Genjer-genjer may well be the most controversial song in Indonesia. It started life as a little ditty about plucking an aquatic weed (genjer is the common name for limnocharis flava) and evolved into political propaganda material, a banned agitprop number and finally into a protest song. Genjer-genjer mirrors Indonesia’s recent history.
by Bram Hendrawan
During the 1942-1945 Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), poor people in Java suffered near starvation conditions. People in Banyuwangi, East Java ate anything remotely edible, including genjer, a plant that grows along the river banks that had previously been used as cattle fodder.
In 1943, Muhammad Arif, a songwriter from the same region, wrote a sad song about picking genjer. The song tells of a woman who gathers genjer and then takes it to the market to sell. Arif’s song was hugely popular in Banyuwangi.
But the story doesn’t stop there: in the 1960s, the song was recorded by two huge stars and before long, everyone in the now-independent Indonesia was singing Genjer-genjer.
The phenomenon did not go unnoticed by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), one of the largest political parties in the country at the time. Because the song is about one of the lowest and poorest classes in Indonesia, it was used as propaganda material by the PKI. The song soon became the most requested number at party gatherings.
When General Suharto seized power in 1965, the song was banned. Indonesia’s new ruler spread the rumour that female Communists tortured six generals while singing Genjer-genjer. The text was quickly altered to Jendral-jendral (generals) and became a description of how the women tortured the generals. Genjer-genjer became the banned anthem of the ‘evil’ communists.
In the wake of the 1965 coup d’état, millions of people suspected of communist sympathies were arrested and an estimated 500,000 people, including Muhammad Arif, were killed. His song was banned and erased from Indonesia’s collective memory. An entire generation of Indonesians know about the song but cannot sing the first note.
Now, in the post-Suharto era, Genjer-genjer is back from oblivion. The regime’s victims have found their voices and the song has become a symbol of repression by the Suharto dictatorship. A controversial Indonesian film about the 1960s has also contributed to the song’s resurgence. YouTube has thousands of performances of the songs and they all generate a massive number of hits.
Genjer-genjer is a song with a rich history; it has become part of the nation’s collective memory, calling up bittersweet memories of Indonesia’s recent past.