The 3rd South Pacific Games and the early days of Papua New Guinea’s music industry

In 1969 the Freebeats recorded two songs in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Port Moresby studios that were used to promote the third South Pacific Games being hosted by Papua New Guinea. One was the official games song, providing a musical welcome to all who were attending, while the other was a localised version of the hit I’ve Been Everywhere which lists the towns and cities of Papua New Guinea. The resulting record marks not only an historic sporting and cultural moment for the Pacific region, but also the incipient music industry in Papua New Guinea.

Early Recordings From Papua New Guinea

Few recordings of music from Papua New Guinea were available to the public before the 1970s. One of the earliest collections is Music of New Guinea, which drew on recordings made by Australian ethnomusicologists Ray Sheridan and Dr. W.E. Smythe in the early to mid 1950s. These recordings sought to capture the sounds of Papua New Guinea before the influence of outside cultures. The same is true of the Ancient Voices of Papua New Guinea which appeared in 1966/67 on the Festival label in Australia. It wasn’t until the arrival of Viking Records in 1969 that releases featuring local pop and rock bands began to appear.  

Viking Records Promote Pacific Music

Viking Records began in New Zealand in 1957. During the following decade they became one of the most successful labels in the country releasing hits by artists including Dinah Lee, Max Merritt, Peter Posa, and Maria Dallas. Along with their pop and rock repertoire Viking released Maori and Polynesian music. They clearly viewed Pacific island music as a viable and growing market, particularly through sales to tourists. In 1970 it was reported that in any two months of the holiday season, AUD $200,000 worth of island music albums were being sold in Fiji alone. The South Pacific Games must have seemed like a great opportunity to market a local recording to the many people attending.

The South Pacific Games

The Pacific Games have been a significant event for people across the Pacific islands for more than fifty years. The Games’ origins go back to a meeting of the South Pacific Commission (now the Pacific Community – SPC) in Rabaul in 1959. The idea was first put forward by Dr A.H. Sahu Khan who was representing Fiji. It gained traction over the following two years and was adopted in 1961, with Fiji announced as the inaugural host. The South Pacific Games Council was established in 1962 and given the task of organising the Games. A key goal was to create “bonds of kindred friendship and brotherhood amongst people of the countries of the Pacific region through sporting exchange without any distinctions as to race, religion or politics.”

The first South Pacific Games were held in Suva between August 30th and September 7th 1963. Competitors took part in athletics, basketball, swimming, table tennis, lawn tennis, rugby, association football, and volleyball. Almost 650 athletes attended, representing thirteen South Pacific Territories, which at the time were American Samoa, British Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Gilbert & Ellice Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Niue, Papua and New Guinea, Tonga, Wallis & Futuna, and Western Samoa. Guam and the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands couldn’t attend due to the effects of Typhoon Olive.

With a headline reading “Problems At Pacific Games”, the Canberra Times published a story just before the opening ceremony from the Associated Press of America in Suva suggesting there could be issues with medal ceremonies for the games. “The trouble is, seven of the 13 territories fly the British Union Jack and sing God Save The Queen, two fly the French Tri-colour and sing La Marseillaise, and one does both. One is American territory and two are independent. The solution from the South Pacific Games Council was that each territory bring its own specially designed flag and victory song. The only country victory song I’ve been able to find to date is Papua, which was used by Papua and New Guinea at the games, and later recorded by the Hanuabada Girl Guides Troupe, It would be fascinating to know more about the other songs.   

Noumea in New Caledonia hosted the second Games in 1966 and in December that year it was announced that Port Moresby would be the site for the 1969 Games.

Papua New Guinea to host the 3rd South Pacific Games

The ‘Olympics of the South Seas’ was big news for Papua New Guinea. In a letter to the Post Courier newspaper in July 1969, William Padio of Rabaul reflected on the upcoming South Pacific Games and what it meant for people of the Pacific islands, “Since we are all near the equator we face the same problems….so it is our chance to discuss these problems and try to overcome them. We can learn from each other how we can solve problems……we can learn from some of those countries which are independent, how they go about ruling their country peacefully.”   

The Games took place in August. 1200 competitors and officials from 12 nations participated in 14 events. Australian and American tourist companies organised package deals that would allow tourists time to see a few days of the games during their holidays. The organisers also planned to bring 3000 Papua New Guinean’s in from across the country to ensure a fully representative cultural experience. Along with the games village, a billeting programme was set up to find places for everyone to stay.

Papua New Guinea put a great deal of effort into the cultural activities that accompanied the Games. A 75ft Hiri lakatoi (trading canoe), used in the traditional trading system between the Motu and Gulf people, was built by Hanuabadan villagers in Port Moresby for the first time since 1936. Team leaders and dignitaries were presented with artefacts sourced from across the country, including a Duk Duk from the Tolai people and Maiu from Orokolo people.  The crowds who flocked to watch the events were also noted for the music they played on guitars in the stands.

