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Crying Bamboos: Ceremonial Flute Music from New Guinea Madang: Recorded by Ragnar Johnson

Crying Bamboos: Ceremonial Flute Music from New Guinea Madang: Recorded by Ragnar Johnson

Its power comes from imposing woodwinds ripped whole from nature.

Crying Bamboos: Ceremonial Flute Music from New Guinea Madang: Recorded by Ragnar Johnson

3.25 / 5

Don’t let the title image of crying flutes mislead you; the instruments wielded on these often mesmerizing performances aren’t your father’s Western concert flutes, whose unassuming timbres emerge from delicate pieces measuring a little more than two feet long. No, the New Guinea musicians heard here play sacred airs on pieces of bamboo that run five to six feet long and are meant to be accompanied by wooden gongs that send messages to villages miles away. Crying Bamboos: Ceremonial Flute Music from New Guinea Madang , recorded by Ragnar Johnson in 1979 but unreleased until now, has an appeal that goes beyond the academic, its power comes from imposing woodwinds ripped whole from nature.

There’s also the matter of the spirits: in much of New Guinea, the wind is given supernatural agency, and this flute music, in the context of rituals, are in fact the cries of the spirits. The image aptly suggests the album I Talk with the Spirits, from jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who knew how to get a trance-inducing sound out of a concert flute.

This ceremonial flute music from New Guinea is meant to be played loud. The seven-minute opening track “Pu-kil, Bosmun,” recorded in the village of Bosmun, features the flute players Sonung and Bahsim playing the large, “male” Wrangneh flute and a smaller “female flute,” proceeding through 18 different cries relating to male initiation rites. The cries have evocative names such as Ga-ra-ra, Yawohl, Wau and Supulup, and as on several recordings here, a flock of noisy birds inadvertently accompanies the ritual exercise.

Throughout these two discs, whatever their ritual significance, the short, repetitive flute lines and the resonance between the players as they perform a call and response on their respective flutes frequently builds up to a deep, rich drone. While the Wrangeh cries are a kind of coming of age music, Boma cries were recorded as a masked spirit ritual was performed in the coastal village of Kaean. The ritual meant that Ragnar was not allowed to record in the village itself but in a clearing some distance away. Boma flutes, played by Saweh and Maweh, featured stoppers in the shape of crocodile heads, and while the short figures they play are in some ways similar to those of the Bosmun cries, the subtle tonal differences communicate something quite different.

Communication, after all, is much of what we treasure even in the most commercial pop music. These recordings of traditional music are a reminder that the artful arrangement of sound is one of our most basic human means of connection—a sound that can transcend the most profound language barriers.

Ethnomusicological recordings are important cultural documents that don’t always translate into compelling albums, and if you need to own just one album of sacred flute music from New Guinea, this isn’t the one to get. Those honors go to Sacred Flute Music from New Guinea: Madang /Windim Mabu, the Ideologic Organ label’s 2016 reissue of previously released recordings made by Ragnar Johnson and Jessica Mayer; those recordings, while still free of any conventional song structure, are more varied and dramatic. But, as listeners who start with Crying Bamboos may learn, its 99 minutes of often transfixing music may not be quite enough.

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