May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Singing for life

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Alex Rayfiel

Just before he was murdered on 24 April 1984 by Kopassus – Indonesia’s notorious special forces – renowned West Papuan musician and anthropologist, Arnold Ap wrote his last song. Arnold Ap, leader of the cultural music group Mambesak, was living on borrowed time. He knew that the military wanted to kill him. Sitting beside an old portable tape recorder in his prison cell, guitar in hand, Ap lovingly recorded ‘The Mystery of Life’.

Then he wrapped up the cassette, 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. ‘The only thing I desire and am waiting for’, Ap sung in the closing words of the song, ‘is nothing else but freedom’. Like his music and life, the words came from the heart and gave voice to a desire that was at once personal and political, particular to his situation, but shared by all West Papuans.

West Papua has been occupied by the Indonesian military since the early sixties, and the movement for self-determination for West Papua has been a long and bitter one. Arnold Ap, together with fellow musician Eddie Mofu, was imprisoned by the Indonesian military for suspected sympathies with the Papuan Independence Movement (OPM).

In West Papua, music, song and dance are weapons. Mofu and Ap’s real crime was singing and dancing the traditional songs of their people, promoting pride in Papuan culture. Their lyrics and tunes celebrate the mystery and natural beauty of 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.

The lyrics of one of Mambesak’s songs, ‘Awin Sup Ine’, sung in the Biak language, tells of the West Papuan people’s connection to their homeland:

At twilight, the rays of the sun paint beautiful skyscapes, stirring the eye and heart. At these times, one cannot help but recall sweet moments from the past and feel again the bonds of love that bind one to the land.

‘Nanen Babe’, a song from Sarmi on the north coast of Papua, has layers of meaning:

The Morning Star appears in the east and will soon be followed by the sun. The beauty of the sky brings back memories of home.

The last star in the inky darkness before the dawn, the light that guides fisherman safely home

Little wonder the Morning Star has became a symbol of freedom, a representation of independence, and of a longing to be at home in one’s own land. The song also invokes the creation story of Kumeseri – the Morning Star – in the Biak language. Legend has it that Manarmakeri, a humble village man, caught Kumeseri as the heavenly light descended to earth to drink palm wine. Manarmakeri struck a bargain with the star, receiving the gift of peace and renewal in return for letting Kumeseri go. Refusing to keep the gift for his tribe alone, Manarmakeri left West Papua on a journey to garner support for a new age of freedom, peace, and justice. For Jakob Rumbiak, a West Papuan friend who endured ten years in Indonesia’s dungeons, once sharing a cell with Xanana Gusmao and now living in Melbourne, the story continues to have fresh meaning. ‘Maybe Manarmakeri came to Australia?’ he asks. ‘Maybe he wants you to join him to help free West Papua?’

When Arnold Ap first began his work, however, many failed to understand his true purpose. ‘Maybe you think what I am doing is stupid’, he once said, ‘but it is what I think I should do for my people before I die’. Yet Arnold Ap knew something of the animating spirit of Papua that shaped and inspired his people. Mambesak’s simple underlying truth was that ‘we are Melanesians and this is our land’; a powerful message now taken up by rising West Papuan music and cultural sensation, Black Paradise.

Black paradise

Nearly twenty years have passed since Ap and Mofu’s murder, yet music and the legacy of Arnold Ap retains its potency in the troubled territory. In West Papua I met some of the new generation of musicians to follow in the legacy of Mambesak. Ferry Marisan, works for the Institute for the Study and Advocacy of Human Rights (Elsham) in West Papua, a widely respected human rights organisation. His job is to investigate and monitor human rights violations. Marisan, a graduate in anthropology from the University of Cendrawasih, is also the leader of the West Papuan cultural music group, Black Paradise.

When I first met him, Marisan was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Arnold Ap sitting down with guitar in hand, singing, with the words ‘Spirit of Mambesak’ emblazoned across the top. ‘Arnold Ap’s motto’, says Ferry Marisan, was ‘to sing for life. Yesterday, today and tomorrow’.’ He adds, ‘The people of West Papua dearly loved Arnold Clemens Ap. He helped transform our consciousness from the tribal to the national.’

