by Gabriel Lomas

The Húli people live in the central mountains of the Papua New Guinea mainland, and number some 250,000 (Haley 2007:155). Across the language community there are minor dialectal variations associated with areas of migration (Lomas 1988:27–30), but these do not significantly affect communication. However, as regards the neighbouring Duna, Dugaba, and Obena peoples, language does affect communication—despite a Húli claim that they share a common ancestor called Héla—since each group speaks a language largely unknown to the others.

In Héla Húli, the tradition of chanting tales around the fire at night is found everywhere and has been a feature of Húli society from time out of mind. These tales, lasting for anything from a few minutes to several hours, 1 are called bì té, 2 or ‘talk clump/cluster/stand’. 3

Women chant bì té sitting with groups of women, men with groups of men, and while the primary purpose of these tales is to provide diversions, they treat social relationships and experiential knowledge that reflect many of the sociocultural values of the Húli community. Thus, they also teach ideational and behavioural norms, and, indeed, women have traditionally used bì té as a form of “infotainment” for their daughters and other girls, while boys and young men are always among those who listen to and are influenced by the tales sung by men.

Nowadays, although Húli society is changing, and schools, politics, money, local businesses, and the creeping spread of AIDS are causing ever increasing concerns and taking up more and more community attention, bì té performances continue to be esteemed and respected.

Bards have a wealth of traditional tales to draw upon, with generally two or more human characters in each tale. Sometimes a tale may carry a romantic interest, and there is nearly always some sort of supernatural element involved, such as a non-human spirit or a paranormal event. Very often, members of the hāroli ‘bachelor cult’ figure in the tales, although their status as hāroli is usually implied rather than stated. 4 Frequently, one of the human characters goes off on a journey, often into a high mountainous rain-forest where dāma ‘spirits’ dwell. These spirits may be ogre-type beings that eat human flesh, cannibals that devour each other, or slippery tricksters likened to the íba tīri ‘eels’ that inhabit the waterways.

The setting for each tale comprises the general and specific features of the Húli countryside: swamps, rivers, high ominous mountains with their deep forests and dark caves, cultivated garden plots and their produce, coloured clays, and the artefacts and adornments associated with them, along with the flora and fauna of the landscape and traditional Húli rituals. Such are the referents in bì té. Each story occurs within the constructs of Húli cosmology and is held to embody “truth,” although there is a general reluctance for people to claim that the events of any particular bì té actually occurred, and bards may use modulation to distance themselves from asserting the reality or otherwise of the tales they sing. 5 There is no special term in Húli for ‘bard’, such a person being called simply a bì té lāga ‘story-utterer/teller’. In the same way, people who perform on musical instruments that enable the articulation of words, such the gàwa ‘mouth bow’ and hìri júle ‘jaw’s harp’, are simply lāgaru ‘utterers’—occasionally bāgaru ‘strikers/strummers’—of these instruments. Such skills are acquired mainly by watching and imitating others. From childhood onwards, Húli are exposed to bì té, and snatches of the genre sometimes surface in everyday activities. 6

Bards become proficient 7 by paying attention to storytellers, remembering their stories and any special language used, imitating and practising chanting techniques, and making the stories their own. An individual bard will usually know a few tales well, although accomplished performers will have larger repertoires.

Tales are sung unaccompanied by musical instruments, and each performance is a new creation in that it is tailored by the bard to suit the audience present. Indeed, there is a sense in which bì té are joint constructions, shaped by the interaction of singer and listeners, the latter being expected to signal their involvement by interjecting è ‘yes’ periodically throughout the narrative. This participatory feedback also helps to keep the listeners awake, since bards often maintain rhythm by swaying or shifting slightly from side to side as they chant, and listeners tend to sway in unison with them in the smoke and drowsy warmth of the fire. 8

Example: Introductory section of bì té: Àe ndē ‘ah yes’ (* = pause for breath).

