tourists don’t come here, but everyone else does. Villages are emptying out and the city is swelling with rural transplants.

Auki, where I spent the last few days, is a small town on an island called Malaita. It’s the population center of Malaita, which isn't saying much. The thing that struck me about Auki was how disinterested people were in hitting me up.

I’ve been to over a dozen African countries. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere in any of those countries where someone didn’t ask me for money. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere in the South Pacific where anyone has.

The impression I get is that there isn’t a great deal of want here. People don’t seem to think about or talk about what they don’t have. In material terms, they certainly don’t have much, but no one is rubbing their noses in it.

People just kind of hang around. There are loads of kids, and the lack of television and GameBoys compels them to make their own fun.

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Sports are a big deal -- like soccer, rugby, and volleyball. So is, evidently, improvised gladiatorial combat.

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I walked by this hut and saw a bunch of teenage boys sitting inside. I had to ask what was painted across the front. "Psycho Lab," they explained. It's the name of their band.

They have a clubhouse for their band.

A Little Rascals vibe permeates the town.

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Oh, did I mention a lot of Solomon Islanders are blonde? Well, the kids at least. It seems to go away as they get older.

Anyway, the point is, when I get to the cities, civility goes out the window. The frequency of dirty looks rises sharply. It's like the people there have discovered a dark secret about the world. They've been cheated. A cruel joke has been played, and I can't help feeling somehow implicated.

Auki, on the other hand, was one long marathon of smiles and greetings.

“Good evening,” they would say.
“Good evening.”
“Where do you go?”
“I’m just walking.”
“Walking to where?”
“Nowhere, really.”
“Oh. You go for a stroll?”
“Yeah. A stroll.”
“Okay. Nite nite.”

It took me a while to figure out that the word “stroll” explains everything. These conversations got shorter and shorter until it just became:

“Good evening.”
“Good evening. I’m on a stroll.”
“Oh! A stroll. Okay! Nite nite.”

I did a lot of strolling in the early evenings, after the midday heat and before dinner. Sometimes in the mornings too.

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The harbor at dusk.

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This is how most people travel between the islands. It's a fairly cramped five hours.

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This shirt has made the journey from ironic to totally non-ironic. Affection for Spam in the South Pacific is pure and unfettered.

One day I climbed to the top of the island.

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The rest of the time I read old Fantastic Four comics and napped. Oh God, I napped.

Napping is essential in this kind of heat. I didn’t have to discover this fact. My body forced it upon me. I’m generally not much of a napper. I tell myself I should do it more often. It always feels like time well-spent.

When you think of the Solomon Islands, I want you to think of a smallish, lumber-built room. The floor is wallpapered and most of the furniture exists to hold it down along its seems. There is a plastic chair in the corner that would bend and collapse if you sat on it. There is a ceiling fan that loves you and comforts you for as long as the electricity holds out. There is a thin bed in the corner. The pillow is stuffed with pebbles. And you are lying on the bed, napping.

This sounds unpleasant. It’s not. At least it wasn't for me.

My hotel was the only place I found that served meals. I learned not to deviate from the thing they did well, which was lightly fried yellow fin tuna with steamed rice and green mystery veges. Sometimes they had sweet potato fries. Christian missionaries stamped out any hope of alcohol and the soda here is slightly moistened blocks of sugar, so the only liquid options are lime juice and water. The result is an entirely nourishing, satisfying meal.

There were movies every night in the lobby. They were movies I’ve heard of. I remember seeing the ads and I know they played in theaters, but I’ve never seen any of them. I also don’t know anyone who has seen them. They’re movies that come out in September and February and usually involve a plot to kill the president, or maybe a serial killer. These movies will continue to be made forever and ever because of the international film market, where there's an unquenchable appetite for anything that involves a recognizably famous guy shooting at other less famous guys.

