On 30 November 2013, I stood in the middle of more than 2,000 people at the Sir John Guise Stadium, singing into a microphone, and could hardly believe it was real. People were pressed tightly together, waving at me, smiling, calling out ‘solwara meri!’ and filling me with a sense of belonging that has yet to be matched. I smiled in amazement at Robert Oeka, standing beside me, and together we started our next song, Kerema Yu No Save. This was a celebration of Gulf Day, and we performing in true Gulf style.
How we got to this point is a funny story. I had met Robert Oeka several years ago, a chance meeting one day while practicing a few songs for a musical I was performing in at the Moresby Arts Theatre. At the time I had no idea that he one of Papua New Guinea’s most loved musicians, often referred to as ‘PNGs music king’, and when I agreed to record a song with him it was more for fun than anything else. Little did I know what a wonderful adventure it would take me on.
He wanted me to record Solwara Mangi, a remake of his hit song Solwara Meri from the 1980’s, in Toaripi – the local language of Robert’s village in Kerema, Gulf Province. I had never heard the original song nor the language before, but within two hours we had it recorded and Robert was confident it would be a hit. Within a few weeks the song had been mixed, complete with Robert’s singing and an excellent rap by his son Brian. Then it was time to make a music video and off we went to Ela Beach where we spent hours dancing, singing and filming in the sand, much to the bewildered amusement of the hundreds of people enjoying the sunny afternoon.
A white meri, from South Africa, singing in local tok ples seems to be a first of its kind in PNG, and over the following months Robert and I did newspaper and radio interviews frequently. The song was released on the radio, then the music video on EMTV, and soon everyone I met started calling me Solwara Meri, greeting me with such warmth and friendship that it was the first time I understood what it truly meant to be a wantok.
In March we gave a concert for hundreds of Robert’s adoring fans to celebrate the release his completed album Sunflower, and six months later we were invited to perform for Gulf Day. I have rarely felt so honoured in my life, both to perform with Robert and his amazing band of talented musicians, but also to be so warmly accepted into a whole community of people. It is a moment that will stay with me forever and I am proud to call myself a Gulf meri.
Article published in Vision City Magazine, Papua New Guinea, April 2014, Edition 6.