Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Indigenous Music Of Irian Jaya (West Papua) And Biak

Welcome Everybody!

You are all cordially invited to visit and comment, should you wish, on the content of my new Jane Resture's Blog. In this Blog, the very first of many, I would like to discuss and share with you some of the relevant, contemporary and, what I humbly consider, to be important issues regarding our beloved Oceania/Pacific Islands.

In this post, I would like, to once again, mention the incredible music of Irian Jaya (West Papua) in the context of the social environment in which the people of Irian Jaya now find themselves. The music most certainly encapsulates and preserves the cultural heritage of many of the facets of the lives of the indigenous Melanesian people of Irian Jaya and Biak.

(Extracted from Jane's Pacific Islands Radio
Newsletter (Island Music) of September/October 2007:

It is my great pleasure to able to
talk a little further about the incredible music
of West Papua (formally Irian Jaya) and, in
particular the music of Black Paradise, as
well as the music from Biak, one quite small
yet very beautiful island off the coast of West

Ignored for centuries, the Melanesian island
of New Guinea (now West Papua - formerly
Irian Jaya - and Papua New Guinea) was like
a lost world, where stone age tribes once
practised cannibalism and where plant life is
found like nothing else on earth. It is a very
old civilisation with carbon dating of remnants
found on camp sites suggesting human
habitation for at least the last 40,000 years.

Indeed, West Papua is a land like no other.
Located on the western rim of the Pacific,
bordering independent Papua New Guinea,
West Papua is merely swimming and walking
distance from Boigu and Saibai islands, the
northern extent of Australia's boundary. It is
a wild and rugged country. It is also a place
where it is possible to stand on the summit of
a 5000m peak, surrounded by ice and snow
and look down on alpine valleys across to an
endless expanse of tropical rainforests and
island studded equatorial waters glistening
in the sun far below. A land that is home to
ancient cultures, including the oldest,
continually cultivating society in existence
and around 300 distinct indigenous groups,
each with their own language.

The traditional music of West Papua has its
origins in the complex and beautiful culture of
the Melanesian people of West Papua. Indeed,
culture is the glue that binds together the local
spirit and identity of each and every indigenous
group in West Papua. However, the oral traditions
of West Papuans have come under considerable
pressure and changed form as a result of the
growing influence of Christianity, the encroachment
of global culture, as well as Indonesian military

Music driven by global influences and the growing
commercialisation of indigenous music has severed
West Papuans' connections with their traditions and
roots. This resulted in an urgent need for organised
efforts to find forms of traditional Papuan music
which can retain the values, colour and identity of
each of the different indigenous groups from which
the music is derived. In this way, music and songs
will continue to be the substance that binds
indigenous groups together, as well as enabling
freedom of expression.


My humble comments on the above News and
Views were recognised by West Papuan artists
such as Arnold Ap and Eddie Mofu who formed
the cultural music group, Mambesak, to revitalise
traditional West Papuan dance, music and song.
Mambesak provided a certain colour, form and
inspiration for the birth of music and dance
groups throughout Papua, actively promoting
and strengthening West Papuan identity.

However, Arnold Ap and Eddie Mofu's popularity
and the conscious pride in being Papuan, Mambesak's
music engendered, brought them to the attention of
the Indonesian military who accused them of being
separatists - consequently, sadly and finally they
were murdered.

Twenty years after the killing of Arnold Ap, music
is still a potent source of cultural resistance in
West Papua. Just before he was murdered by Kopassus,
Indonesia's notorious special forces, renowned
West Papuan musician and anthropologist, as well
as the leader of the cultural music group, Mambesak,
wrote his last song: 'The Mystery of Life'.

Sitting beside an old portable tape recorder
in his prison cell, guitar in hand, Ap lovingly
recorded: 'The Mystery of Life'. In the closing words
of the song, Ap sang: "The only thing I desire and am
waiting for, is nothing else but freedom". Like his
music and life, the moving words came from the heart,
and gave voice to a desire that was at once personal
and political and, in particular, to his situation,
but something shared by all his fellow West Papuans.

Then Ap wrapped the cassette up, stuffed it into an
envelope, with words of consolation, and sent it to
his wife who had fled to a refugee camp in Papua
New Guinea. Together, with fellow musician Eddie
Mofu, Arnold Ap was languishing in jail, suspected
by the Indonesian military of having sympathy with
the West Papuan resistance movement, the OPM.
West Papua had been occupied by the Indonesian
military since the early 1960s, and the movement
for self-determination had taken root deep in the
hearts of West Papuans. In a place where contested
identities have become a site of struggle; music,
song and dance became weapons. The real crime of Mofu
and Ap was singing and dancing the traditional songs
of their people, thus promoting pride in Papuan

Each song is infused with this pride in being West
Papuan. To see it, you almost need to get inside the
song itself. And to do that is to begin to understand
something of West Papua. Through song, culture was
uplifted, and people's lives dignified. Lyrics and
tunes celebrate the mystery and natural beauty of
West Papua, retell traditional legends, impart
knowledge and wisdom, lament, laugh, rage, speak about
the ordinariness of daily life, and the struggles and
joys of relationships. They function as the glue that
invokes soul, animates spirit, and reinforces identity
through the medium of oral traditions.

