Unwaveringly, vocalist Hyginus Tagira belts out to a captivated audience of metal enthusiasts in Kokopau, a vibrant town in Bougainville, about the legacy of the forefathers and their enduring influence on the ancestral territory.
Tagira, the charismatic lead singer of Conscience (pronounced Con Science), is decked out in a leather cape that likely caused him to sweat profusely in the intense afternoon heat. Although it was still early in the festival, hundreds of Bougainvilleans were already present, many donning flashy heavy metal tees.
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 fan who attended the Kokopau concert, expressed his love for the music and its ability to temporarily help him forget about any hardships in his life.
Fans of all ages are drawn to the genre, which features live metal music in Bougainville on most weekends. Hatsiere, a former fighter who now works as a cocoa planter, is a devoted fan of the genre and can easily list off the names of metal bands in Bougainville. Each name serves as a reminder of the region’s tumultuous history and uncertain future. Some examples include War X, Trouble Zone, Crisis Survivors, Black Ops, Mortal Revenge, Dishonoured, and Shadowfools.
The origins of Bougainville’s successful metal industry can be traced back to Australian workers who arrived in search of real heavy metal over two generations ago. In the 1960s, gold and large deposits of copper were found in Panguna, located in the central mountains of Bougainville island. The extraction process for the copper was a remarkable engineering achievement, involving moving 11 million cubic meters of dirt. Once the mine was operational, extracting the copper was a continuous process that ran 24 hours a day, using high temperatures, bright lights, and explosive sparks.
Several of the workers in Bougainville were fans of heavy metal music, particularly bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and later AC/DC and Megadeth. Their presence in the area gained them a dedicated following. Hatsiere grew up in Arawa, a town specifically created for the miners, and remembers a thriving music scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Arawa even had its own recording studio and local bands, including the renowned guitarist Bernard Hanga of Politix. Hatsiere’s father also had his own band called Jail Birds, named after an incident where some members were arrested and placed in jail.
In the late 1980s, the peaceful time was disrupted. There was a disagreement among some Bougainvilleans who wanted to form their own country. The mine shut down, Arawa was robbed, and foreigners were forced to leave. However, the valuable metal continued to exist, becoming darker and heavier over time. As Hatsiere puts it, it began to “seep into our veins and our brains,” and like music, it offered an escape from the harshness of reality.
The situation for many people living in Bougainville is grim. There are frequent power outages, roads are often unpassable, and job opportunities are scarce. Many people are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Progress in politics has come to a standstill. Despite nearly 98% of Bougainvilleans voting for independence from Papua New Guinea in 2019, there has been slow progress in the negotiations that have taken place since then. The government of the region relies solely on grants from Port Moresby. The mine, which is estimated to hold $60 billion worth of resources, remains closed, and the surrounding areas are heavily contaminated.
Steven Tau, a video creator and historian from Port Moresby, discusses the significance of metal music for the people of Bougainville, both young and old. Metal has a reputation for drawing inspiration from challenging situations and providing comfort to those who may feel marginalized, confused, or powerless. According to Tau, metal music was particularly soothing for Bougainvilleans during difficult times. Additionally, Tau is also a member of his own band, Sanguma, named after the pidgin term for “witchcraft.”
In Kokopau, Conscience completes their set and is followed by Dooms Vein, a four-piece band. Their manager, Mars Hanga, is the daughter of Politix guitarist Bernard Hanga and her brother is a member of another metal band. She believes that metal music highlights the skill of Bougainvilleans and has the ability to bring positivity to communities that may not have much to celebrate.
“The music brings us tranquility and boosts our confidence and motivation,” she exclaims amidst the cheerful noise.