Indonesian musician Tomi Simatupang is on a one-man mission to introduce Germany to an enigmatic song – and in doing so, bring his country’s darkest past to light.
The lights begin to dim as the last few people quietly squeeze into the stuffy conference room at the Haus der Demokratie on a hot summer evening. Tomi Simatupang hunches his shoulders behind his makeshift electric guitar and pedal board, from which he begins to produce a fluid pattern of scales.
‘Genjer-Genjer’ became part of a propaganda scheme to demonise the Communist Party.
Eventually, he approaches the microphone. “My life changed the day I walked into a screening of a film,” he says. “In that film was a song, a song with such a simple and haunting melody that it consumed my days thereafter. That song is called ‘Genjer-Genjer’”.
It took five years for the singer-songwriter to put together the “documentary concert” Genjermania. A collage of live music, archival footage and homemade video, it tells the story of an Indonesian song, the fate of which encompasses 50 years of the country’s history – from its proletarian origins to its subversion at the hands of Suharto’s dictatorial regime and its subsequent demise as part of collectively repressed memory.
Of the 2000 registered Indonesians who live in Berlin and Brandenburg, Simatupang – known on the Berlin music scene as a cunning guitarist and idiosyncratic singer with lyrics in English, German and Indonesian – is one of the few willing to be publicly vocal about his homeland’s troubled past.
With its low-budget, DIY aesthetic, his Genjermania is far from Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, the film that infamously brought to the screen Suharto’s death-squad leaders re-enacting their crimes. Instead, it’s a grass-roots effort by one 34-year-old Indonesian musician to bring the song to German ears – and come to grips with the dark history behind it.
Genjer-Genjer” was composed in 1953 by a Javanese man called Muhammad Arief,” Simatupang begins. Although lyrically apolitical – it deals with the picking and preparation of an aquatic plant used in south Asian cuisine – during the 1960s the song became a hit amongst Communist Party sympathisers and a whole generation of emancipated youth, including members of Gerwani, a pro-communist women’s movement that invented a dance to accompany the music.
Arief himself became a vital member of Lekra (the Institute for the People’s Culture), an artist organisation and social movement associated with the Communist Party. His song’s success culminated in a recording of “Genjer-Genjer” supervised by then-president Sukarno and performed by singer and movie star Bing Slamet. But as Suharto’s military seized power in 1967, it did not take long for the regime to ban the song and subsequently murder Arief.
Soon, “Genjer-Genjer” became part of a propaganda scheme to demonise the Communist Party and eliminate political opponents. Members of Gerwani who had once danced to the song were persecuted, ultimately locked away and brutally tortured. Communist sympathisers would receive anonymous phone calls with the song being played in a loop, as an intimidation tactic.
“Genjer-Genjer” also soundtracked scenes of extreme violence in Pengkhianatan (Treason), a propaganda film produced in 1984. Meant to show the perversity of communist crimes, it used to be compulsory viewing in Indonesian elementary schools.
Today, the song belongs to a repressed traumatic past whose legacy still lingers. Growing up in Yogyakarta during Suharto’s reign, Simatupang heard stories “so horrid, I could only fathom them in the form of a dream or cartoon,” he says. “My grandmother used to mention that someone in our neighbourhood got his head sawed in half… I was speechless when I realised how a part of my memory was controlled from the outside.”
After nearly two decades in Europe (he lived in the Netherlands and Germany since age 10), Simatupang rediscovered “Genjer- Genjer” at a screening of the 2011 historical drama Gie. The melody had a familiar, and uneasy, ring to it. “It lingered in my head,” he says. “I set myself to research it further.”
With the help of a Javanese journalist, Simatupang was able to organise a Skype conversation with Sinar Syamsi, Arief’s son, in a matter of weeks. Because of Arief’s reputation as a communist, Syamsi had been ostracised by his neighbours and led a frugal, sheltered life, unable to find consistent work.
When Simatupang asked him about his father, Syamsi shyly pulled a dusty notebook from an old grocery bag. Inside was the original manuscript for “Genjer-Genjer”. Says Simatupang, “I asked him to sing the song, and he sang it perfectly – every note was right.”
Genjermania premiered at Neukölln’s Café Engels on March 6 of this year, and was subsequently performed three more times in Berlin and Hamburg, collecting around €550 in donations for Syamsi. The money, Simatupang explains, is transferred to one of his relatives, who in turn transfers the sum to Syamsi’s wife as a token for all the royalties he never received for the song.
He says he’s played “Genjer-Genjer” three times in Indonesia, including at a 2013 concert organised by a prominent painter who had belonged to Lekra along with Arief. “It was so emotionally difficult for him to watch the performance that he had to excuse himself.”
Tonight, Simatupang is performing beside the exhibition The Act of Living, put on by the organisation Watch Indonesia – a series of portraits of female victims of the Suharto purge, including a woman who spent 13 years in jail for dancing to the song. As a final bow, Simatupang jabs and shakes his guitar, producing perverse sounds to images of the riots in Jakarta during the abdication of Suharto.
“The problem in Indonesia is that people have been kept silent. People are afraid to reveal their identity and to share their story,” says Basilisa Dengen, a member of Watch Indonesia who came to see the show. Even 17 years after the demise of the Suharto dictatorship, there has been no attempt at investigating the past, let alone rehabilitating victims. Simatupang believes he can make a contribution: to express in music what has burdened his people for so long.
Tomi Simatupang will perform Genjermania on September 24, 21:00 at ACUD.