More Than Bilas

For musician Tali Enjalas Jenkinson, aka Vallé, pursuing and treasuring his Papua New Guinean identity has been vital in shaping the way he creates music.

Posted on
24.03.22

We’re collaborating with Creative New Zealand to bring you the ground-breaking Pacific Arts Legacy Project. Curated by Lana Lopesi as project Editor-in-Chief, it’s a foundational history of Pacific arts in Aotearoa as told from the perspective of the artists who were there.

Lagi-Maama Academy & Consultancy was first introduced to Tali Enjalas Jenkinson on Tuesday 17 September 2019 via an Instagram message from a mutual friend, Marty Jones. Marty reached out to seek advice on how to get funding for a music video and documentary that would capture Enjalas tracing his journey back to his homeland of Papua New Guinea. Before we met Enjalas in person we were sent the image of him and his bubu meri (grandmother Pyake) featured in this story, and we warmed to him immediately. When we finally met him in person at a café in Ōtautahi Christchurch on Friday 4 October 2019, we encountered a humble young 23-year-old creative, husband and father, with such an ‘old soul’ that spoke volumes to us about his determination, passion and drive in reconnecting with his Engan culture. Over the past two and a half years, Lagi-Maama have had the pleasure of walking with, and alongside, Enjalas in his pursuit of making his documentary a reality. What he has gifted in this article is a raw and honest testament of trials and tribulations, rejections and validations, to reflections and appreciation of the immeasurable value of being grounded in one’s culture. 

My name is Tali Enjalas Jenkinson, and I was born in 1997 in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. I moved to New Zealand in 1998 after contracting malaria while fighting malnutrition – leaving Port Moresby became the best option in pursuit of life. 

My father, Howard, was already in Christchurch, with my older sister, Kristal, as our parents had separated two years prior. I travelled from Papua New Guinea accompanied by my mother, Susie, and a family friend called Enjalas (commonly referred to as Big Enjalas in family story-time).

I was raised by my hardworking Dad, and my sister was raised predominantly by our grandparents (Dad’s parents) in Christchurch. Dad and I moved to Wellington to distance ourselves from Mum, as their divorce created dysfunctional tensions that made building any substantial relationship with her near impossible. Also, employment opportunities for Dad in Wellington would improve our quality of life. 

One-year-old Tali Enjalas Jenkinson, Christchurch, 1998.
Howard Jenkinson (standing), Manjop Village, near Wabag, capital of Enga Province, Papua New Guinea, 1994.
Far left is Enjalas’s uncle Steven Tali, brother, Aito Tali, and his bubu meri (grandmother Pyake) in the centre; his mother Susie is standing on the far right, at Morata, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1994.

Separation from Mum ultimately disconnected me from my heritage and, consequently, from myself, an entire half of who I am. Growing up in New Zealand with a British father made being half Papua New Guinean an inconvenience in the eyes of a young boy whose biggest life mission was to ‘fit in’ and find acceptance by doing so. 

I accredited all the dysfunction Mum displayed to her Papua New Guinean culture. It became desirable to distance myself from Papua New Guinea, because by doing so I was distancing myself from Mum’s dysfunction. The rationale was: I am ashamed of her, so therefore I am also ashamed of Papua New Guinea.

Twelve-year-old Kristal Jenkinson and 10-year-old Enjalas on the Interislander, Cook Strait, 2008.

As soon as I could hold a pencil I began filling journals with art, mainly inspired by cartoons. This was motivated by a desire to explore creativity but inadvertently fulfilled an escapism, the desire for which was fuelled by a confusing childhood existence. I had a deep understanding that things were not ‘right’ but was too young to have any redemptive control to create change. 

On the surface I would attend, but in my heart I had already shut the door on Papua New Guinea.

I discovered poetry at primary school, which sparked my passion to write – this later developed into writing rap songs when I started high school. Throughout my adolescence, I had sporadic opportunities to reconnect with my heritage by engaging in our Papua New Guinean community gatherings and through my relationship with my father’s best friend, Uncle Jack (Jack Kepakali). Sadly, I rejected such opportunities. On the surface I would attend, but in my heart I had already shut the door on Papua New Guinea.

