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This Is Northern New South Wales

AIRILEKE: The Voice of Wantok

Melbourne-based musician-producer, Airileke, is musical diversity personified. Co-founder of the Wantok Sing Sing, he took traditional indigenous music and dance to the London Olympics in 2012, but his latest album release, Weapon of Choice, unites electronic, hip hop, metal and reggae with a more homegrown sound harking back to his Papua New Guinea heritage.

Here for the Boomerang Festival, Airileke shares a few words with Common Ground on his career and the importance of such events and their recognition of indigenous culture.


What does your involvement in such a significantly indigenous festival as Boomerang mean to you, both as someone of indigenous heritage but also as a musician?

I think Australia needs a strong indigenous festival that unites both balanda and indigenous. Giving mainstream Australia access to experience Indigenous culture, stories and people and connect with it is pretty important. And there few places in the world better than Byron for a music festival.

Music is a language of the soul, the spirit, it can transcend so many boundaries and bring a sense of unity to the people. I think unity between balanda and indigenous is something very precious, but that needs to be protected and looked after. So I hope the festival has a long successful life, and its an honor to be part of the first one.

What musical influence did you have through your childhood – a significant traditional aspect of course, but did you have very much contemporary influence? When did the fusion begin?

I always had both traditional and contemporary music in my life, but I also went looking for it in places like Manus, Morobe, Sepik, West Papua, and then eastward into Polynesia.

As a teenager I was into (Bob) Marley, African, Indian and Pakistani music like the colab stuff of Nustrat Fati Ali Khan and Massive Attack. I also studied classical percussion with the Australian Youth Orchestra. Orchestra, PNG and Aboriginal music, reggae, and hip-hop were all separate worlds to begin with but over time the lines between them all faded for me.

I  met Djolpa (Black Arm Band) when I was about 16 and I became keys player and then drummer for his band Wild Water. That’s when I started with Aborginal music. I went on to work with Yothu Yindi, Wurrumpi, Gurrumul, Salt Water, Yilila, Coloured Stone and Bart Willoughby.

You have quite a strong culture element to your music, despite the styles being diverse. Is that through direct influence or through having traced your lineage and history?

Both I guess. I’ve played traditional music all my life, and traditional PNG drumming is one of my favourite things to do. But I also love MPC (digital music creation) and making beats.

For me, producer-based music is where its at. Before moving to Melbourne I became close mates with DJ Dexter and we put a krump band together called Grrilla Step – that’s when I started to hear all the freshest music. Dexter was a big influence because he introduced me all these amazing producers.

Your influences span metal to tribal to reggae to hip hop with numerous stops in between. How does indigenous music bind these styles and what does it bring to them?

I guess I just look for a vibe where the samples themselves have a connection or a story, as opposed to just picking samples that sound cool. My roots and culture go through everything I do, but the moods change. Its a bit like speaking a few different languages and using them all in the one conversation.

I’m not that into death metal, but I made that track “Death Metal Jungle” with my mate Gordy (from the Avalanches) because it sounded wild, and I wrote it thinking about some pretty dark shit, like the scenes of torture from West Papua. That’s some pretty cold shit to get your head around, especially if you are a Papuan living in Australia. So I wanted it to sound angry and messed up.

But things are changing, and the Blues Fest and Boomerang have both shown love for the West Papuan cause, so yes – much respect to them.


What do you see as the importance of sustaining cultural music and how do you embody this?

I think maintaining the Indigenous systems of ownership is important. Indigenous systems of ownership of music and performance rights versus individualistic ownership of music is a bit like land rights versus real estate. Its important to maintain our cultural music, because its maintenance is intrinsically linked to those systems, both for music and land.

For me personally I feel indigenous cultures, like in West Papua, that are oppressed or have survived oppression have a lot to offer the world. Those ones in particular I invest my time and energy in. I guess because they are under threat, but can also potentially enrich everyone. For me that’s what Boomerang is about.

What first brought the Wantok project about, what has it brought to a contemporary market and what has it provided for indigenous musicians?

I moved to Melbourne about 7 years ago and co-founded the Wantok Musik Foundation with David Bridie and many other good people. Frank Yama’s record is pretty amazing. It really relaunched Franks international career which was a big success for Wantok. It was well produced by David and really captured the mood of central Australia.

Ngaiire’s record is a highlight for me too. I first worked with Ngaiire on Telek’s “West Papua” song and from there I signed her up to Wantok to do her solo album.

Wantok has done some good work since in places like Bougainville, Vanuatu, Central Australia, Rabaul, Japan, Fiji, Melbourne, etc so just getting to know those places better and working with artists in those places is pretty cool. Wantok has toured many artists all over the globe now, but it still feels like we have just begun. Some of the highlights was our visit to Bouganville with our sponsors, and the London Olympics gig. Not so much because of the Games, but because of the opportunity to work with 30 artists from all over the Pacific. David’s film and TV work is pretty epic too, and he usually gives Wantok artists feature spots in soundtracks he does.