The singer Hyginus Tagira passionately declares to a cheering crowd of metal fans at a festival in Kokopau, a lively town in Bougainville, to always honor the path of the forefathers and their ancestral land.
Tagira is the charismatic lead singer of Conscience, a metal band consisting of four members. He is dressed appropriately, sporting a leather cape despite the intense afternoon heat. Although it is still early in the festival, many Bougainvilleans have already arrived, donning bold heavy metal T-shirts.
Conscience is one of dozens of metal groups in the autonomous region of Bougainville, located on the far eastern fringes of Papua New Guinea and still haunted by the ghosts of a conflict that, while it officially ended more than twenty years ago, still reverberates. The civil war that began in the late 1980s was the most violent conflict in the Pacific since the second world war.
Sylvester Hatsiere, a concert attendee at Kokopau, expressed his love for the music by stating, “It has a way of getting into our blood and allowing us to momentarily escape from the difficulties in our lives.”
The genre attracts fans young and old, with live metal music in Bougainville most weekends. Hatsiere, former fighter turned cocoa planter, is a genre aficionado and rattles off a list of Bougainville metal band names – each a not-so-subtle nod to the region’s troubled past and uncertain future. They include War X, Trouble Zone, Crisis Survivors, Black Ops, Mortal Revenge, Dishonoured and Shadowfools.
The origins of Bougainville’s successful metal scene can be traced back to Australian workers who arrived in search of authentic heavy metal music. In the 1960s, gold and large deposits of copper were found near Panguna on central Bougainville island. The extraction of copper was a remarkable engineering accomplishment, involving the movement of 11 million cubic meters of soil. Once the mine was operational, the process of retrieving the copper was a continuous 24-hour operation that required intense heat, bright lights, and explosive sparks.
Numerous tradespeople and miners who were employed in Bougainville were enthusiasts of heavy metal music, heavily influenced by bands such as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and later AC/DC and Megadeth. They gained a significant following with their performances. Hatsiere, a student in Arawa, a coastal town specifically constructed to accommodate the miners, remembers a vibrant music scene during the 1970s and 1980s. Arawa had its own recording studio, local bands, and a prominent guitar hero: Bernard Hanga of the band Politix. Hatsiere’s father also had his own band, called Jail Birds, named after an incident when some members were arrested and put in jail.
In the late 1980s, the peaceful and idealistic situation was abruptly disrupted. A conflict arose as some Bougainvilleans desired independence as their own country. As a result, the mine shut down, Arawa was plundered, and foreigners were forced to leave. However, the valuable metal remained, gradually intensifying and weighing on the locals as described by Hatsiere. Music, like many things, served as an escape from the harsh reality.
Many people from Bougainville experience a difficult reality. The supply of electricity is not consistent, the roads are frequently unable to be traveled on, and there are few job opportunities. The rates of post-traumatic stress are also high. Progress in terms of politics has come to a halt. In 2019, almost all of the people from Bougainville voted for independence from Papua New Guinea, but there has been slow progress in the negotiations that have taken place since then. The local government relies entirely on financial aid from Port Moresby. The mine, which is estimated to hold around $60 billion worth of resources, remains closed and the surrounding areas are heavily contaminated.
According to Steven Tau, a video producer and historian from Port Moresby, metal music was the ideal soundtrack for both young and old Bougainvilleans during challenging times. This genre has a rich tradition of finding inspiration in difficult situations and providing comfort to those who feel marginalized, directionless, and powerless. Tau, who also has his own band called Sanguma (which means “sorcery” in Pidgin), describes how metal music could be soothing for Bougainvilleans going through tough times.
In Kokopau, Conscience completes their performance and the following act is Dooms Vein, a four-person group. Their manager, Mars Hanga, is the daughter of Bernard Hanga, the guitarist for Politix, and her brother is a member of a different metal band. She believes that metal music showcases the skills of Bougainvilleans and has the ability to bring positive change to communities that may not have much to celebrate.
She declares amidst the joyful noise that this music brings us peace, confidence, and a true sense of purpose.