November 13, 2005

Rappers rock Pacific jails and charts

By Michael Perry

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) - The United States may be the home
of gangster rap, but in this crime-ridden South Pacific city
the gangsters really are rockin' the jails and the music

Some of Papua New Guinea's biggest selling music stars have
had their careers interrupted by a stint behind bars for bank
robbery, armed hold-up or theft.

Their chart-busting songs tell of a life of crime, often in
Port Moresby where raskol (criminal) gangs rule a city which
has had 114 murders so far this year, but also of freedom and

In a country of 800 tribal languages, these gangster
rappers have a unique South Pacific style, singing in English,
pidgin English and their native tribal language.

Their music is also a blend of rhyming rap, reggae,
traditional Papua New Guinea sounds, gospel and pop.

Some openly admit that without music they would now be

"If I didn't find music I would have died long ago," said a
nuggety Willie Tropu, a former bank robber who carries the
scars down his right leg from a police shotgun.

Tropu now works as head of security for a bank in downtown
Port Moresby when he is not recording his latest album.

Simon Tazzi, a former raskol rapper turned music producer,
vividly remembers his life in the "Silent Shadows" gang.

"I got shot by police a lot of times. A lot of bullets
taken out of our bodies a lot of times. A lot of friends die,"
Tazzi told Reuters at a recording studio in Port Moresby.

Like others, Tazzi discovered music while behind bars and
once out of jail started recording. But under pressure from his
old gang Tazzi found himself wielding a gun in armed robberies,
car thefts and burglaries, and eventually back in jail.

One of his hits, "Kake IB Car" (Police Car), tells of a
police chase around Port Moresby's dusty streets where houses
are hidden behind metal fences and razor wire to keep out

Rapper K. Dumen was serving time for armed robbery when he
recorded his music video in jail. Clinging to a prison fence he
sings about his lost freedom in "Freedom Bilong Me." Warders
allowed the video if they were filmed locking Dumen in his

Crime is an accepted way of life in PNG for many people
struggling to survive in a country where 80 percent of the 5.4
million people eke out subsistence lives in villages, life
expectancy is 55.3 years and GDP per capita is $2,619.

So far this year in Port Moresby alone there have been 114
murders, 151 rapes, 577 robberies, 671 car thefts, 377
break-ins, 317 assaults and 28 abductions, according to police

"You have thousands of kids coming out of school with no
future, no prospect of a job, so the only thing they turn to is
crime," said Tazzi.

"Some of us who are lucky find another avenue -- for me it
was music," he said, adding that he now demands that street
kids give up their life of crime before he records them.


For the past 25 years PNG's CHM has been building a
mini-music empire, recording 3,000 albums, and is now set to
launch some of its biggest artists on the international scene.

CHM is one of PNG's major electrical importers and
retailers, but owner Raymond Chin has always loved music and
started playing bass guitar in the 1960s in a band called the

Frustrated with the lack of local music on radio stations,
he started recording PNG artists and paying stations to play

The sounds that wafted on the hot, humid airwaves quickly
hit a chord with listeners, who rely on radios, not television,
for news and entertainment in this mountainous land.

As his music label grew, Chin started staging 20,000-strong
rock concerts, but this is a tough land and people started
throwing rocks at concerts.

"A rock concert in PNG really is a rock concert. When
someone stands up in front, someone at the back throws a rock
and then everyone starts throwing rocks," said Chin.

"Law and order problems" eventually made it too risky to
attend his concerts at the annual Port Moresby show.

Live music shows are now held in secure venues, like the
Port Moresby Country Club, behind razor wire and electrified
fences, security gates and a caged front door.

Chin's CHM Supersound Studios manufactures 60,000 cassette
tapes a year (CD players are far too expensive for most
people), records artists, produces music videos and broadcasts
a regular TV music video program.

"PNG artists are not educated in music school, most are
street kids and their talent is raw, but they have a passion to
be successful," Chin told Reuters.

"There is no charge. We find them and record them free and
promote them. Nowhere else in the world can someone walk off
the street and become an instant pop star and it costs them


Singer Chris Cassimis is the new face of PNG music. He is
dressed in a blue tie-dyed T-shirt and dreadlocks. He looks
like a fresh-faced reggae star, but prefers dreamy rhythm and

Cassimis is a gang member from the Kaugeree shanty
settlement, one of Port Moresby's toughest suburbs, and he is
about to record his debut album called "Tumbunaman" (Ancestor).

He no longer steals, but his raskol friends do, and he is
often the beneficiary. PNG is a society based on "wantok" or
extended family, an unofficial social welfare system.

"I don't steal any more but they steal and when they do
stuff like that they come and give me money. They are all my
brothers," laughs Cassimis.

Cassimis says life on the streets is tough. "You have to be
careful what you do in Port Moresby. Now heaps of young people
hold up people and kill people in PNG. It's scary," he said.

"They (my gang) are my protection. If anyone comes up to me
and wants to fight me, I just have to go and tell them and they
would probably get shot."

Cassimis says many PNG musicians are raskols and their
rap-style music is fueled by the pain of their lives.

"People sing about crime, their life in prison, life on the
street and their life being hungry," he said.

"Overseas you have gangster rappers but here heaps of
gangsters sing PNG music, you know who they are from what they
are singing. When you look at them, you see scary faces."