L–R: William Horua, Daniel Van Den Kerkhof, Salesi Rayasi and Enjalas, St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, 2014.

Fast-forward to 2019, the year I decided to take the huge step of going back home to Papua New Guinea for the first time in over 20 years. By this time, I had released multiple musical projects and had recently broken into mainstream radio airplay with some singles I had released, slowly creating a small reputation within the music industry. ‘Love Me’ is the song I released in 2018 that broke me into radio – it’s a song that explored my journey and family history, and the struggle for validation. You can listen to it here.

I have a client named John Mooney – who works as a consultant for the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (which provides oversight in domestic programmes in Papua New Guinea) – who offered to accompany me on my trip. I had never travelled internationally unaccompanied; my wife usually took care of travel itineraries for our household, but we had decided she would stay home for this trip as she was pregnant, and I felt at the time it would be unsafe to take her to Papua New Guinea.

L–R: Enjalas embracing his bubu meri (grandmother Pyake), and Maggie Michael in the purple top, at Jacksons International Airport, Papua New Guinea, August 2019.

Landing in Port Moresby was intense, I was so shy and nervous. I had only told my Mum I was going back to Papua New Guinea the day before I departed. She called her older sister, my auntie Maggie Michael, who decided with the wider family to meet me at the airport. What happened next, I can’t sufficiently put into words.

Seeing shock on all their faces, as I am sure they would have seen on mine. Then, seeing my bubu meri (grandmother Pyake), who came forward crying as she grabbed me. Her embrace was so familiar despite it being so long since she had held me – her boy had come home. She told me that it was like I “had returned from the dead”. That statement held true to how it felt.

Bubu meri (grandmother Pyake) and Enjalas, Morata, Papua New Guinea, August 2019.

I spent a week immersing myself in family dialogue, storytelling and exploring Port Moresby. Looking back, a week was a tragic underestimation of the time I would need to spend at home to heal some of the brokenness that had been brought to the surface by initiating the redemptive process of returning to my family. I think I had gone only for a week to safeguard myself from disappointment or potential danger. I decided quickly that I would return to Papua New Guinea within weeks and stay for a much longer period. 

When I returned to New Zealand I immediately started writing a song about my experience – the song was called ‘Trip Advisor’. It was finished within a couple days, as it felt so natural to allow the experiences of my redemption to spill out into song (you can listen to it here). 

When I got back to Papua New Guinea for the second time, in October 2019, I was so excited to show my family the song and to film the ‘Trip Advisor’ music video – I hoped that as a result they would feel valued and esteemed. One of the greatest parts and perhaps the most impactful process in filming the video was when my family and I bilas.

We wear bilas in times of celebration, during what we call ‘sing-sing’ in Tok Pisin.

Bilas is the traditional outfit that belongs to a province or region. Each province has its own distinct bilas; and also within that province bilas will often differ in its appearance. For example, Enga is the only province in the highlands that doesn’t use coloured face paint. We can be distinguished by the black pigment on our faces, usually made from charcoal and ashes, that you see in the picture below. We wear bilas in times of celebration, during what we call ‘sing-sing’ in Tok Pisin.

L–R: Susie Tali, Danise Steven, Gideon Jammy, Enjalas, Aito Tali, Gaga Tali, Kessiah Yano and Sandra Akis. Bilas scene filmed for ‘Trip Advisor’ music video at Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, October 2019.

This was my first time to properly bilas and I learnt later, to my surprise, that it was also my cousins’ and brother’s first time as well. This may come as a shock to readers, as it did to me at the time, so let me try explain. When my bubu mahns (grandfather Michael Tali) left Enga province in the 1970s in pursuit of business ventures in the developing capital of Port Moresby, he unintentionally broke the connection of our Engan cultural traditions from the next generation (my generation).

Morata is a squatter settlement, it is not a traditional land or developed region. As Port Moresby grew, more highlanders came from their villages and traditional dwelling places in the hopes they, too, could get a piece of the pie in the ‘big smoke’. Like most things too good to be true, bubu mahns’ venture proved to be that. Squatter settlements are now breeding grounds for crime, disease and conflict. Governments have not developed utilities, roads or schools in these communities, so the quality of life is below the poverty line for most. 

