Singing Ourselves into Being: The Music of West Papua

by Julian Smythe

The author shares how a people in Papua have taken
Dutch-influenced and created songs and used them for the
growth and encouragement of the Church in that region.

A church is a church that sings (Haspert and Kijne 1948, 1), writes Hendrik Haspert, Dutch hymn compiler and editor of Indonesia’s hymnbook, Spiritual Songs. It is 9 p.m., and the strains of Wilt Heden nu Treden voor God den Here ring out into the night (Jenbise 1982, 88). The aural landscape of Indonesia’s contested province of West Papua is shaped by Spiritual Songs.

Wednesday women’s worship, Thursday men’s worship, Tuesday youth worship, and Friday family worship—a song to begin class, a song to begin a meal. But what comprised the musical landscape of Papua before Haspert and his hymns arrived?

It is the funeral of Isa Koratao*. His uncle sits, leaning over Isa’s body, crooning a haunting melody (wor) to remember and to reanimate this young man who took his life while imprisoned for protesting human rights violations. The notes float into the air, embracing those in the seminary complex, drawing them forward with enormous power. “I feel it in the hair on my arms,” says Jaqueline Parbo, seminary librarian. “The spirit is there, in the song.”

Mama Hertje throws back her head, sitting in a crowded hallway of a ship, and sings Jou Jou Manfoun in the her native Biak tongue. The entire hallway joins in as we sing a prayer to the seafaring God of the seafaring Biak tribe on our ship with ten thousand souls going home to their villages to celebrate the birth of God’s son.
No other song, no other melody, could be so fitting:

Through song the unwritten history of the people and the laws of the community are taught and maintained; the entire physical and spiritual development of the individual is nurtured; the well-being of the group is protected; supplies of food and water are ensured through musical communication with the spiritual powers; love of homeland is poured out for all to share; illnesses are cured; news is passed from one group to another. (Ellis 1985, 17)

But are these roles fulfilled by the music of the Church brought by the Dutch 155 years ago?

Songs that Have Become Our Own
It is Sunday morning, and we sit on wooden pews in an open-air pavilion revealing green hills and skies darkened with rain clouds. We sing with one voice Psalm 6 translated by Dutch missionary and educator, Isaak Samuel Kijne, in 1951. My Western ears hear my normally animated Papuan friends drone out the minor tunes without syncopation or harmony, and I wonder to where and when I have been transported. I ask my friends, the women of the church, “Are these songs yours? To me they sound Dutch.” But they insist, “He [Kijne] knows us,” says Mrs. Woyami. “He loves us. He sat on the edge of the cliff in Miei, overlooking the sea, and he translated these hymns for us.”

Responds Parbo:

They are ours. They have entered into our souls. We learned them when we were children. Kijne went to the schools and taught us these songs. He explained them to us, so that we would understand. We memorized them. For the older people of the church, these songs give them strength.

Mrs. Penny Karibu is one of these. A widow of twenty years, she sits outside her once-grand house, now destroyed by her grown son’s drunken rages reflecting the violence and frustration at the slow genocide of the Papuan people by the Indonesian military. She is singing from Spiritual Tunes, Kijne’s translation of Isaac Watt’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” She sings from memory, eyes closed to shut out her son’s rages. “I sing to cheer my soul,” she says.

Music as an Extension of Who We Are
“Music,” writes Catherine Ellis, has the ability to touch “the whole person; it can stimulate inter-cultural understanding at a deeply personal level” (Ellis 1985, 15). Parbo adds, “The older generation learned these songs as children. We were taught them in school. For the mamas, these songs give life.” Hymn translators Marion Cowan and Marjorie Davis write that “once people in the tribe had learned the hymns by memory, it was impossible to begin revising and polishing them. The people resented changes. They insisted that the hymns be left as they were, even if the people would never talk that way in everyday speech” (Cowan and Davis 1959, 27).

Ellis, however, conceives of the embrace of Western musical forms through a different lens. She writes, “What matters is that by now most of the traditional forms…have been disrupted…by the insidious intrusion of Europeanization” (Ellis 1985, 18). Anthropologists Feije Duim and Sam Kapissa add specifics to her statement in their collection of Papuan songs for the church:

The gospel entered our land with a “Western face” because it was brought by people from the West….The Western culture is no better and no worse than the culture here. Nor is it more or less “pagan.” So there is no reason to cast aside our “pagan” culture to be replaced by the paganness of another culture. (Duim, Kapissa, et al 1988, 38)

Music both within and outside of the church is able to communicate the deepest truths of a soul, able to communicate doctrine (as Martin Luther discovered), and able to receive the communication of God. It is also able to receive the communication of whatever church or society is deemed orthodox, but beyond the Western use of music in sacred space, “music in non-literate societies often functions as a mnemonic device and in this and other ways, replaces literature as the repository of important information” (Ellis 1985, 17). However, continues Ellis, “Western music does not fulfill many of these functions for white society” (1985, 18).

