In 'Kosua', British Electronic Musician Black Merlin Hypnotizes Us With Sounds of Papua

For the album, George Thompson aka Black Merlin spent weeks living among the Kosua tribe in Papua New Guinea.
December 5, 2018, 1:00pm
Sampul album 'Kosua' dari Black Merlin
Foto sampul album 'Kosua' dari arsip label Island of the Gods

Kosua is a tribe that lives in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. And like most tribes, the people there have their own dances to perform, songs to sing, and stories to tell.

In 2016, British musician George Thompson, under the moniker Black Merlin, made his way into the Seane Falls, the village where the Kosua tribe lives. The path was treacherous: a flight into a remote landing strip and then four days trekking through the forest. He returned once more the following year, where he found himself on the Mount Bosavi—a volcano surrounded by a jungle—and spent more than two weeks there to record and film the people of Kosua and their environs.

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Anak-anak Kosua turun dari rumah panggung. Semua foto dari arsip Black Merlin.

What came out of those trips was his second album Kosua, an album festooned by dark ambient soundscapes, eerie field recordings and the natural sound of people talking. The first thing you hear is birdsong (“Self Heat”) and from there, it’s an odyssey of hypnotic ambient music (“Standing at the Summit of Bosavi”) or looped ululations (“Big Haus”). Through the label Island of the Gods, the album was released last month.

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Bentang alam Papua Nugini, tempat Suku Kosua tinggal.

Kosua is an engaging album — at one point, audio of Laurence Blair, the author of the famed book Ring of Fire, narrates the exploration of New Guinea, the “heaven of birds,” in a spoken-word bit (“New Guinea”). Electronica seems to course in Black Merlin’s DNA ever since the release of Hipnotik Tradisi, his first, Balinese gamelan-influenced LP. Combining groove and field recordings, Hipnotik Tradisi differs from Kosua in that the latter embraces balm and eschews the knottiness of electronic music.

But propulsion isn’t lacking in Kosua: “Kundu” offers a recorded tribal chant and percussion—the sound of night bearing down feels soothing. “Chief Sigalo Balo Dance” sounds exactly like the title suggests: a dance, led by a call-and-response chant. Kosua is an album of two characters: ambient exploration and field recordings—and they both sometimes correspond to each other, as is the case with “Fogomay’iu Village.” My favorite track from the album is “Cloud,” an 8-minute electronic adventure or the quiet sweep of “Sibi.”

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Kosua reminds me of the music of Steve Roach, an American composer who has taken similar kind of trips before to be around Native Americans (1995’s Kiva, a collaboration with Michael Stearns and Ron Sunsinger) and Australian Aboriginal tribes (1988’s Dreamtime Return). Similar to Hipnotik Tradisi, American musician Alan Bishop, the co-founder of the label Sublime Frequencies, put out an album of Bali field recordings simply titled Night Recordings from Bali.

Albums like Kosua run the risk of cultural exploitation, though I would venture that Kosua the album is just that — an album, a collection of tracks. You don’t demand anthropology from Thompson. And I would also add that Kosua is a piece of document on the tribe of Kosua. It is not a scholarly entry, though you could make it of as one.

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As an album, Kosua succeeds—it’s engaging and at times, soothing. But it satiates a different kind of pleasure center in me. The album fills the information gap of the tribe it covers. Scholastic information on the tribe of Kosua is scarce, and this album doesn’t function as such. Whether it was made with that kind of intention from the part of its producer is still unclear, though frankly, it doesn’t matter.


Get a copy of Kosua from the label Island of the Gods here.

This article was originally published on VICE Indonesia.