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Local version of American Idol highlights growing rich-poor divide in Papua New Guinea

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It’s Saturday night, and Port Moresby’s open-air Lamana nightclub is seething. Dapper young men and elegant young women are here to watch the finals of Papua New Guinea’s third annual PNG Idol singing contest. Singers in evening dress step onstage to belt out songs from Mariah Carey to Lady Gaga to Solomon Island-inspired reggae, hip-hop, and rap.

As the wealthy cheered on the 11 hopeful stars, the urban poor watched from beyond the gates, illustrating the growing divide between the haves and have-nots in this tiny country of nearly 7 million people. An immense resource boom over the past five years has transferred even more wealth to the political classes of Port Moresby, the capital. The lure of a better life has drawn thousands of poor migrants from their villages.

Singer and guitar player Steve Sierra, who delivered an acoustic version of Matchbox 20’s “Push,” says competitions like this are “the best way for any young ‘muso’ without connections” to gain recognition. By day, Mr. Sierra is a pilot with Air Niugini; by night, he practices and practices, hoping for his big break.

But Port Moresby can be a trap – it’s expensive to live here and difficult to leave. The city has sporadic anti-­Chinese riots and spiking crime levels. Add to that rising ethnic tension following a Supreme Court decision effectively removing the current government, and the revelry of PNG Idol feels like the calm before a storm.


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