The Living Symbol of Song in West Papua: A Soul Force to be Reckoned With

By Julian Smythe

Excerpted from Flowers in the Wallclick to download full chapter as a free pdf

“I am Papua (aku Papua),” three-year-old Dietrich Malenua sings on his grandmother’s porch in Papua, Indonesia. He is singing the hit song of Papuan musician Edo Kondologit, “Aku Papua,” and in his song, he carries a Papuan identity often threatened in Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua.

I will argue here that, in the midst of poverty, continued violence, and racial segregation in Papua, song has served and continues to serve as a lived symbol of collective identity through which liberation is daily practiced in the Land of Papua. Shortly before his death at the hands of Indonesian security forces in April of 1984, Papuan musician and anthropologist Arnold Ap sang, “The only thing I long for is only ever freedom.”

His song carries one of the few direct references to freedom found in Papuan music and signals a rare point of direct political engagement in song—perhaps justified by the performer’s sense that his own death was imminent. Although direct freedom is rarely experienced in West Papua, music has been one symbol for a unified Papuan identity that protests the extensive violence against the Papuan people carried out by the Indonesian security forces, a lethal campaign that may qualify as genocide.

A number of authors, most notably Diana Glazebrook, address how music has served as a receptacle of identity and resistance in Papua. It is sometimes hidden, and sometimes, as in Ap’s last song, direct—but a space, nevertheless, in which freedom can be practiced and lived. Although the singers and writers of many of the songs discussed here have been killed, the songs of Papuan pride and identity have continued through over one hundred years of Dutch and Indonesian occupation, changing with time and responding to the constraints and inequalities that arise, but always, ever remembering freedom.

Within the context of West Papua, music serves as a vessel for resistance and identity through which a group can  mobilize against an oppressive order. Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence speaks of the need for a potent symbol around which a community can mobilize. Music offers such a symbol within the sustained non-violent social movement for self-determination in West Papua. However, unlike static icons, such as a flag or even Gandhi’s own symbol of a spinning wheel, music, particularly in societies with a strong oral tradition, can serve as a living symbol,
a participative practice that invites the physical engagement of human vocal chords and bodies across distance and time through harmony and improvisation. This “creative consciousness” of shared song generated by interactions among people can serve as an empowering practice/space for participative liberation.

Through engaging with the histories of two musicians (sung heroes!) in Papuan history, Angganeka Manufandu and Arnold Ap, as well as a number of current musical heroes, I argue that song is a participative symbol that renegotiates boundaries of Papuan identity previously defined by the Dutch and Indonesian states, and creates and maintains the daily liberational practice of sustaining the ideological “notion-state” of Papua.

I begin with an exploration of music that played a role in the formation of early Papuan collective identity and nationalism during the Koreri millennial movement of 1939–43 under the leadership of Angganeka Manufandu, and then move to an exploration of the role of the music of Arnold Ap in maintaining and sustaining Papuan identity during the years of Indonesia’s “New Order” government under Suharto (1965–98). I conclude with a discussion of current musical encounters with the Indonesian state in a post-Suharto Papua.

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