Transcript of an edited interview with Nick Agafonoff and Fred Smith, regarding the film Bougainville Sky. Although we discussed Fred’s new album Independence Park at some length, it was better just to tell the one story – about the film – rather than two.
I haven’t gone to the extent of annotating the music as it appears in the broadcast. However, if you listen to the MP3 version, you’ll hear excerpts of the tracks ‘Bougainville Sky’, ‘Mr Circle’, ‘When She Cries’ and the title track from from the album Bagarap Empires as well as the title track from Independence Park.
I would have liked to have worked a bit of the song ‘Imogen Parker’ into it as well, along with ‘Radio Bougainville’ and ‘Rasta Mangke’, the more rollicking/reggae songs from Indepedence Park. But sometimes you’ve got to compromise to get a story out in time. What I like most is that I managed to get the story told by not telling any of it myself – Nick and Fred do all the talking.
NICK AGAFONOFF: Bougainville Sky came into being just over two years ago when I was at the National Folk Festival in Canberra. I could hear this person singing in one of the tents. I knew Fred Smith from around Canberra – I’d seen him playing in pubs. I knew him as a satirical songwriter, someone who wrote funny songs.
I went into this tent and discovered this entirely different repertoire of Fred Smith. These were not comedic, satirical, quirky little songs; these were songs about experiences as a peace keeper in Bougainville, and had quite a profound impact on the audience. What I identified in Fred at that moment was somebody who was able to translate the human experience of someone in a completely different culture to a western audience, and move them. I thought he had something really unique, and I thought to myself, “I really have to pursue this” and make a film about Fred Smith.
Historically, in 1973 an Australian mine called the Bougainville Copper Mine started up. It was a massive mine; it provided a third of the world’s copper trade and provided the New Guinea government with forty percent of its revenue. The mine created a lot of wealth for a lot of Bougainvilleans, and training, but on the other hand, it also displaced a lot of them from their land.
In 1989, a bunch of those displaced landowners had got some TNT out of the mine’s magazine and blew up a power pylon, killed a mineworker, and the mine shut down.
The New Guinea government got edgy about this and sent in the riot squad and troops. The troops ran amuck, did a lot of damage, and the small group of disgruntled landowners turned into the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and so a civil war – a war of independence – broke out.
That war of independence ran till about ’97. It was very destructive. It turned life right on its head there. Industries shut down. People went back to subsistence, and there were a lot of deaths from the violence, too.
In ’97 there was a peace negotiated between the New Guinea government and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, and as part of this peace agreement they asked Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu to send in a peace keeping force, on the condition that they come unarmed. Now this frightened the ADF, to send unarmed troops anywhere, but they agreed, and that’s how the peace monitoring group came about.
I was a civilian adviser to the peace monitoring group. So I was there, really, for reporting and to facilitate meetings between Bougainvilleans, to facilitate with weapons disposal, things like that. There are always civilian advisers up there and I was one of them. And then I turned into a professional extrovert – sort of the ‘Ronald McDonald’ of the peace process.
NICK AGAFONOFF: The film Bougainville Sky is about the Bougainville peace process. Fred is the protagonist who is the vehicle to exploring the remarkable story about the Bougainville peace process and how it became a success and the role that women played in it and the role that music played in it and the role that Fred played, himself, in the success of the Bougainville peace process.
FRED SMITH: I had a guitar. I became part of the formal patrol process: we’d get into a four-wheel drive, me and five or six soldiers and we’d spill out to a village and set out under a tree or in a church or something like that. Then I’d start talking about the peace process in pidgin. Then we’d start doing a few tunes and the soldiers would do the backing vocals, you know, ‘doo-wop, doo-wop’ – that sort of stuff. They were a bit reluctant at the start, but by the end of it, you couldn’t get them out of the patrol.
In the end, the outfit I was working for – the peace-monitoring group, which is run by the Australian army – came to see that the songs were useful for getting the message out. And so they flew in a recording desk for me, and we recorded some local musicians and some of my own songs, and we put out a cassette called Songs of Peace. The army ended up putting out twenty thousand copies of this cassette around the island.
NICK AGAFONOFF: Everywhere I went with Fred, people would yell out to him, “Em now, bulmacow!” and start laughing their heads off. He seemed to be this absurd character in Bougainville who people couldn’t stop laughing at whenever they saw him. I had to find out, of course, what this whole ‘Em now, bulmacow!’ thing meant. What it meant, what it simply translated to was, ‘Yes indeed, cow.’ This was incredibly funny to Bougainvilleans because there are now cows on Bougainville.
FRED SMITH: ‘Em now, bulmacow’ was one of the songs that I wrote for this Songs of Peace tape. The only lyrics are ‘Em now, bulmacow’, which translates as ‘Yes indeed, cow’ which in itself doesn’t mean anything. It’s a dada reggae tune. But the kids seemed to get right into it, and it became an expression around the island. ‘Em now, bulmacow’. Where ever you’d go, you’d wave at people and you’d shout, ‘Em now!’. And they’d cry ‘Bulmacow and fall about the place laughing.
NICK AGAFONOFF: I set out initially to make a film about Fred Smith and his music, but when I arrived in Bougainville, everything changed, because I realised very quickly how extraordinary the Bougainville people are and how extraordinary the peace that they’d created was. It’s something that they owned, that they created, and in particular, the women in Bougainville were able to create.
FRED SMITH: Women don’t occupy a position of great respect in Papua New Guinea society. In Bougainville it’s slightly insofar as women own the land; it’s a matrilineal society. Now during the crisis years, women kept it together on the family level, they kept the family fed and suffered enormously and were never amongst the combatants. And so they had a great stake in the peace process and in discouraging their husbands and fathers and sons from participating in the fighting and they banded together. There’s a Bougainville Women’s Union which is about ten thousand-strong and they played a very strong role in supporting the peace process and making sure it went forward. They participated in the Burnham Peace Talks in 1997.
NICK AGAFONOFF: The film focuses on the final three weeks of the peace monitoring group being in Bougainville. So it’s essentially the last month, which was June 2003, in which the peace monitors went around and said goodbye to Bougainvilleans in various different villages and finally in a great big ‘farewell ceremony’ at Independence Park in Arawa, said goodbye formally. That’s where lots of people flew in from Australia and New Zealand: ministers, heads of defence, that sort of thing.
Fred’s role in that was that he had to organise the music and the entertainment for that farewell. And so I suppose the suspense in the film is about how Fred gets to that farewell ceremony and manages to bring it together in light of all these other farewells taking place in Bougainville.
FRED SMITH: Well they’d organised this massive farewell ceremony – they were gonna lower the flags for the operation, and there was a lot of emotion about it in Bougainville. The people there had, on the whole, come to associate us with peace. And so they organised this massive farewell ceremony, this cessation ceremony at a place called Independence Park in the capital of Arawa. It was a situation where the peace monitoring group – mainly the Australian Army – had people coming in from Australia. Cosgrove was coming, Senator Hill was coming, all these big people were coming from Foreign Affairs, and then there were a whole bunch of people coming from Port Moresby too. It had to run on time, so there was a great tightening of sphincters in the lead-up to the thing.
At the same time, nothing ever runs on time in Bougainville, and they asked me to organise the entertainment. I had a fifty piece band coming down from the northern part of Bougainville; my own band was playing – the Bulmacow Band; and a local band and a whole bunch of dancers and all sorts of stuff. So I had all of that going on and I had to manage that in a way that looked less than chaotic. And of course, in the end, it just poured with rain; that’s what happens up there.