Dualism in the Papuan Culture?
“There is a strong dualism,” says Rev. Benjamin. For funerals, bride price ceremonies, and births, the old music remains. But for the “sacred” spaces, the uniform singing and quietly bowed heads of the Dutch psalms prevail. In an effort to combine the sacred with the cultural, Papuan pastors, in conjunction with Kapissa and Duim, composed a song book of indigenous tunes set with Christian words entitled All Who Breathe (Duim, Kapissa, et al 1988, 38-39).

In their introduction, they bring into dialogue the fascination of the Western with traditional musical forms:

Human beings are not a museum collection. We long to grow, to progress, to enjoy the fruits of modern life that are pleasant. But the influence of modernization is in many places and it does not know the norms and values of the local culture. If this process is left, it is clear that the “weak” culture will be lost. (1988, 38-39)

Papuan young people, the authors claim, have lost their knowledge of the local culture:

The traditions of voice have been replaced by the fashions of vocal groups that use words and melodies understandable to the modern world. Without our roots, we are lost. If the Church does not reexamine our culture, and is not willing to embrace…its songs, and give them new meaning, it is clear that very soon, all of our values will be eradicated. But if our traditional songs are transformed to become church songs, the art of song can grow, and be exercised, and will not be lost. (1988, 40)

The Balance of Modern and Traditional Songs
In response to this reality, the authors called for a project not to “museumize” the songs, but to “grow” them in modern times and in the richness of the indigenous Papuan cultural and linguistic forms…not to return to traditional times, but to merge the richness of aboriginal music’s everyday communicative power with the sacred of the modern Church steeped in the history of Dutch mission.

However, Kapissa and Duim discovered that in an age where the “modern” forms prevail, the traditional forms must be re-taught, because they are recognized only by the old, for whom they are “pagan” songs, maintained in strict separation from the church. In an ironic twist, the young population of Papua listened to the music of their elders and found it more foreign than Wachtet auf, ruft uns die Stimme and Michael Jackson. Ellis explains the importance of a familiar and understood musical landscape:

Whether the music is known and performed by most of the members of a society or only a few, there remains the fact that the music must have within its technical structure patterns of sounds which are understood by the majority and which are associated with particular behaviour and emotional meaning. The reverse is also important—that when the patterns of a particular music are not understood, the communication is not regarded as music at all by those who cannot reach this understanding. It then becomes a useless channel of communication. (Ellis 1985, 24-25)  

Kapissa and Dium’s book of songs was hidden in the library of a Papuan seminary. One dusty, flimsy photocopy holding twenty songs was published in 1988. When I asked Parbo if the book had ever been incorporated into the Papuan church, she said, “Ah, when those who were pushing it left, it stopped. That was their project.” “Why?” I asked. “It was theirs,” she responded. This is in contrast to her response to Spiritual Songs: “It is ours.” But among the older generation, the love of the traditional music continues. Parbo says, “When I hear the traditional wor lament, I weep.”

The power of the music touches not only the old, however. As a result of Kapissa’s efforts, Papuan young people have begun to sing traditional songs. They sing them for traditional cultural presentations—and in their contextual theology classes.

Music for the Papuan Church
But why have the Papuan songs not been embraced by the Church and by their people? One reason, writes Rev. Sophie Patty, is the unwillingness of church leaders to use the songs: “Church leaders considered those songs strange, and did not allow them to be sung because they reeked of ‘paganism’” (Patty and Thamo 1988, 1). Another reason entwines this: hidden meanings prevail in a land long forbidden from taking any pride in its cultural forms, first by missionaries, and then by the Indonesian military.

Cautiously, Parbo examines me carefully, opens a glass cupboard, and takes out a small book. “Kijne wrote this one, too,” she says, holding up a small photocopied songbook entitled The Golden Flute. “But it was banned under Suharto. The melodies are Dutch, but the words are Papua!” The book contains Papuan drawings, as well as many songs embracing nature and the majesty of Papua, using idioms of fish, sea, and mountain. Parbo quietly hides the book again. “You can’t get copies now,” she says. “but these are our songs.”

In the mid 1980s, anthropologist Arnold Ap and musician Kapissa, influenced by radio broadcasts from Papua New Guinea, began to catalogue and record Papua’s music. Ap and Kapissa traveled around the island, recording and singing. “When I heard the songs,” says Parbo, “I shivered. I can’t describe it.”

When the excitement for his project grew, Ap drew attention from authorities and disappeared. He was released from prison and then shot in the back for “attempted escape.” Authorities attempted to conceal his death, but Ap’s friend and colleague Daniel Mofu indentified his body. (Mofu’s remains were later found on Jayapura’s seventh beach, mutilated sufficiently that they were only identified by the scars on his thumbs.) Kapissa survived to write the songbook All Who Breathe with Duim, but was found dead in a Jakarta hotel room in 1998, shortly before Suharto fell. Rev. Alex Kalula explains, “The unifying power of the music was too strong, and Indonesia could not let it continue.” So for ten years the music was only sung in secret. “If you were found with a copy of The Golden Flute, then you were arrested,” says Parbo.