In West Papua, music is everywhere. In so many
ways, it represents the irrepressible desire for life.
Every evening, as the sun goes down and the jungle
erupts in a cacophony of insects backed up by a
syncopating base line of frogs; and every morning,
when the air is still, one can hear the sound of music.
Songs of struggle, haunting laments, musical delights
in the natural beauty of the land of their ancestors,
and sultry love songs puncture the tropical heat.
Ukulele, guitar, snakeskin drums, and the distinct
four-part soaring harmonies of the Melanesian
Pacific work their way inwards, shaping identity,
weaving stories, and strengthening the courage of
a people determined to be free.

One Mambesak song: "Awin Sup Ine", proudly
featured on our flagship station, Pacific Islands
Radio, and beautifully sung in the enchanting Biak
language, is translated as follows: "At twilight,
the rays of the sun paint beautiful skyscapes,
stirring the eye and heart...". At these times,
the lyrics continue: "... one cannot help but recall
sweet moments from the past and feel again the bonds
of love that bind one to the land".

Other songs sound clear warning bells, and
evoke strong emotions. Many songs also have
sophisticated double meanings. One such
featured song, "Nit Pughuluok En", crafted by
Dani songman and widely respected elder, Chief
Yafet Yelamaken, tells of the departure of a
friend: "Who knows when you will be coming back",
the song goes: "My only hope is to pray that we
shall meet again. Travel safely". However, the
friend, as Chief Yelamaken's daughter explains,
can also be read as the Indonesian Government,
who, it is hoped, will ultimately will leave West
Papua. Tragically, Chief Yelamaken died in a spate
of fatal poisonings that felled many West Papuan
cultural and civil society leaders. Although it
has never been proven, many West Papuans feel
certain it was a political assassination organised
by the Indonesian military.


This most interesting album features the music of
one small island, Biak, that lies just off the
northern coast of West Papua, Indonesia's easternmost
province. Biak has a long history of encounters with
outsiders from Europe and other parts of Indonesia -
a history that continues to unfold as Biak has become
one of the main ports of entry by air to Indonesia for
travelers from North America.

The album focuses on three genres: two contemporary
types of song are contrasted with the older wor, a genre
that is "in decline" but is still remembered by many. The
two newer genres, yospan and church songs, which have
largely replaced wor at celebrations, display considerable
foreign influence.

Certainly, the three genres have contrasting sounds. Most
of the album is devoted to wor. Seventeen of the 72 tracks
exemplify this genre. Divided into dance, non-dance, and
narrative categories, they supply a richer representation
of this genre than most listeners will probably want or need.
Characterized by choral singing (almost exclusively male
on these tracks) and drumming, the differences between
one track and the next are not consequential for the
uninitiated ear. But the wealth of contextual information,
provided for these songs, enables one to appreciate
some of their significance.

The men form into two opposing choruses that compete
for attention - one group "beginning their verse before
the [other] singers are finished, and the [other] singers
retaliating to 'steal back' the song". Within each group,
singers also strive to stand out.

The four examples of church songs offer a stunning
contrast to the wor: sung in five part harmony by female
choirs, these performances are evidence of the deep
influence of Christianity and the long reach of European
missionary and colonial power. Sonically beautiful, these
tracks closely resemble Christian choral singing from
various areas of Africa and other parts of the world.

Yospan, represented by a medley of four songs in the
final track on this album, is a recent dance genre,
created from two other types of dance, one fast and
one slow. The fascinating history of this hybrid
involves government policy, imitations of Dutch
warplanes, and various other seemingly incongruent

On Biak, dance remains the centrepiece of celebrations.
It is accompanied by an ensemble of guitars, homemade
ukuleles and drums, and a giant bass guitar, the strings
of which are beaten with a stick. This is an amateur form
of expression that is open to all members of Biak society.
Indeed, wor and yospan are based on the same resilient
principles. In a conventional framework of words (wor)
or motions (yospan) both present the foreign as a startling
source of inspiration to be mobilized and circulated locally.
In addition, both genres embody the aesthetic of surprise.

Pacific Islands Radio is very pleased to be able to feature
on the playlist on our Flagship station, the incredible music
of Black Paradise, along with a selection of Music of Biak.
This latter selection (Music of Biak) includes two church
songs and two party hymns. The church songs and party
hymns represent the range of Christian themes addressed
in Biak hymns.

That's all for now with best wishes to all. Have a great
and blessed day!

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