Bengawan Solo: How an Indonesian folk song became the post-WWII Asian Zeitgeist

In The Mood for Love (2000) Directed by Wong Kar-Wai

My first viewing of Wong Kar-Wai’s deeply melancholic In The Mood for Love (2000) was also the first time I’ve heard of Bengawan Solo in a foreign film or any foreign media for that matter. It was odd and surprising. I was completely ignorant of the influence this local Indonesian folk song had overseas before I undertook this piece. The Bengawan Solo that played in In The Mood for Love was not the original version by Gesang and it was not even sung in Indonesian. The version Wong Kar-Wai used was sung by Hong Kong singer Rebecca Pan in English and the lyrics certainly reflect the story of infatuation and yearning that In The Mood for Love’s narrative of compelled infidelity exudes. Although it was also quite curious that this song about a river in Solo, East Java that has its roots in subtle colonial struggle developed into a love song overseas. Bengawan Solo the location became the ‘river of love’ as many foreign translations transcribed it. But a love theme was not the only meaning interpolated by foreign listeners as it also became a theme of ‘what-could-have-been-ours’ to the colonizers who brought the song home after the war.

Stray Dog (1949) Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura

The second time I would listen to Bengawan Solo in a foreign film came with my marathon of films by the legendary Akira Kurosawa a few years ago. Stray Dog (1949) was Kurosawa’s brilliant take on the detective noir genre and it was probably one of the first films ever to use Bengawan Solo as part of their soundtrack. The implication of the usage of Bengawan Solo in these post-World War II Japanese films was significant. It was not as simple as a foreign song becoming popular through the imports of overseas music but rather something they had brought home themselves. To understand this significance, we must examine the history that unfolded with the creation of the song.

Bengawan Solo’s Conception

Gesang Martohartono (1917-2010), the composer of Bengawan Solo

Bengawan Solo was written and first performed by Gesang Martohartono in 1940, just before the Japanese invasion that lasted 3 years from 1942 to 1945. The song was significant in that it was one of the first influential songs characterized by its usage of the Indonesian language, or Bahasa Indonesia, in a time when the new language and the subsequent colonial independence from the Dutch left Indonesia in desperate need for uniting nationalistic symbols. While the lyrics were specific to the river of solo, the song brought imagery of an imagined, all-encompassing homeland, or tanah air, which translates to ‘soil and water’. Bengawan Solo’s tune certainly echoes those of a flowing river with the melody conjuring a nostalgic breeze to one’s soul and this stays true no matter which version of the song you listen to. 

And the song’s effect as this nationalistic symbol did not just come out of the blue. Japan’s propaganda slogan ‘Asia for Asians’ and the successive ‘Asian art for Asians’ were cultural policies designed to spread the influence of Japan in Greater Asia with its strict censorship of approved literature that fits their narrative. Nonetheless, albeit still being viciously oppressed by this new colonizer after the Dutch, Indonesia’s inhabitants at the time were finally given the space to reflect on their collective identity. Delivering the message of the splendor of local landscapes, Bengawan Solo fits the ‘Asian art for Asians’ slogan. Perhaps what’s ironic was that by suddenly empowering the local inhabitants to conjure up a collective memory of the space they inhabit it incited the yearning for revolutionary independence rather than integrating with the colonizers’ fancied Asian empire.

Bengawan Solo’s original style was also symbolic of this search for national symbols post-WWII. The kroncong style of music the song was originally performed in was a fusion between Portuguese-Indonesian interaction in the early seventeenth century while also drawing elements from Arabic and Chinese culture. It is for this reason that cultural leaders of Indonesia at the time had the consensus that the kroncong genre embodied the essence of Indonesia’s “unity in diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) motto. In this encapsulation of the plurality of Indonesian culture, there exists a universal sense of nostalgia for an imagined heyday in kroncong music that I believe affects not only the region it was created in alone but also the greater Asia region as the mingling of the cultures mentioned also occurred in other Asian nations. 

The song’s spread throughout other Asian countries itself was not solely from foreign nationals bringing the song back to their respective home. President Soekarno at the time felt the need to stress the national importance of the song and mandated radio stations such as Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI), to spread the song from village to village and city to city. He also instructed Indonesian ambassadors in overseas postings to promote the song throughout the 1950s, which may explain some of its reaches in other Asian countries. 

The Japanization of Bengawan Solo

But it is certainly true that former colonizers of Indonesia such as Japan were major contributors in the song’s far reach. The song’s text and music transcript were brought over in 1944 to Japan by Ichiroo Fujiyama, which was later recorded as a song by Toshi Matsuda in 1947. The song quickly became popular for the Japanese war veterans that just returned from the war, reminiscing their time in their colonized regions. It is certainly interesting that Bengawan Solo’s original message of Indonesian nostalgia for its bountiful land was quickly replaced by militaristic and imperial sentimentality. The Japanese brought over the tune but not the original theme it carried, at least not fully as it sweeps the brutalities of war under the rug in favor of visualization of ‘what-could-have-been-ours’, painting the tropical bliss of Java as the trophy they lost. These concepts are illustrated concisely by the Japanese music video of Bengawan Solo as well as the song’s inclusion in Ozu’s 1962 film An Autumn Afternoon.