In 1998, amidst increasing mass violence demanding reform, Suharto resigned and a new and freer government was enacted in Indonesia. “It’s different now,” says Kalula. “We can sing if we want to….But we don’t.” He gives an inscrutable look, looking small and defeated. “Sometimes I give up hope,” he says. “We have talent, but we do not use it.”

And yet, in the unofficial hidden spaces, the songs of Papua have begun to be cultivated for the Church. Young people are heard singing Kapissa and Ap’s songs in their dormitory, for special music in church, and during their Easter Vigil. When she gardens, Rev. Les Harimau’s wife, Hertje, sings Ruri Saa, Randeni Wado. “It’s a song about the Holy Spirit,” she explains. “We usually sing it like this,” she models a gesture of open hands, ruffling her fingers. “The Spirit then comes, hopping like a bird in a tree.”

“I remember when we sang this song in Switzerland,” Rev. Maria Wor says. “Everyone stopped, and there was complete silence.”

“Then they demanded, ‘Please, please sing another song!’” continues Rev. Benjamin.

But aside from these special occasions, the only part of Papuan life still alive with its original songs is death. It is in the space where death and life meet that the melodies of tradition continue unhindered. And it is in death that these melodies stand alongside the Dutch hymnic remembrances of the afterlife.

“It’s ours,” my friends say of Kijne’s translation, their eyes closed, or looking inscrutably toward heaven. But when the wor lament sounds, the inscrutable look becomes tears, and words are not enough. “I cannot describe how I feel,” says Parbo. Hertje merely weeps. And my friends are taken to a place I cannot go.

Music joined with words animates the soul. Haspert, Kijne, Kapissa, and Ap knew this, and were spurred on (some to death) by the life-giving power of music that reaches beyond the grave. But whose music is it that breathes life into the Papuan landscape and soulscape?

I sit typing and I hear my seminary students singing across the field: “Bless us, and protect us, illumine us with the light of your face. Love us.” They sing in a unified voice, with the speed of a dirge. I cannot help but wonder if their song animates or if it merely opiates, feeding the soul so that it no longer hungers for the Kingdom of God.

Kijne’s songs are safe. In their safety, have they lost their power? When we sing redemption songs in a voice that is not ours, whose redemption do we sing? When we worship our God with tunes enacted through violent means, will we ever be able to sing our own freedom song? Or are we forever enslaved to a religion that numbs us to our own humanity?

And yet, Mama Kellemina weeps as she sings her Kijne songs. She has made them her own. The power of music, writes Ellis, “can bridge thought processes” (Ellis 1985, 15). Songs are not stationary. They move and live anew with each voice that sings them. I weep in my heart for the songs that are no more, but I pray that those whose souls and memories retain them will have the strength and courage to sing them once more.

Writes Ph Ramandei Thamo, “Our beloved brother Isaak Samuel Kijne has tried [to compose music to animate the Papuan soul], but his goal has not yet been realized. Who will continue in his efforts? It is we together who must continue” (Patty and Thamo 1988, 4).

*all names of those interviewed are pseudonyms

Cowan, Marion M. and Marjorie E. Davis. 1959. Hymn Writing in Aboriginal Languages. Glendale, Calif.: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Duim, Feije, Sam Kapissa. 1988. Buku Penuntun Loka Karya Lokal Nyanyian Rohani Irian. Abepura, Papua: Tim Pelaksana Proyek Nyanyian Rohani Iriani.

Ellis, Catherine J. 1985. Aboriginal Music: Education for Living: Cross-cultural Experiences from South Australia. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Haspert, Hendrik and Isaak Samuel Kijne, eds./trans. 1948. Njanjian Rohani Dari Perbendaharaan Djoem’at Segala Abad.

Gravenhage, Nederland: Administratie Geestelijke Liederen Uit Den Schat Van de Kerk Der Eeuwen.

Jenbise, Leonardus. 1982. “Djoem’at Itoelah Djoem’at Jang Menjanji:” Sejarah Terjadinya Jilid Pertama Kitab Nyanyian Rohani dari Perbendaharaan Jemaat Segala Abad. Ujung Pandang: STT Untuk Indonesia Bagian Timur.

Patty, Sophie and Ph Ramandei Thamo, eds. 1988. Segala Yang Bernafas: Buku Himpunan Nyanyian Rohani Iriani Gereja Kristen Injili di Irian Jaya. Abepura, Papua: Tim Pelaksana Proyek Nyanyian Rohani Iriani.


Julian Smythe (pseudonym) is currently a PhD student at the Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. She has lived and worked in Indonesia and West Papua for thirteen years. Most recently, Julian has worked as a lecturer in theological English and anthropology in Papua. 

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp.470-475. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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