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.