The two images below show how housing hasn’t changed for people living in these areas in that time. The first image is of my Dad sitting drinking with my uncles in Morata, in 1994. The second photo is of me cutting my uncle Silim Tali’s hair and beard on the same block 25 years later.

Enjalas’s uncles and father drinking in Morata, Papua New Guinea, 1994.
Enjalas trimming his uncle Silim’s hair and beard, Morata, Papua New Guinea, October 2019.

These domestic migration patterns across Papua New Guinea have divided subgroups into further subgroups. Kids growing up in Port Moresby refer to people from the highlands as ‘ples type’, meaning people from villages; and people from villages view the city kids as such, removed from their heritage and lacking understanding of their own culture. And since our family were city kids, born into the slums of settlements, paired with a long list of unfortunate events that pushed the trajectory of our family further into poverty, bilas was the last of their concerns and became foreign even to my siblings and family members who had lived in Port Moresby all their lives. When you are faced with the brutality of starvation and poverty you are not concerned with cultural practice, you are concerned only for your next meal. 

When you are faced with the brutality of starvation and poverty you are not concerned with cultural practice, you are concerned only for your next meal. 

I provide this context, as it is crucial for understanding the importance of the moment we all bilas together as a family, because we were all embarking on redemption in some way, without even knowing it. 

I was told through family stories how elders could predict your future outcomes by the way you bilas. This is best explained by Alome Kyakas and Polly Wiessner in their book, From Inside the Women’s House: Enga Women’s Lives and Traditions:

dress and style of dancing were of utmost importance for all participants. If young women or men were dressed perfectly and danced well, interested members of the opposite sex complimented them by breaking into the dance line and dancing beside them. In addition, older people watched the dancers carefully and predicted their futures from their appearances. For example, if the oil rubbed on a dancer’s skin dried or their face paints became smeared, it was taken as an indication of unacceptable behaviour with the opposite sex or oncoming misfortune. 

Bilas is used in many ways – during peace-making ceremonies between clans, in times of warfare, and in marriage celebrations whereby members of the opposite sex are given a public opportunity to express interest in a potential partner. Occasions where bilas is used are important to everyone in the community.

After returning to New Zealand, I became ignited in my mission to further understand who I am and where I come from in a deeper way, not only for my own benefit but for others as well. I understood that if I could encourage people in similar positions to me to do the same, their lives would be enriched and as a result their communities would flourish. To share this journey with an audience, I embarked on a creative project titled You Belong Where.

I want to acknowledge Creative New Zealand for supporting the first research scoping phase of this project. The aim is to produce a documentary and a publication based on my own personal journey of reconnecting, researching and strengthening my Engan heritage through engaging and collaborating with my Engan communities, in Aotearoa and Papua New Guinea, via the vehicle of music and my creative practice and craft as a musician. I want to capture and document myself on film, as a contemporary artist who has achieved some small success in the industry, faithfully engaging and carrying out this pursuit, and to present it creatively in a way that is cutting edge, innovative and culturally/socially challenging.

You Belong Where is my attempt to help strengthen the awareness and visibility of our Papua New Guinean community in New Zealand

In the 2018 census, Papua New Guineans made up less than 0.4% of the total Pacific population in New Zealand, with 1,131 people. You Belong Where is my attempt to help strengthen the awareness and visibility of our Papua New Guinean community in New Zealand, and in turn contribute to building a more aware and resilient arts sector to better support artists from the minority Pacific communities. 

I am connected with the Papua New Guinean communities here in Christchurch and in Wellington. These communities function to support diaspora living in these cities, and also to celebrate the traditions and customs that are valued by the collective culture. Our family friend Jeffery Ingi was the president of the Christchurch Papua New Guinean Community and is someone I draw on for cultural wisdom and advice. The Christchurch Papua New Guinean Community was first set up in the early 2000s to act as a support network for Papua New Guinean families, and to support newer migrant families in their integration into Kiwi society. The biggest event the Papua New Guinean Community is instrumental in orchestrating is our national independence day celebrations every year, on 16 September. Aside from this, it functions as a community that gathers regularly for meals and social connection.

