Ragnar Johnson: “Cries of the Spirits” Interview by Bob Baker Fish


In 2016 I heard an incredible sound. It was raw, primal, and unmistakenly powerful, yet I couldn’t identify the source. It seemed like something between woodwind and organ, impossibly deep, these strangely tuned otherworldly alternating staccato hits with periodic percussion. There was something magical about this music, something ancient and unknowable that transcended our notions of what music could be. I subsequently discovered that what I was hearing were flutes, recorded in the field in Madang in Papua New Guinea in 1975 by Ragnar Johnson. These recordings, entitled Sacred Flute Music From New Guinea: Madang / Windim Mambu were originally released on David Toop’s Quartz Publications, and had just been reissued by Steven O’Malley’s Idealogic Organ imprint.

Johnson who had obtained an M.Phil. (London) and D.Phil. (Oxford) in Social Anthropology was working on his doctorate when he found himself in Papua New Guinea carrying out field recordings. From June 1975 to September 1976 he lived in a grass hut in Obura Eastern Highlands, taking periodic trips to Madang, a distance of about 150km (and longer by road) to record music.

“I hoped that there would be amazing traditional music to record.” He remembers via email.

The recordings that Johnson made were of sacred ceremonies. In the liner notes to his LP, he refers to the flute sounds as ‘cries of the spirits,’ and that ‘blowing through the mouth is an essential part of many magic spells.’

“…flute blowing is used as a mediator between the human and spirit worlds in many parts of New Guinea. The blowing of these flutes within the appropriate ritual context is to invoke the presence of the spirits with which they are associated, to make the powers associated with these spirits accessible to humans.”

The flutes were played solely by men. Women and children were forbidden to even see the flutes. The flutes were not allowed to be played outside of ceremonial contexts, such as male initiations, inter-village feasts, sago harvests, births, marriages, deaths, and celebrations. For some time after a death there is even a taboo against holding ceremonies involving flute blowing.

Johnson was able to convince the players to record the flutes outside of the ceremonial context by leaving the village and recording in the bush. He felt a real connection with the musicians due to a mutual appreciation of he music, and he thanks the performers and villagers from Awar, Borai, Bo’da, Kaean, Kuluguma, Nubia Sissimungum, Damaindeh-Bau, Bosum, Bak, and Borai in his liner notes. He also documents the ceremonies that the pieces were recorded from with photos and notations.

“The flute players were told that the flutes were being recorded for posterity and that copies of the tapes would be kept in the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies in Port Moresby,” Johnson offers.

That said history is littered with Westerners parachuting into far flung locales and exploiting cultural traditions for financial or artistic gain, and whilst Johnson has no doubt participated in numerous debates on the topic, his philosophy remains pretty simple.

“The responsibility is to record and document the music as effectively as possible so that it has been preserved for posterity. It is better to actually record music than to sit in a seminar room debating the ethics of recording music.”

Johnson’s recordings are extremely vivid, there is a clear sense of space and the cries of the flutes exist across the entire stereo field. It’s a reflection of Johnson’s skill as a field recordist that his recordings continue to be reissued over forty years later.

“I used a Uher Report L stereo tape recorder, BASF quarter inch tapes at a recording speed of seven and a half inches per second with two directional microphones mounted to record an isosceles triangle of stereo sound,” he reveals. “The location of the microphones and musicians was critical. The musicians were fully informed of all aspects of the recording process.”

Ragnar’s new release Crying Bamboos: Ceremonial Flute Music of Papua New Guinea has never previously been released, and comes from his archive. It covers similar traditions from mostly different villages (with some crossover), and shares the same explanatory liner notes, only differing when discussing the individual recordings themselves, the locations and the types of flutes. To some extent it can be seen as a companion piece to Sacred Flute Music From New Guinea and is similarly powerful.

“The royalties on the records of field recordings were always so minimal that they barely covered the production costs of each record so there was little incentive or opportunity to release more records edited from the field recordings,” explains Johnson.

“I am intending to release a record of Eastern Highlands music recorded during 15 months of field research including initiation flutes, bull roarers and crying baby leaves recorded at night during a male initiation ceremony. It took 14 months of residence to be able to record this.”

“The drone metal musician Stephen O’Malley was an enthusiast for the original David Toop label ‘sacred Flute Music from New Guinea Madang’ records and came looking to reissue them on his label Ideologic Organ.”

Over the course of a decade Johnson conducted field recordings in Ethiopia (1971) Yemen Arabia (1973), Papua New Guinea (1975-1976 and again in 1979). You can hear the results of his Ethiopian recordings (with Ralph Harrison) on both Mindanoo Mistiru and Gold From Wax on the Lyrichord label from 1972, though they have since been combined and reissued under the title Ethiopian Urban And Tribal Music by Sub Rosa in 2017. Some of his Yemen recordings (with Jessica Mayer who also assisted with his PNG recordings) were again previously issued by Lyrichord as Music From Yemen Arabia: Sanaani Laheji Adeni & Samar, and have recently been reissued by Sub Rosa.

“I used to enjoy being in the moment and hearing something wonderful despite the stress of the vigilance required to ensure that the recordings were accomplished according to plan.”

He never returned to field recordings, finding work as an academic in UK universities, specializing in the anthropology of art and authoring a number of journal articles on social anthropology including studies of bereavement, and the anthropological study of body decoration as art.

Given his desire to document the incredible otherworldly flute ceremonies, one wonders whether Johnson knows if the sacred flute music is still practiced in Papua New Guinea.

“If by ‘the flute music’ you are referring to the area represented on Sacred Flute and Crying Bamboos, the monographs by the Von Posers, relating to the early 21st century, state that in Kaean they had to import flute players from Manam Island for a ceremony and that in Bosmun the two remaining flute players were in dispute over a sorcery accusation and refused to play with each other so she never heard any flute music during her residence.”

You can find Crying Bamboos: Ceremonial Flute Music of Papua New Guinea Madang here.
You can find Sacred Flute Music From New Guinea: Madang / Windim Mabu here.
You can find Music From Yemen Arabia here.
You can find Ethiopian Urban and Tribal Music here.


About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.