A Song from Afar

I do not know how exactly it was that I first stumbled upon the songs of the 60s/70s Indonesian band Dara Puspita. Due to their prominence in Indonesian pop music history, it is hard not to come across them at one point or other when taking a tour of Indopop. There were other all-female bands around the time, but without a doubt, Dara Puspita were the most successful of them all, and their recognition in the western world, as limited as it may be, sets them apart from most other musical groups, which were known only within the archipelago.

Hailing from the East Javanese megacity of Surabaya, the group was formed in 1964 by the sisters Titiek and Lies Adji Rachman, Ani Kusuma and Susy Nander. (The vowel ie is pronounced [i] as in 'free' and stems from Dutch orthography—likewise oe stands for [u] as in 'boot' in an Indonesian orthography which has since become obsolete.) Titiek and Lies are two of ten children of Adjie Rachman, a former keroncong musician. Keroncong is a musical style defined by the homonymous ukulele-like plucked string instrument and can be traced back to the influx of Portuguese sailors in the 16th century, who brought with them the braguinha and the songs to the accompaniment of which the instrument was played. The style was then appropriated and meshed with Indonesian idioms and has since become a staple of the nation's popular music.

It was only after Titiek Hamzah joined the band in 1965 to replace Lies, who needed a hiatus to focus on completing her education, that Dara Puspita really took off. Hamzah remained in the band when Lies returned, and Lies replaced Ani Kusuma as the rhythm guitarist. It was in that line-up that the group first appeared on stage in Bandung (capital of West Java province) with the already established all-female group Yanti Bersaudara and singer/actress Ernie Djohan. Their first show in Bandung marks the beginning of their success, which would popularize them in all of Indonesia and also across the borders—for instance with their very well received 1967 show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The group set themselves apart with a style of stage performance that is unusual for the Indonesia of the 60s. The highly expressive body language, accompanied by vocal shrieks and an instrumental drone in which the lyrics at times become submerged to the point where words are hard to recognize, are much more akin to the performances of western bands than to those of Dara Puspita's Indonesian peers. The performance thus becomes a legitimation of sorts of the band's name, which translates to 'flower girls' and clearly is a homage to the hippie culture then blossoming in Europe and the US. The adoption of western culture though was frowned upon by the Sukarno government—Indonesia's first government after the state came into existence by way of a declaration of independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945—, and anyone who was regarded as a multiplier of western culture had to fear repression from the state. Koes Bersaudara (later Koes Plus), whose long-lasting success secured them a prominent spot in Indonesian pop music history, were jailed in 1965 for performing covers of Beatles songs. Dara Puspita had to be careful not to suffer the same fate, which was one of the reasons why the band agreed to a three month residency in a club in Bangkok.

Back in Indonesia, and after the collapse of the Sukarno government in 1965, Dara Puspita released their first album in 1966. Jang Pertama (meaning 'the first') would later be ranked 20th of Indonesia's 150 best albums by Rolling Stone Indonesia. In 1968 the band set out on a three year long tour that would take them first to Iran and Turkey and then to Hungary, England, France, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. While the singles that were produced during their stay in Europe (Welcome To My House/I Believe in Love and Ba Da Da Dum/Dream Stealer) enjoyed only limited success, Dara Puspita were nevertheless acclaimed as a supergroup when they returned to Indonesia in December 1971. Their show at the Istana Olahraga Senayan—an indoor sporting arena located in today's Gelora Bung Karno Sports Complex in Jakarta—, only fifteen days after the band's return to their home country, attracted some 23 000 visitors. After a tour of Indonesia in early 1972, they were said to have disbanded. Unlike other acts, who drift into insignificance after exceeding their half-life period, Dara Puspita managed to leave the stage while their popularity was still vibrant, thereby bringing their career to a dignified end.

Of the songs I have listened to, I found Mengapa ('Why') to be the one that I liked most. Be it for the pull effected by the subdominantal close harmony, or for the alliterative pulsation of the lines starting in 'Dulu daku tak', Mengapa holds a special place for me among the Indonesian songs I have had the opportunity of hearing. Therefore I have decided to pay homage to the song by publishing my translation of its lyrics, without claiming either accuracy or elegance. So here goes, with thanks to my father for transcribing the lyrics from hearing.


(Titiek Puspa)

Mengapa daku kini mengapa, gelisah selalu Why, now, why am I always restless Mengapa daku kini mengapa, berdebar selalu Why, now, why is my heart always pounding fast Dulu daku tak takut padamu It used to be that I was not shy around you Dulu daku tak gentar padamu It used to be that you did not make me tremble Kini daku tidaklah kuasa Now I cannot think straight Selalu terbayang akan senyummu Always imagining your smile Suaramu cakapmu Your voice, your words Semua menawan hati They have taken my heart away
Mengapa daku kini mengapa, memuja dirimu Why, now, why do I adore you Mengapa daku kini mengapa, jawablah mengapa Why, now, tell me why Dulu daku tak acuh padamu It used to be that I was indifferent towards you Dulu daku tak tertarik padamu It used to be that I did not care for you Kini daku tidaklah kuasa Now I cannot think straight ...