Past And Present Meet In Filastine's Political Puppetry : All Songs Considered Traditional and modern sounds and images mix in the new video for the electronic artist's "Gendjer2," a reinterpretation of a folk song banned in Indonesia.
NPR logo Past And Present Meet In Filastine's Political Puppetry

Past And Present Meet In Filastine's Political Puppetry

Grey Filastine makes music that is powerfully political and distinctly global. The artist and activist, who works under the name Filastine, splices together modern dubstep and electronic rhythms with sounds from around the globe in order to discuss issues large and small.

Filastine's new song, "Gendjer2," is part of a two-video project for which he traveled to the island of Java. "Gendjer2" is Filastine's adaptation of a controversial song "Genjer Genjer." Written by Muhammed Ari in 1943, the song's lyrics were about the poverty in Ari's home region of Banyuwangi. While the song's subject was just about a poor woman picking genjer (a flat-tasting river plant) to sell at the market, it quickly became used as a rallying song for the Indonesian Communist Party to decry Indonesia's economic inequality. After the New Order military coup of General Suharto took power in 1965, Ari, was killed and the song banned. Anyone who was caught singing "Genjer Genjer" was seen as an enemy of the state, and today it's still taboo in many parts of Indonesia.

Filastine collaborated with the singer Nova Ruth on "Gendjer2" and with the director Astu Prasidya on the video for the song. For both of these artists, personal experience intertwines with the song's political history.

Ruth told us that performing on the song brought up complicated feelings about her grandparents' and parents' part in the 1965 conflict:

"Gendjer2" brings the memory of my grandma. How she was proud of my grandpa who was in the army in '65 and leading his troops to kill whoever Suharto called a communist. My mom was 6 years old at that time, but she remember it very clear when my grandma was holding an AK-47 to protect her family every night and her biggest sister who was 11 years old that time, already held 60's Vickers pistol, because the communist army actually tried to kill our family while grandpa was away. So it's kind of hard for me to be in between. If my family got killed that time, I wouldn't exist and singing this song again. However the history will hurt the people, I don't think it needs to be hidden. However the history will hurt me, "Gendjer2" is simply beautiful and I will keep on singing it. Whenever I want.

Filmed inside an ancient Javanese house, the video for "Gendjer2" blends the traditional and the modern. Just as Filastine's song mixes vocals and instruments that could have come from '60s, the video takes the traditional art of wayang — a type of puppet theater that usually tells adaptations of folk stories — and mixes it with a look at the struggles found in Java today. The characters portrayed aren't the heroes or demons found in wayang — rather they are soldiers and businessmen twisted to show the dangers of economic and political control.

We asked Filastine about working with local Javanese art collectives to make the video:

The mid-60s aesthetic is to match the historical moment when this popular tune was first prohibited. The story has many parallels to what happened in Spain with General Franco. Only in the last few years has Spain begun to really confront this past, but in Indonesia the clock is 25 years later, so this song is still quite taboo, and definitely stir up some issues. Especially with a video like this, what you see is a traditional wayang performance, but with some anti-capitalist themes and an atypical orchestra. It's only halfway fantastical, the arts collective Taring Padi really does give wayang performances with this kind of political content, and it was easy to gather 20 ski masks because the audience already owned them ... and definitely not for winter sports. We filmed inside a building that was old as time and full of dust-covered relics, located in an arts compound called Joglo Jago, operated by some of [singer Nova Ruth's] family friends. Those family friends seem to include every poet, painter, and musician of conscience in that country. They occupy a rare third space in this country of two extremes, squeezed between the mega-malls and mega-slums.

In an email, director Astu Prasidya wrote about the message he was trying tell through the video for "Gendjer2":

I knew "Genjer Genjer" since I was a child, especially in the "New Order" era when they broadcasted an anti-Communist propaganda film on TV every single year, and the film used this song as and anthem of the communists, this is why "Genjer Genjer" becomes very taboo in Indonesia. Here we repopularize the song, take it back to its earlier function as a banished Javanese folk song, not only about politics. Furthermore, it can be a tool to spread good messages, so I was so excited when Grey Filastine asked me to work on it. For the video we look for a kind of sacred space, using dark ambiance and minimum tungsten lights, and a wooden old Javanese house, where the singers and musicians accompany the shadow puppet master. With so many close up and detail shots, I want the audience feel really close or even feel a bit intimidated with the puppet master, the singer, the musicians, the music itself and also the messages they are delivering.

Filastine's new album, Loot, will be out April 3rd on Muti Music.