The Australian Army’s former controller of catering, Colonel W. Flood, was given the responsibility of feeding everyone. He was tasked with preparing three separate menus. The first included kaukau (sweet potato), yams and taro. The second was French food, with the New Caledonians reportedly asking for wine to be served with their meals. The third was to cater for British tastes.

The cost of hosting the games was estimated to be around AUD $825,000. The Territory Administration gave $150,000 but the rest had to be raised through public subscription. Walkathons were a popular form of fundraising and so were musical concerts.

Music to raise money for the Games

Australian pop star Col Joye and the Joyboys toured Port Moresby at the end of July 1969 to play shows at the Rugby League ground. Proceeds from the shows went towards the South Pacific Games Appeal.

Five pre-Games balls were held across the country to help with the fundraising. Port Moresby based band the Freebeats were sponsored by an airline to travel to each to provide the music. More than $600 was raised by the two hundred people attending the ball in the Eastern Highlands capital of Goroka. The Freebeats were joined by guest vocalist Ann Norton and according to reports the crowd didn’t stop dancing till after 3am.

The Freebeats

The Freebeats formed in Port Moresby around 1967. Members Neville Josey (bass) and Ray Mitchell (drums) had been professional musicians in Sydney since the beginning of the 60s. The pair first met while playing in The Statesmen, a group who backed vocalists Little Pattie and Roland Storm, along with others who recorded for the HMV label. The pair toured the region and eventually decided to stay in Moresby where they joined Roy Turner and Phil Neilson. The group worked hard to maintain a fresh set list of rock, pop and soul covers in their repertoire.

The band were regulars at the Aviat club and the Gateway Hotel. Along with their regular shows they also appeared with an impressive line up of touring acts. They put together a fresh stage show for a gig backing Little Pattie at the Four Mile Club in August 1970. They also backed Kamahl in October 1970 before playing alongside the Daly Wilson Small Band in December. At the Ansett Ball in Lae that same year they played alongside the Sydney pop-soul band In-People with Tony Gaha and Javanese vocalist Evie Pikler.

Viking Records in Papua New Guinea

Viking producer Charles Harley arrived in Port Moresby for the first time in 1969 looking for groups to record. Writing in the Post-Courier newspaper a year later, reporter Tony Adams said Harley’s “first impression, coloured by the raw insistence of Papuan folk-beat music, sent him back to Wellington with the notion that the Territory should be charted on the company’s musical map.” In the same story Harley says, “Papua and New Guinea is at the stage where the pop market will explode. It’s a question of being-in at the beginning to administer the right push in the right direction.” Harley signed contracts with three Port Moresby groups, the Stalemates, the Kopy Kats, and the Freebeats saying “Local musicians tend to swing to a Tahitian beat, but they have a distinctive sound, or we wouldn’t be spending time and money on the project.”

The Third South Pacific Games Record

The Third South Pacific Games is a catchy song that welcomes everyone to the Games. It includes lines acknowledging former hosts Suva and Noumea before namechecking all the nations who are participating in Port Moresby.

The other side of the record continues this idea with a localised cover version of the I’ve Been Everywhere. Written by songwriter Geoff Mack in 1959, the song was made famous by pop singer Lucky Starr in 1962. It was subsequently recorded dozens of times, including versions by Johnny Cash, Hank Snow & Kris Kristoferson, who each adapted it by substituting place names from their part of the world. In this case it’s an entertaining way to introduce everyone to the geography of Papua New Guinea. The record would have been available during the games but there is nothing to indicate how successful it was in terms of sales.

Closing Cermony

The 3rd South Pacific Games ended following 9 days of competition and 92 medals up for grabs. Topping the medal count was New Caledonia (34), followed by Papua New Guinea (24) and Fiji (15). The closing ceremony provided an opportunity for all involved to dance together in what one journalist described as a “vivid, if fleeting, sense of South Pacific identity,” while a traditional pipe band played Auld Lang Syne.

The Ball circuit continued for the Freebeats after the Games. The Kundiawa Chimbu Club Ball in October 1969 was described in the Post Courier as the best ever with the Freebeats hitting the stage in front of 200 revellers at 9:30pm and playing through till dawn.

Early in 1970 Viking released Last Train with The Freebeats which includes their versions Last Train to Clarkesville, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, and The Mighty Quinn and the local composition Kekeni Ani Mase. The same recordings were also used later for a Viking LP titled The New Guinea Scene. According to reports in the Post Courier the group didn’t like it because their songs were old repertoire and they felt the recording sounded like it was made inside a “telephone booth.”

These records, along with concurrent releases by the Kopy Kats, Stalemates, and Delapou Band, represent some of the earliest examples of contemporary pop records released from Papua New Guinea.