'Soundprint' captures an unchanged culture


October 12, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

There is something sad in hearing an old man say, when asked to describe the creation legends of his people, "We used to think we came from the stars . . . [but] I'm not sure now," because of exposure to the stories of Allah and Jesus.

Such is the ambiguous nature of change as it comes to the mountainous island of Irian Jaya, north of Australia, whose native people have only recently been "discovered" by Western culture. For the next two weeks, one of the world's least known cultures is the subject of "Soundprint," the radio documentary program produced locally at WJHU-FM 88.1 (at 6 p.m. Saturday, repeating at 6 p.m. the following Friday).

Producer Moira Rankin and reporter Vicki Monks spent six weeks this summer in Indonesia capturing the pleasing sing-song language and rituals of a people who have changed little in 1,000 years. Yet now, eyed by the Indonesian government and developers as a source of natural resources and tourist dollars and a set-tlement opportunity for "transmigrant" outsiders, Irian Jaya is unlikely to remain unchanged.

Tomorrow's first show, "Funeral in Irian," is built around a day-long ritual mourning a dead woman, and it is easy to grasp the metaphor for a doomed culture. Yet the same tribal chief now uncertain about creation says "some of the changes are very, very good."

No one wants to be backward, says another man, who suggests that keeping health care advances and other modern things away from native cultures is merely trying "to build a living museum."

At the same time, natives whose understanding of nature is that "it has been given to us only to use, not to own," are being displaced from the land their ancestors have tended for centuries.

Listeners may also wonder what a modern culture that includes animal rights activists might think of the funeral ritual climaxed by the slaughter of pigs, whose sounds are wrenchingly captured in tomorrow's "Soundprint." Next week's show, "Missionaries," portrays the first westerners to interact with the native people.


COMEDY IN COMPETITION -- The nature of humor is so subjective that the goal of a cable comedy special tonight seems pretty elusive. But "National Lampoon's Comedy Playoffs" may still offer some laughs.

At 11 o'clock on the Showtime premium channel, the show is hosted by character actor Leslie Nielsen, whose performance in such films as "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun" have made him a surprising comedy star. Celebrating the satirical magazine's 20th anniversary, the hour-long show features short routines by 11 amateurs leading to the selection of the top yuk-getter.

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