Beautiful and inhospitable, the island of Biak lies off the north coast of Irian Jaya, the massive eastern island that Indonesia shares with Papua New Guinea. The Biak people were ironsmiths, merchants, vassals, ruthless fighters, hunters, farmers, fishermen, and pirates. Biak saw a lot of action during World War II, but held out to be the last territory to join Indonesia in 1969. Today, the intensely multiethnic island produces pilots, scholars, and soccer stars, but traditional ways remain strong in the villages.
Few cultural expressions so express this complex history as the body of choral songs called wor, once used to appease spirits and prepare warriors for battle. The bane of missionaries, wor songs loaded with social commentary make up the first 17 of the 22 short selections in this volume. They have a freewheeling sound owing to the fact that singers can cut in on each other to take the melody, like soccer players vying for control of the ball. In fact, most of the songs are composed and highly organized, although the selections associated with bride price negotiations here involve a good deal of improvisation. With repetitive pulse rhythm and creaky, wavering voices, many of these selections recall Native American music. The aged quality of the voices reflects the demographic of the music's supporters, although apparently, wor has some cache among today's youth.
Four church songs have a decidedly orderly, soothing feeling after all that war. They're sung by female choirs with men singing the bass parts. The volume ends with a sample of the contemporary string music called yospan. This party-hardy church music has taken the place of wor at many public celebrations, replacing drums with ukuleles and guitars. It has alternating fast and slow manifestations and is usually accompanied by palm wine drinking and competitive dancing. This south seas swing with lively drumming and prominent basslines sets Biak cultural content to Western harmonies.