Black Paradise is continuing what Mambesak began. Most of the members of the group are also human rights activists who work for Elsham. The work of defending human rights cannot be separated from their music. Recently a few band members travelled to Timika, the frontier town located in the shadow of a gargantuan copper and gold mine. Freeport McMoRan, the controversial mining corporation that owns the mine and has worked closely with the military, has also caused massive environmental damage and created enormous social unrest. While in Timika investigating human rights violations, the singer-activists also collected songs. One such song, ‘Akai Mbipae’ recounts the suffering of the indigenous Amungme as a result of the mine.

A mother is weeping because people, especially Freeport, have destroyed the environment.

Black Paradise has a simple message. ‘We are here to show that West Papuan culture is still alive,’ says Marisan. ‘We are a distinct and separate people. We want the Indonesian government to stop the violence and let us be.’ Not all the music is overtly political, however. ‘Aye Nanawe’, one of the band’s signature tunes, is a sexy, funny and upbeat hip-swinging number about one of songwriters most popular themes: unrequited love.

Yet whatever the theme of the lyrics, Black Paradise’s music affirms the dignity and identity of the Papuan people. ‘We the young generation of Papua have to care for our culture’ says Marisan. ‘West Papuan culture could be dead within 10 years if the people do not find ways to protect, promote and revive their indigenous traditions.’ With the deteriorating political situation and increasing repression by the military and government this need is becoming increasingly urgent.

Recently the band travelled to Australia for the Morning Star Concert for West Papua, a showcase of Australian talent organised by Melbourne musician David Bridie. The concert put the spotlight on what was happening a few short miles from Australian shores. Having tasted success in Australia, Black Paradise is now formulating plans it would not have dreamed of just over a year ago. A CD has been recorded on Bridie’s label Blunt, which the band hopes to follow up with a video compact disc. They also plan to conduct a speaking and music tour around West Papua, start up a recording studio and opening a centre to preserve and promote indigenous culture.

A dangerous job

Writing, uncovering, cultivating and promoting Papuan music and culture are still dangerous activities. Two years ago, ex-Mambesak member Sam Kapissa, cultural activist, respected elder, and mentor to Black Paradise, was found dead. Kapissa was one of the victims of a mysterious spate of poisonings of prominent West Papuan civil society leaders. Although it has never been proven, West Papuans believe the Indonesian military were behind his death.

Marisan has honoured Sam Kapissa and Arnold Ap by writing a moving tribute in their native Biak language. The song, entitled ‘Mambruk ma Manyouri’, tells the story of the two men, both of them from Biak Numfor, who are represented as the Mambruk and Nuri birds. Marisan says, ‘Arnold Clemens Ap and Sam Kapissa were two leaders who strove to unite the Papuan people, through their creations in song, dance and music. But the powers-that-be viewed their struggle as a political one that endangered the country, so in the end, they were killed.’

Although people in West Papua are still afraid to sell Mambesak recordings in the market, the music is everywhere. Scratchy songs are handed down from parents to children. Weather beaten copies are carried in on foot to remote highland villages, where women sell sweet potatoes and garden produce just to afford the batteries to play the tapes on ancient cassette players. And when Black Paradise gears up for one of their cultural performances people stream in, eager to soak up the sounds of Mambesak, and dance to the rhythm of their land.

In West Papua music is all around. Every evening 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, you hear the sound of music. Ukulele, guitar, snakeskin drums, and the distinct four-part soaring harmonies of the Melanesian Pacific work their way in to the hearts of the people of West Papua, weaving stories, and strengthening the courage of a people determined to be free.

Soon the music of Black Paradise will be circulating throughout West Papua and around the world. Their first CD is a powerful affirmation that in the land of the Morning Star the spirit of Arnold Ap and Mambesak lives on.

Alex Rayfield ( is a researcher and activist with the Australian West Papua Association.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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