  1. Ae … ae ale be, laja-o. “Ah, what then?” he said.
  2. Agali mbira ogoria haja-o. * There was a man living here.
  3. Mbiru nde, Well, one day,
  4. agali biagome, ibu that man, he
  5. Hela Obena pole, lowa, declared, I’ll go off to Hela Obena,
  6. manda manda bija-o. and got everything ready.
  7. Ani buwa, Having done that,
  8. ae nde, ah yes,
  9. agali biagome howa, this man of himself,
  10. dawe hole pole, lowa deciding, “I’ll go to a dawe celebration”
  11. —Hela Obena— * —in Hela Obena—
  12. dawe hagane jaribu manda bija. he prepared some dawe accessories.
  13. Hiri lajabi manda bija. He got a prize drum ready.
  14. Ege nubi manda bija. He prepared a stout stringbag.
  15. Ae nde, manda bu Ah yes, all equipped,
  16. Hela Obena pole haja-o. * he was set to leave for Hela Obena.
  17. Ae nde, Ah yes,
  18. ibugwa alabubabi manda bija. he readied some choice greens.
  19. Hiwa degebi manda bija, He prepared a portion of sago,
  20. larima, abijani-o. we said, that’s how it was.
  21. Goloba angamabi manda bija-o. He got ready some bright red pandanus.
  22. Ae nde, Ah yes,
  23. biagoni hana manda bija-o he prepared to carry this in his stringbag.
  24. Ani bijagola howa-o, ae nde, * Having done all this, ah yes,
  25. Hela Obena pole, lowa, he said, “I’m going to Hela Obena,”
  26. pija, larima-o. * and off he went, we said.

(An extract from Sung Tales in Héla Húli by Gabe C. J. Lomas. Sung Tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Ed.: Alan Rumsey and Don Niles. ANU Press. 2011. pp. 75-77).

  1. Pugh-Kitingan (1981:332, and also this volume) says “a few seconds to several minutes or hours.” I have not heard any very short bì té, nor any very lengthy ones. The longest I remember lasted about twenty minutes. []
  2. In this chapter, the usual linguistic conventions are followed as far as possible in transcribing Húli. However, the programs used to produce the present publication in its various e-book forms have trouble in displaying letters with both a tilde (~)—indicating nasalization—and an accent. Because of this, it has been decided to represent nasalization with an underlining ( _ ),which then allows the nasalized item to display an accent, too, if necessary. The other diacritics used are: a grave accent (`) to indicate words uttered on a falling tone; an acute accent (´) to show words with rising tones; and a macron ( ¯ ) for level tones. Since tone is perturbed in the singing of bì té, Húli transcriptions of bì té texts and any quotations taken from them do not carry diacritics. Note that post-consonantal w signals consonantal labialization, and dots within Húli words indicate morpheme boundaries. []
  3. The word té occurs in the collocation īra té ‘stand/cluster/clum of trees’, where īra means ‘tree(s)’. It is also possible that the té in bì té could be a derivative of téne ‘root’. []
  4. There might be a nexus here between bì té and their Duna equivalent, bi gono ‘true talk’, which are mostly tales woven round the activities of Duna nane ‘bachelors’ (see Kendoli; Gillespie and San Roque; and Sollis, all this volume.) []
  5. Modulation is typically expressed in English as “ought,” “would,” “should,” etc. The grammatical form used to express such meanings is a modal suffix (see Lomas 1988:157–63). I am grateful to Lila San Roque, whose questions (pers. comms.) about Húli “evidentials” prompted me to investigate this bì té characteristic. []
  6. Goldman (1998:111) records a couple of well-known bì té lines being recycled by children at play. []
  7. It would be a mistake to think of a Húli bard as a Homeric figure, a sort of wandering entertainer. A better comparison is that of the self-taught mouth-organ player in Western society, who acquires the ability to play a variety of tunes by listening to them, observing other players, and then trying things out. []
  8. Listeners are often warned at the outset to pay attention and to keep saying è ‘yes’, lest the bard’s mother or their own mothers should die. []

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