May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Remembering Sam Kapissa

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Danilyn Rutherford

Like so many parts of Papua, the islands of Biak-Numfor have seen many of their inhabitants die too young. Sam Kapissa is only the latest in a long line of Biaks to meet this fate. Perhaps the most famous was Sam's colleague, the anthropologist and musician, Arnold Ap, who was shot by Indonesian soldiers in 1984. But there was something particularly untimely about Sam's death last year. Sam died in Jakarta, apparently of a heart attack, on his way home from visiting family in the Netherlands.

Among Sam's many talents was his ability to cultivate the ideals he held dear under the harsh conditions of New Order Irian Jaya. There have been many Biak leaders with a knack for twisting the demands of the bureaucracy to meet the interests of local people. Still, Sam was particularly adept at using official rhetoric that talk of the 'unity in diversity' that linked Indonesia's far-flung cultures to justify endeavours that kept a sense of alternative identities alive.

I met Sam Kapissa on Biak in the early 1990s, a period when Jakarta's confidence in Irian Jaya's integration into the nation combined with a desire for tourist dollars opened new possibilities for indigenous cultural activists and anthropologists. I first heard about him during a trip to the sub-district seat of Korem, a sleepy seaside village on Biak's north coast, a few weeks after beginning my fieldwork. At the windswept market, my West Biak hostess introduced me to a grey-haired woman. She rose from behind the pile of betel nut she was selling and solemnly shook my hand. This was Sam Kapissa's mother, I was told.

Clearly, I was supposed to recognise his name, and soon I did, when friends and acquaintances included him in the list of Biak notables whom I had to consult. Among them were older men, retired colonial officials and evangelists trained by the Dutch, who showed me their unpublished writings on Biak history and culture. Sam belonged to a younger generation of artists, musicians, and independent scholars, who were working to preserve Biak's rich artistic forms.

Some of these forms, such as carving, required the study of old Dutch texts to reconstruct. The elaborate, sometimes erotic images with which Biaks adorned their canoes and houses vanished not long after the islands' conversion to Christianity at the turn of the twentieth century. Others, such as pancar, a lively dance inspired by the Dutch fighter planes based on Biak in the early 1960s, still thrived. At village parties, one still saw young dancers imitating a jet going into a stall. Here, the work of activists like Sam consisted of attracting official acknowledgment and, if possible, funding, for the most talented practitioners of these arts.

It was tempting to regard cultural brokers like Sam as agents in the New Order production of orderly traditions to be performed for tourists and visiting dignitaries. But the respect individuals like Sam commanded in the eyes of fellow Biaks did not rest on their ability to select the 'authentic' version of a particular practice an ability that local experts were all too ready to call into question. People admired figures like Sam not only for their knowledge, but also for their skill in navigating an alien, and often threatening, bureaucracy. Sam could sing like an angel. But he could also work the system, on behalf of people with obscure talents, few connections, and haunting memories of the violence of the regime.

Even within this small group of cultural experts, Sam Kapissa was in a class of his own. Born in Hollandia (now Jayapura) in 1947 to a Biak teacher and his wife, Sam spent his childhood in Biak, before returning to Jayapura to attend the newly opened provincial university. His commitment to the preservation of Papuan culture dated to the 1970s, when he gave up a career as a mathematics instructor to pursue a degree in ethno-musicology. After graduating, he travelled widely in search of local song forms.

He gave the songs he studied a new life through his work with Mansyouri and Mambesak, groups he formed with other Papuan musicians, including Arnold Ap. Through their frequent concerts and Ap's weekly radio broadcasts, these groups inspired an upsurge of interest in the province's diverse musical genres. Sam recorded several albums, singing in Biak and Indonesian. He was best known for his popular arrangements of traditional tunes. As is the case with so many Papuan artists, Sam's talents were multiple. His woodcarvings still grace the Hotel Marauw and Biak's House of Arts.


By the time I knew Sam, he had become a famous and busy man. It was not until my friend Philip Yampolsky made plans to come to Biak to record an album of local music that I met Sam in the flesh. Articulate and energetic, Sam combined his mother's dignity with an unalloyed optimism: no matter the obstacles, whatever he sought to accomplish could be done. Philip planned to include on the album the music used for pancar's modern successor, yospan - western style folk songs sung to eukeleles, guitars, and gigantic homemade double basses. But he wanted to focus on an older song genre called wor. In the past, Biaks sang wor to the beat of drums at night-long dance feasts held to mark transitions in the life of a child.

Sam set up recording sessions with four troupes, consisting mostly of elderly men and women who learned to sing before World War II, when an uprising involving wor singing led colonial officials to prohibit this kind of feasting. He helped Philip obtain police permits, and educated him on the intricacies of the genre. As we discussed wor's unusual style, Sam would often break into song, perfectly replicating the strange melodies on Philip's tapes.

When Philip's recordings yielded an invitation to a national seminar and festival on oral tradition, to be held in Jakarta, Sam and I worked together selecting the singers, securing funding, and writing an essay published in the Jakarta Post as part of the publicity for the event. As we worked on this project, Sam shared some his writings with me, including a paper on how Biak members of the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) had sung wor for courage and potency during the turbulent 1970s. He also shared important tips, for example: we should get a letter from the festival's organisers listing the singers we had chosen. Sam knew how to prevent an opportunity like this from turning into a boondoggle for some official's family and friends.

The group we took to Jakarta included old men and women who rarely left the island, let alone the province, and younger singers who, unusually for Biaks, had had little formal schooling. Most of them belonged to families who had spent the 1970s and 1980s hiding from Indonesian soldiers in the island's forested interior. One of the women still carried a bullet from a raid. There was great irony in seeing this group performing a genre associated with resistance to alien states on stage, in the national capital. The festival's organisers presented their songs as a contribution to Indonesia's national culture, yet they recalled a tradition of opposition to the regime. Without Sam smoothing the way, it is hard to imagine how the voyage could have occurred.

During the time of my fieldwork, Sam refused to accept an official position, despite the fact he had to provide for a young daughter named, aptly enough, Melanesia. Instead, he lived off earnings from his records and the commissions he received from the government for serving on task forces and committees. But the last time I saw Sam, in July 1998, he was wearing a uniform. In 1997, he was elected to the district parliament, where he was active resolving land disputes, as well as promoting the arts. When I visited Sam's home, two weeks had passed since a flag raising demonstration in Biak City had ended in bloodshed when Indonesian troops stormed the site. Scores of men, women, and children had disappeared, many were feared dead. Sam told me how frightened families had come to him for help to find their missing sons and daughters. He was compiling a list of names to pass along to the National Commission on Human Rights.

Flag raising

On that day in Biak City, with his daughter bouncing on his lap, Sam spoke with me more openly than he ever had about his past and hopes for the future. Sam had not used the word 'Papua' often in our many conversations during my fieldwork, but he did then. Sam explained why the police had interrogated him after the recent flag raising. In 1969, when he was in college, Sam was arrested for participating in a similar demonstration. The youths were taken to a ship to await their punishment, which turned out to be three months of military indoctrination on Java. Sam negotiated the protesters' safe return to their homeland, only to be told that the authorities would be watching him closely from then on.

That conversation opened a fresh perspective on Sam's activities during the early 1990s. At the same time he was working the system, he was living on borrowed time. If it takes one kind of courage to die for a cause, it takes another to survive for it, as Sam did, with wisdom, generosity, even delight. Sam Kapissa won a victory in outlasting the New Order. Somehow, in these strange days of broken promises and stubborn dreams, this makes his death all the harder to understand.

Danilyn Rutherford ( teaches anthropology at the University of Chicago.

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

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