I came here to find out about Rorogwela, the song I used in my dancing video. This was ridiculously easy. I asked Collin, who managed my hotel, and he brought me to Wilson, the local police chief. Wilson brought me to his "cousin-brother," David, who lives about 50 feet from the hotel.

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I interviewed David at length. I'm not a journalist. I did my best. YouTube videos have a way of getting around on their own, so I shoehorned the whole story into the video for people who aren't reading this entry. Anyway, here it is.

The next day David brought me to his older cousin-brother, Patrick, who is the nephew of the woman singing in the recording. He seemed more uneasy around me, so I didn't shoot an interview.

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Patrick remembered the recording, which he accurately dated around 1971. He described the French man and his wife who made the recording, and the device itself, which he said was powered by a hand crank.

Afunakwa died a long time ago. I’ve read 2003, but Patrick said it was more like 10 or 15 years back. She has a son, Jack, who is still alive. He still lives in the same Baegu village, about a half day’s travel from Auki.

Everyone on Malaita knows the "Sweet Lullaby" song. They’ve heard it on the radio. Patrick confirmed that, at least to his knowledge, no one has ever received any kind of payment for use of the recording in an international hit pop song or its reuse in – ahem – a fairly popular internet video. Everyone is vaguely aware that some sort of payment is warranted, but no one has any idea what to do about it. And that’s how things have stayed for 15 years.

Patrick said someone came around last year asking about the song. They wanted to go to the village and meet the family, same as me, but he didn’t cooperate because it would simply be more exploitation without any real benefit for them, and the inquiring party didn’t seem to have any interest in a greater understanding beyond the recording itself.

I’m not sure whether it was the money or the greater understanding that weighed more heavily, but I made it clear that I wished to know as much as they could tell me about their music, and I’d be happy to give payment to him and to the family. I explained that I had used the recording in a project and done very well with it, and I wanted to help them out in return.

That seemed to do the trick. We discussed plans to head out to the village. Patrick said he would have one of the elder members of the family perform the song for me, as well as several other songs from the village, and they would all be translated into English. Unfortunately, things fell apart when we got down to timing. They couldn’t go out there for several days, and the trip required two nights. There was no way I could make it work without getting stuck in the Solomons for an extra week and blowing over a thousand dollars in non-exchangeable plane tickets.

We agreed that I would come back another time and arrange with them in advance. No one is in much of a hurry here, so I’ve decided I’m not either, but I’m already half-planning to work it into my Asia trip early next year.

Wilson and David warned me that other people would approach claiming a relation to Afunakwa. They weren’t kidding. Word got around town about a white guy handing out money for information and I had several parties come to the hotel toting relatives and presenting their credentials.

I don’t know that any of them were lying, as these families can get pretty extended. And conversely, I suppose some doubt should be cast on the authenticity of Patrick’s claim. But here’s a thing I’ve learned: the person you actively seek out is much more likely to be on the level than the guy who comes knocking on your door. Also, my gut tells me Patrick is telling the truth and the other guys were peddling crap.

Oh, and the other thing I came here to do: dancing. Took care of that. No problem. Marched into the primary school before assembly, explained what I’m doing to the principal, and shot the clip just before the start of morning classes.

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The kids were understandably mystified by the gigantic American who wanted to dance with them, and it took about 15 minutes to find the trailblazing boy who would embarrass himself in front of the rest of the school by dancing with me. Once he broke the ice, it took another 5 minutes to build a crew of the brave and the bold. Everyone else stood on either side and watched. It was weird and sweaty, but it worked out fine. I slipped the principal a donation on my way out and barely caught the plane back to Honiara.

It took me four days to work up the nerve to go into the school. I remain terrified at the prospect of offending some principled principal and getting booted out the door. But so far they all seem to get it…sorta.

So that's all for now on the Rorogwela song and what ever happened to Afunakwa. I'm looking forward to a time when I can come back here and close the book. It's an interesting project that I feel an obligation to pursue.

But that's a long way off. Closer on the horizon: Papua New Guinea.