Sunday, August 28, 2011

Indonesian Protest Song

Sometimes the most unlikely thing becomes a powerful political symbol of resistance. Unintended meanings become invested into the object, which then becomes a vehicle for protest and anger.  Such was the case with the fairly innocent Indonesian song called "Genjer Genjer".  The song was written in 1943 by Muhammad Arif, during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (Indoensia).  It tells a simple story of a desperately poor woman collecting ganjer, an aquatic plant normally used as cattle feed, which she sells on the market as human food. The message: life was tough during the occupation.

A recording of the song by a group called Dengue Fever became a huge hit in the mid-1960s and quickly became associated with the nation's burgeoning Communist movement, which was increasing agitating against the Sukarno government. In 1965 the military, led by General Suharto, stepped in, overthrew Sukarno and crushed the Communist Party, murdering at least a million people.  The danger of the overt symbolism of the simple song, intimately associated with the poor and the downtrodden, was not lost on the knew military dictator.  Suharto had the song banned, and it remained silenced for over 30 years.  Suharto was overthrown in 1998 and once again "Genjer-Genjer" has become a popular refrain.  Have a listen.


  1. Hello Paul:
    As you say, it can often be the unlikeliest things which become adopted as symbols of the age, the place or the cause. But often, it is thesimplest of songs, such as this one, which become haunting refrains which are never forgotten. Thank you for this most interesting post.

  2. Hi Jane and Lance,
    It is a simple melody and, as you say, for that reason not easily forgotten.

  3. Funny how some songs become iconic. They must just catch the spirit of the age. I wonder which songs will linger on from our own time.