Drummer Extraordinaire:  The Ben Hakalitz story

Nearly  half a century ago,  when Ben Hakalitz first picked up drum sticks, little did he know that he would become one of the most travelled Papua New Guinean musicians.

At 52,  Hakalitz is a master of  the  trade;  a drummer  whose skills are highly prized and  sought after by the industry.

Ben Hakalitz,  was born at Angau Hospital  in Lae in 1965  to a  Morobean mum, Anna and Bougainvillean  dad, Joseph.  

Musical talent ran in the Hakalitz family.  As a talented self taught guitarist, his dad spent his free time jamming with friends and family.  It was in this household that the young Ben, grew up.

“I picked up the sticks when I was very young. We used to bang away at mum’s saucepans. Then I started playing in the school band.”

By the age of 12, Ben was on his way to becoming a serious drummer. With his older brother,David already drumming in live performances, he said it was  natural to follow in his footsteps.

The post Independence era of the 1970s was an important time for Papua New Guinea music. Bands experimented with available studio technology, producing roughly hewn cover versions of popular songs that played on the radio.

It was also a time when  creativity and skill  flourished.  From Irian Jaya, on the Indonesian side of the border, Black Brothers  exported their music to a  Pacific audience as  Papua New Guinea’s Sanguma Band,  experimented with a blend of  kuakumbas,  kundus, garamuts  and modern instruments. 

The original sounds captivated the imaginations of  the young independent nation.

Bougainville, was also a developing  hub of  talented musicians.  By  grade eight in 1978,  the teenage Ben Hakalitz, had already established a small reputation as a skilful drummer  within  the Arawa community.

“Then I had to go  to college,” he says. “I  went to learn  to be a boiler maker.”

While music was important,  education was vital.  John Hakalitz,  encouraged his son to get educated and  learn a trade.  But finding a job after school  didn’t come easy for Ben.

“While all my friends, applied and got  employed,  I was still sending out applications. Then I said,  ‘I’ll just go and do what I’m good at.”

In the early 80s, fortune turned in his favour. The manager of a new band – April Sun – called him from Rabaul for a job as a drummer.

“I had to speak to my dad. He was very supportive.”

April Sun travelled the Niugini Islands  with Ben  Hakalitz on  drums.  It released  tracks that made it onto airwaves.  But back home,  an  important task  was still incomplete.  Mr. Hakalitz Sr, called for his son to return to Bougainville and complete his apprenticeship as a boiler maker.  Even after leaving April Sun, his skills  had not gone unnoticed.  It was 1986 and after working a day job for two years, Ben Hakalitz got another call. This time from  Sanguma band  legend,  Tony Subam in Port Moresby.

“Tony called me and I agreed. They wanted me to pack up and  leave. I said, ‘I can’t leave now. I have to formally resign from my job. By then I has been working for two… three years.

“Again, I had to talk to my dad.  As a musician himself,  he understood and he supported me.”

The Sanguma experience from 1986 to 1988  gave Ben Hakalitz  the opportunity to work with a group of professionally trained  musicians.

“I never studied music.  I didn’t have a diploma or anything. I was homegrown. Tony and the other band members like pianist  Buruka Tau, read and wrote their own  music.”

To work with the group,  the boiler maker  developed his own method of reading and writing music.

“I wrote notes that guided me. They were like street signs along the way. After that, you worked by hearing.”

Meeting Tony Subam, led him to a new part of his life journey as a drummer and musician. Years after going their separate ways,    he was asked by Subam again to  regroup  as  part of  Sanguma.  This time it was for an opening act for  a new  Australian band,  Yothu Yindi,  led by Mandawuy Yunupingu.

Yothu Yindi,  marked the start of a new chapter in the  spectacular musical story of Ben Hakalitz.

“I signed a contract for   three months. Then it was extended to six months.”

Eventually, Ben Hakalitz became Yothu Yindi’s longest serving drummer  turning his initial three month contract into a 20 year stint with the band.  He   blended  into a group that carried a indigenous  Australian message of unity, political   rights and  equality. But In 2013, Mandawuy Yunupingu, died of renal failure leaving  a large void in  the band.

“Officially, Yothu Yindi,  has not disbanded.  But Mandawuy  left huge shoes to fill.  He was an elder,  a leader and an icon.”

Over the 20 years he spent with Yothu Yindi, Hakalitz also played with  gospel band, P2UIF.  Together, they released several successful albums in  Papua New Guinea. P2UIF remains an important part of his spiritual life today as he ventures into new ground in the music business.

Scott Waide

is the Lae Bureau Chief and began his career with EMTV in 1997 as a News and Sports Reporter and Anchor and has been a media professional for over 19 years. Having previously worked as a Producer and Researcher for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Port Moresby Bureau, he is a recipient of multiple awards including the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union Prize in 2005 in Iran for best news feature, the Pacific Island News Association Award and the Divine Word University Media Freedom Award.

Scott Waide

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