Spirit of Mambesak

When more than one of your songwriters dies mysteriously of food poisoning, you begin to suspect the hand of the Borgias, or some latter-day equivalent, has been hovering over the saucepan. In the case of West Papua’s Black Paradise, any possible hand would belong to Indonesia, which, ever since the Dutch gave up the former colony in 1963, has taken a malignantly active interest in the country. Spirit of Mambesak tries, in its own way, to tell this to the rest of the world.

It does so simply and effectively. A blend of traditional and contemporary song, often with a discernible gospel influence, the album benefits from its no-frills production. Guitars and percussion – with a hint of a mournful mariachi feel in some songs – are to the fore while a 12-strong choir tackles the words. That the 12 tracks are sung in only a handful of West Papua’s 300 languages illustrates the diversity of the area and the sleeve notes, which also give an excellent resumé of the region’s recent history, provide the gist of their meaning. Black Paradise are, in the main, members of ELSHAM, a human rights organization that has recently been outlawed by the Indonesian authorities. Black Paradise may not be a career group, but they’re great at putting their message across. It’s up to others to make sure it’s disseminated.

New Internationalist issue 373 magazine cover This article is from the November 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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