Talk to any musician or sound engineer in Papua New Guinea and they all know Digby Holeong.
The 52-year-old is one of the most sought after sound engineers in Papua New Guinea having established a career spanning 30 years.
For those who know him personally, Digby Holeong is famous for two things – brilliant sound work and his wicked sense of humor. Years ago, when he attended Rabaul High School, his teachers knew him as a trouble maker. His mischievous side was what the school board didn’t quite like.
“At grade nine, I got kicked out of school,” he said. “I was a good student and I did well in school. But I was getting into fights. Everyday, I was in the headmaster’s office.
“Then they finally said: No we can’t do this anymore.”
At 15, he was out of school. His dad was angry with him and he had no prospects of a good future. But a family friend came to the rescue. He was employed in a small company for a very short while.
“I was a 15-year-old kid supervising people older than me. I was telling them what to do,” he laughs. “Because I was the ‘boss,’ I drove the tractor, crashed it and I got sacked.”
Despite his troubles, music remained an important part of his life. His early years in school revolved around playing in a school band or trying to get into one. In his own words, he says… ‘a Chinese guy bought some instruments and a band called the Wanderers was formed.’
“I forced my way into the band. There were a lot of other guys who wanted to play into the band.
“One day, I went to where the band was and on the wall was a notice… ‘Band members are as follow…’ Mate, my name wasn’t on the list.”
“After I finished from the Wanderers I had nothing.”
His dad was furious with his pursuit of music. Digby Holeong said at one stage his dad told him: “yu pilai band, pilai band na bai yu kaikai band.” Loosely translated: “Keep playing with the band and you will eat the band.”
His dad’s angry words would eventually come true years later when “playing band” became something he did for a living.
Live band culture was huge in the 70s and 80s Rabaul. Competition to get the good gigs was stiff and you could only get the good gigs if your musicians were good. The young Digby still didn’t have a band nor did anyone want him in theirs.
Then good fortune showed up.
There was was a band that came near his neighborhood to perform. While they had all the players, they didn’t have a lead singer to sing the cover versions they had lined up.
“In those days, you had to force yourself into the band because nobody would let you play. So my aim was to get on stage and get the girl.
“I went to the drummer and asked him if they could sing “Long cool woman in a black dress” by the Hollies. They said, they couldn’t. I asked if I could sing.”
The band let him take the stage. “Mate, I killed it!”
The requests came. Digby Holeong sang every cover version they threw at him. The house was rocking when he left.
He then moved on from one chapter to another. Joining up with a group called the Junior Unbelievers. Then after some time, he and a few others decided to start their own band and call it Choke.
“We got a guy called Kamit Mamua, then added Nelson Amos and Lino Tiriman.
We hit the town like a ton of bricks!”
But like most bands in the era, the rise was quick and glorious and so was their demise.
Digby Holeong then met music producer Greg Seeto from Pacific Gold Studios (PGS) in Rabaul. After a series of live events, Digby eventually ended up at PGS for an interview.
“They said, ‘do you want a job?… I said can I start tomorrow?’ Greg Seeto told him that if he was good, he would be employed permanently.
“When I went into the studio and saw the 32 track mixer, my jaw dropped!”
It was a mixture of stress and awe. He started off as a tape operator and after two weeks he got paid K100 for his labor.
Despite the professional appeal of PGS in the early days, Digby says they were all novices who knew very little about multi-track mixing and studio recording. They were all learning the trade with no education institutions in the country that could teach the technical skills of sound engineering or music production.
One of the most difficult tasks for me, says Digby, was the process of recording drum tracks. At one stage, it took him and PNG rock guitar legend, John Warabat, at least three hours to get the sound right.
“Then ‘Not Drowning Waving’ came in 1988.”
Not Drowning Waving was an Australian group that later developed a close relationships with several PNG artists and engineers. They were allowed to record for free at PGS on the condition that they trained the sound engineers and worked with the studio musicians.
“What took us three hours took their drummer, five minutes! He showed us how to keep the decibel levels just under distortion. Right under distortion is the cleanest sound!”
Those familiar with the music industry will know of a close association between the singer, musician and engineer, late John Wong and Digby Holeong. John was both a mentor and a close family friend.
“My big brother was his big brother, so I knew him from a long way back.”
John Wong was a perfectionist, Digby says. He would make sure every note was perfect. For Digby and the rest of the studio crew what sounded just right was not good enough. As the younger member of the group, Digby would try to grasp as much as possible from the legend.
“He wouldn’t let us know how he mixed. But I would convince him to go out for a break then I would take a note book and draw the console pattern,” he laughs. “Then at night I would tell the other engineers to try it without telling them that it was John’s.”
With John’s passing in 2008, he left big shoes to fill. It stuck him personally.
“For me, John Wong was Superman! How can Superman die?”
Digby’s life and struggles have taught him important lessons.
“What I really hate are the words: ‘I know.’ If you know, then how can I teach you? How can you learn?
“Even if you know something, hear someone out. He may have a better idea than you. The important thing is to be humble and learn.”