The Japanese music video of Bengawan Solo (ブンガワン・ソロ)

This particular karaoke music video of Bengawan Solo is an edit of Ichikawa Kon’s River Solo Flows (1951) but I have not been able to obtain a copy of the film at the point of writing this. The video depicts, as some people have pointed out, a Pocahontas-esque relationship between an Indonesian girl and a Japanese man. And while the song is clearly about the Solo river in Eastern Java, the video chooses to rather show what seems to be Balinese culture and traditions. The Japanese Bengawan Solo (ブンガワン・ソロ), aside from the Balinization of Bali which saw a reformation and morphing of the Balinese identity to suit the foreign tourist’s exotic gaze of the region (which may explain its usage in the video rather than using the more accurate Javanese culture), there is some level of exoticization of Indonesia that hides a veil of colonizer’s mentality of Imperial Japan at the time. After all, Japanese wartime propaganda in their Southeast Asian colonies at the time often depicts their promise of freedom from western imperial powers while also highlighting the advantages of being under their leadership. In a sense, it’s the Japanese version of the Whiteman’s Burden that sought to elevate what they perceived as the uncivilized tribal nations under the civilized, industrialized Japan in their vision of a unified Asia.

An Autumn Afternoon (1962) Directed by Yasujirō Ozu

I would also like to highlight a particular scene from Ozu’s wonderful 1962 film An Autumn Afternoon. In the scene that unfolded right after an instrumental version of Bengawan Solo played, which is somewhat of an interesting coincidence if not a deliberate inclusion by Ozu in regards to the subsequent conversation that unfolded between a former Captain in the Japanese army and his former petty officer.

Sakamoto: But Captain, if Japan had won the war, how would things be?

Hirayama: I wonder…

Sakamoto: …If we’d won, we’d both be in New York now. And not just a Pachinko parlor called New York. The real thing!

Hirayama: Think so?

Sakamoto: Absolutely. Because we lost, our kids dance around and shake their rumps to American records. But if we had won, the blue-eyed ones would have chignon hairdos and chew gums while plunking tunes on the Shamisen.

Hirayama: But I think it’s good we lost.

Sakamoto: You think? Yeah…maybe you’re right. The dumb militarists can’t bully us anymore.

The scene took place in a bar and depicts a reunion between two veterans, the alcohol they’re drinking strengthening their nostalgia for Japan’s bygone days in the war. I do believe Ozu served the scene as a rejection of those wartime nostalgias and of the lost yearning for ruling over their colonies—shown with Sakamoto’s (Daisuke Katō) daydream of where they’d personally be if Japan had won the war. Hirayama’s (Chishū Ryū)’s final reply was ambiguous, ‘good’ in this sense could be interpreted as either Japanese citizens being freed of wartime sufferings or that the colonies would not have to suffer under Japanese rule anymore. But I think Bengawan Solo’s inclusion before the scene shows that the latter option is a possibility, albeit very subtle.

Bengawan Solo as a Pan-East/Southeast Asian Song

Outside of Japan, Bengawan Solo’s influence could be felt everywhere in Asia after World War II. It was to the point that the song became a pseudo-identity marker of the Asian essence, especially to nations that suffered under the same colonized fate as Indonesia. But at the same time, we also saw that foreign transcriptions of the song often retold the story of the East Javanese river to that of a love story between a couple, presumably to still make it relatable to other nations in the localization process.

For instance, the Hong Kong version of the song (sung in English) by Rebecca Pan that played in Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love (2000) re-imagined the depiction of the river as a place where lovers meet and mingle. But not all of its message was lost even with the alteration of it into a love theme. After all, that deep feeling of nostalgia for the olden days could still be felt in this version. Hong Kong of the 1960s, the decade that this version was released in was also a time of rapid change from its previous simpler state into an industrialized metropolitan and the traditional, folk-like tune of Bengawan Solo was the perfect song to reminisce the time that came before.

The English version of Bengawan Solo by Hong Kong singer Rebecca Pan

Other versions of Bengawan Solo include Cantonese, Burmese, Tagalog, Thai, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. However, all of these countries and languages of the song have completely localized and interpolated the song into their respective national identity, somewhat forgetting its Indonesian origin. After all, this was almost the case with the Japanese version before Indonesian lawyers brought them to court in 1990, thus also establishing Indonesia’s intellectual property laws at the time. But while I do think proper recognition of Gesang and its Javanese origin of Bengawan Solo is fairly important, the smooth adoption of Bengawan Solo to these diverse cultures and languages speak volumes about the song’s brilliance and it’s what makes the song one of the few pieces of art that should be deservingly called the Pan-Asian zeitgeist post-WWII. The song embodied not only Southeast Asia’s struggle with independence and self-determination, but also a simple, rustic harmony that could be easily adopted by any culture and still speak true of their respective human condition.

References

Kartomi, M. (1998). The Pan-East/Southeast Asian and National Indonesian Song Bengawan Solo and Its Javanese Composer. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 30, 85. doi:10.2307/768555 

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