My uncle, Jack Kepakali, who is based in Wellington, is another elder I draw on for his cultural knowledge and guidance. He was the President of the Wellington Papua New Guinean Community from 2008 to 2014. This role entailed liaising with the Papua New Guinea High Commission in Wellington and organising Papua New Guinea Independence Celebrations and Papua New Guinean Community fundraising events; and connecting our Papua New Guinean community to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where they performed traditional dances as part of the exhibition Culture Moves: Dance Costumes of the Pacific (September 2005 – August 2006).

It was exciting for me when Jack, my wife Jessica, my daughter Winslow and I got an opportunity to visit and view some of our Papua New Guinean and Engan treasures at Te Papa in October 2020, as part of You Belong Where. The trip was organised by Toluma‘anave Barbara Makuati-Afitu and Kolokesa Uafā Māhina-Tuai (of Lagi-Maama Academy & Consultancy), and our visit was hosted by Grace Hutton (Kaitiaki Taonga Pacific Cultures – Collection Manager Humanities) and Sean Mallon (Senior Curator Pacific Histories and Cultures). 

L–R: Jessica and Winslow Jenkinson, Jack Kepakali, Enjalas, Grace Hutton and Sean Mallon, Te Papa Pacific Collections storeroom, Wellington, 19 October 2020.
L-R: Grace Hutton, Enjalas, Jessica Jenkinson (carrying Winslow) and Jack Kepakali, Te Papa Pacific Collections storeroom, Wellington, 19 October 2020.
L–R: Kolokesa Uafā Māhina-Tuai, Jack Kepakali, Sean Mallon, Enjalas, Jessica and Winslow Jenkinson, Toluma‘anave Barbara Makuati-Afitu and Grace Hutton, Te Papa, Wellington, 19 October 2020.

Papua New Guinea has established academic relationships with New Zealand educational institutions, creating scholarship programmes in engineering and agriculture, but an artistic and creative relationship appears to remain void. To fill that gap and strengthen our relationships within that sector is of huge benefit to art institutions in New Zealand that contain artefacts of our heritage, and also enables the Papua New Guinean diaspora communities to enter the conversation and engage in ways that honour our traditions and perspectives.

These diaspora communities are populated heavily by young people who ‘hang in the balance’ between cultural deprivation and preservation. Preservation provided by our parents (tumbuna, whakapapa), and deprivation provided by a cocktail of poverty and Western allures saturated in Hollywood ideology.

These diaspora communities are populated heavily by young people who ‘hang in the balance’ between cultural deprivation and preservation.

Since becoming a father, I have realised how crucial this journey has been for me – perhaps it has propelled me in a way I might not have been otherwise. How could I teach my children who they are without knowing who I am? How could I encourage my children to be proud of where they come from when I was not? I couldn’t, nor could anyone.

The journey of pursuing my cultural identity has continued to shape the way I create music. There are the new stories and perspectives I’m able to share, having lived out stages of the journey. More importantly, it has grounded me. My industry thrives off trends, and capitalising on them. I now know the price I paid to figure out who I am, so the prospect of allowing my identity to be moulded in order to ‘climb the ladder’ has been exposed for what it is: a bad trade. This has helped me to know what to say no to, my direction has been focused and distractions are less persuasive; this is the result of being grounded. 

Through sharing my personal journey as a grandson, son, musician and father of Engan heritage, I hope to inspire young people from New Zealand to Papua New Guinea and beyond, to pursue and invest in their cultural identity, to treasure it, and to allow it to appropriately inform why they are who they are – through knowing and valuing their unique heritage. It is crucial for the Papua New Guinean and Engan diaspora communities in New Zealand to explore and evaluate what's valuable, transferable and relevant from their Indigenous cultures – for application today, tomorrow and moving forward. Our history is valuable in informing tomorrow's decisions by understanding yesterday's outcomes. 

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This piece is published in collaboration with Creative New Zealand as part of the Pacific Arts Legacy Project, an initiative under Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Strategy.

Lana Lopesi is Editor-in-Chief of the project.

Series design by Shaun Naufahu, Alt group.

Header photo by Naomi Haussman.

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