Black Paradise: Singing for self- determination

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Black Paradise in action. Photo from the cover booklet.

Singing can be a very dangerous activity in West Papua. In 1984 the bloated bodies of musicians Arnold Clemens Ap and Eddie Mofu were washed up onto a beach. They’d been tortured and killed by the Indonesia military. In 2001, Sam Kapissa died in suspicious circumstances, described officially as food poisoning. Many West Papuans believe he was also assassinated by the military.

Ap, Mofu and Kapissa were all part of Mambesak, a band formed by Ap in 1978 with a commitment to collecting and popularising traditional West Papuan song and inspiring a sense of pride in being Papuan. Singing and recording songs in local languages rather than Bahasa Indonesian was considered an act of defiance akin to flying the Morning Star flag. Their music was immensely popular and played on community radio stations and village cassette players.

Black Paradise — a musical sensation from West Papua in this tradition — recently released its first CD, Spirit of Mambesak. Produced by band leader, Ferry Marisan, and Melbourne musician and activist, David Bridie, the music is a powerful weapon guaranteed to strengthen solidarity with the West Papuan independence struggle.

West Papua is made up of around three hundred distinct Indigenous nations — each with their own land, language, economy and culture. Spirit of Mambesak, a diverse collection of traditional and contemporary songs, is sung in a range languages from highland, island and coastal communities including Asmat, Inawatan, Dani, Woi, Auyi, Wondama and Biak. Nyanyian Sunyi or Silent Song, written by Sam Kapissa, who mentored Black Paradise until his death, is sung in Bahasa Indonesia, the colonisers’ language. It is a melancholy lament about the exploitation of the beautiful land.

Kapissa and Ap are remembered in Mambruk Ma Manyori, written by Ferry Marisan and sung in the Biak language. The two cultural leaders, both from the island of Biak Numfor, are represented in the song as the Mambruk bird and the Nuri bird.  Marisan portrays Ap and Kapissa as uniting the West Papuan people through their creations in song, dance and music. It’s a deeply moving tribute.

Black Paradise sees itself as continuing what Mambesak began: nurturing cultures battered by militarism, undermined by Christianity and exploited by commerce. Ferry Marisan argues that the younger generation of West Papuans must care for their culture. He contends that it could be dead within a decade if Indigenous traditions are not protected, promoted and revived. Marisan says that Black Paradise has a simple message: “we are here to show that West Papuan culture is still alive. We are a distinct and separate people. We want the Indonesian Government to stop the violence and let us be.”

The music is rhythmic and melodic. The male and female vocalists are accompanied by distinctive ukulele, guitar and traditional drums. The Melanesian four-part harmonies — frequently described by musicologists as “soaring” — are breathtaking. Some of the tunes are also sensual, hip-swinging and playful.  The opening track, Aye Nanawe — promoted as one of the band’s signature tunes — is a joyful, sexual and upbeat song about unrequited love.

The full-colour booklet accompanying the CD is both visually stunning and educational. It contains photos of the performers and links to a range of websites about West Papua. Lyrics and a little about the history of each song is published along with translations and explanatory notes in both English and Bahasa Indonesian.

Some of the notes are poignant. The song Tata Mena is believed to be from the Arso-Jayapura region. It was first collected by Arnold Ap and Mambesak. However, the archives have since been tragically destroyed and the language, culture and meaning of the song have been forgotten. Black Paradise hopes that this reality will “encourage people to do what they can to protect and revive West Papuan culture.”

The booklet also includes a succinct history of the West Papuan struggle, including an exposé of the sham 1969 “Act of Free Choice” which the West Papuans call the Act of No Choice. “Under the gaze of the international community and with the active collaboration of the United Nations, Indonesia scrapped the accepted ‘one-person-one-vote’ system and forcibly selected 1,022 tribal elders, less than one percent of the population, to participate in a process that would decide the fate of an entire people. Interned in camps, isolated from friends and family, those hand-picked by the Indonesian military to participate in the so-called referendum were given a stark choice: to vote for Indonesia or to have their tongues cut out. Not surprisingly, in this climate of fear, intimidation and outright violence, 100% ‘chose’ integration.”

Since this travesty,  which completely fails any test to provide the people with a real act of self-determination, West Papuans have suffered daily human rights violations by the Indonesian military, and their natural resources have been ruthlessly exploited and environment degraded.

It is this context which makes producing music an intensely political act by the women and men who make up Black Paradise. Their statement on the cover declares that “protecting and revitalising song and dance is part of a movement based around Indigenous culture that aims to enable West Papuans to be ‘masters’ of their own land.”

In the words of Arnold Clemens Ap, Black Paradise is “singing for life — yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

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