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Culture

How an Indonesian folk song became the center of communism propaganda

Patricia Hului

“Genjer-genjer” is an Indonesian folk song written in the Osing language about a plant called genjer.

Also known as yellow velvetleaf, genjer (Limnocharis flava) can be found in countries such as Indonesia, South America, Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia and Malaysia.

When the songwriter came up with “Genjer-genjer” it would later became one of the most taboo songs in Indonesian history.

An Indonesian folk song written during the Japanese occupation

Muhammad Arief first recorded the song during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies in 1942.

The musician who was from Banyuwangi town in East Java, musically arranged it for the angklung, a Sundanese musical instrument made of a varying number of bamboo tubes.

Since genjer was considered a poor man’s food and would usually be eaten when there was no other food left, Arief used it as the inspiration for his song.

He wanted to tell the story of the people of his town who had to depend on genjer for food due to Japanese oppression during World War 2(WWII).

However, the Japanese occupation government used the song as propaganda to encourage the Indonesians to sacrifice their food as crops were given to the soldiers.

“Genjer-genjer”, an Indonesian folk song continued to be used for propaganda

Fast forward to post independent Indonesia, “Genjer-genjer” became well known in mainstream music.

Fueling on the fame, the song was covered by famous artists such as Bing Slamet and Lilis Suryani.

Watch Lilis Suryani’s version of the song here.

At first, the song was used by some political movements to criticise President Sukarno’s Guided Democracy.

It was a political system in place in Indonesia from 1957 until 1966 based on the traditional village system of discussion and consensus, instead of the normal democracy.

With the support of military, Sukarno proposed a cabinet representing all major political parties including the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

Due to the popularity of “Genjer-genjer”, PKI also used this song to promote communism.

Since then, a simple folk song to reflect the state of poverty became a major tool in communism propaganda.

The peak of propaganda

The infamous 30 September Movement was a major turning point in Indonesian history.

It took place on the evening of Sept 30, 1965 when a group of militants captured and executed six of Indonesia’s top military generals.

The movement proclaimed itself as Sukarno’s protectors, punishing those who were planning a coup against the president.

Even to this day, the true motive behind 30 September Movement is still unknown.

The first and most famous group to be blamed behind the massacre was the PKI.

PKI, however, claimed that it had nothing to do with them but was entirely an internal army affair.

Later in 1971, political analysts Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVley in their article widely known as
the Cornell Paper also believed the killing of six Indonesian generals was due to internal military issue.

Regardless of who mastermind the killing, there was one thing for sure, the public believed that the communists to be specific, PKI was behind it.

But what did “Genjer-genjer” have anything to do with the killings?

Genjer-genjer and the Lubang Buaya myth

Lubang Buaya is a suburb located in Cipayung district, East Jakarta. It is infamously known as the murder site of six generals.

There were plenty of myths and false reports surrounding the deaths of the six generals.

One of the most popular was that Gerwani members were using the “Genjer-genjer” song to train to kill the generals.

Gerwani or Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (Indonesian Women’s Movement) was a woman organisation affiliated with PKI.

It was started aiming to fight women issues such as gender equality and labour rights but shifted toward communism in 1960s.

This led some of the founding members such as prominent journalist S.K. Trimurti to leave Gerwani.

Soon enough, stories of how Gerwani women had been engaged in orgy with their victims and then torturing, mutilating and fondling the generals’ genitals before killing them circulated.

And they did this allegedly while singing the song “Genjer-genjer”.

Nevertheless, some believed the alleged killings by the Gerwani was a deliberate sensation orchestrated by the Indonesian army to depict communist women were immoral.

Furthermore, autopsy reports stated the generals had died due to a gunshot wounds with no signs of mutilation or torture.

The ban on the Indonesian folk song, genjer-genjer

Another rumour has it that a musical sheet for the song “Genjer-genjer” but with different lyrics from the original was found at the murder scene.

Regardless of whether this was the truth or not, “Genjer-genjer” became a taboo song.

After the Sept 30 Movement, the new Indonesian government banned the song.

The ban ended in 1998 with President Suharto’s resignation.

Muhammad Arief and TikTok

Perhaps the reason behind “Genjer-genjer” being closely associated with communism lies on Muhammad Arief, the original songwriter.

He was allegedly connected to Lekra (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), a cultural organisation affiliated with PKI.

After 30 September Movement tragedy, anti-communism sentiment was on the rise resulting in what we now know as the Indonesian Communist Purge.

From 1965 to 1966, thousands of people were captured and killed including PKI members, Gerwani women, communist sympathisers and alleged leftists.

One of them was “Genjer-genjer”’s songwriter, Muhammad Arief.

According to his son, he was taken by police military in 1965. The last the family heard was that Arief was imprisoned in Malang city.

Till today , nobody knows what actually happened to “Genjer-genjer”’s songwriter.

In 2021, the song made waves among younger generation but not because of any propaganda.

Thanks to TikTok, the Indonesian folk song became popular again as users played “Genjer-genjer” in front of their grandparents to see their reactions.

Most of the TikTok videos showed how the elders glared or scolded the TikTokers for playing the song.

If Arief was still alive, what would he think about his song today?