I discovered Benjamin S from receiving his album Kompor Meluduk for Christmas from my partner a couple of years ago. Upon hearing it, our minds were blown from the juxtaposition of soulful, funky eccentricity with psychedelic fuzz rock, plus some swinging duets with a woman vocalist, Ida Royani. Since there was zero information on the sleeve, I was inspired to ask, “Who in the world is Benjamin S?”
Benjamin Sueb, a.k.a. Benyamin S, Bang Ben, or Babe (March 5, 1939-Sept 5, 1995) was a prolific Indonesian comedian, singer/rapper, radio producer, director and actor who produced 61 films and 312 songs, which included 165 singles and 147 duets. He also produced 5 comedy albums, 2 soundtracks, and 10 compilations. Sueb was of Betawi descent. The Betawi are Islamic native peoples from Indonesia who are from mixed race marriages and blood lineages, including Chinese, Arab, Portuguese and Dutch colonies, from various tribes in Jakarta. Sueb was the youngest of eight siblings, born to parents Siti Aisyah and Sueb in the Utan Panjang Kemayoran village. Unfortunately due to poverty, the Sueb-Aisyah siblings lost their father when Benjamin was two years old, and he took it upon himself to be an entrepreneur at the age of three, busking in his village to pay school fees and buy/barter food to help feed his family. Entertaining may have come naturally to Sueb, being influenced by grandfathers Saiti, who played clarinet, and Haji, an Ung Dulmuluk player who performed at Indonesian folk theaters in Dutch colonial times (Wiki).
Sueb was a charismatic, curious and inspired child who had many friends. His small appearance enabled him to attract audiences from an early age. He formed a “canned” orchestra with his brothers in third grade, where they would bang on cans using stems from kebabs and biscuit tins. Once in high school, he joined a school band named the Melody Boys. The Melody Boys played song styles which included dangdut (traditional pop derived from Arabic, Hindustani and Malay) and gambang kromong, a Betawi gamelan music played on a ukulele-type instrument, and also a type of off beat/pentatonic scale music played by orchestras in Indonesia, with two ukuleles, guitar, cello and bass. He also played Western music incorporating cha-cha, jazz, rock and blues imported by Indonesian musicians such as Bill Saraghi, Jack Lesmana (guitar player), and Rachmat Kartolo (singer/actor). Sueb performed with Saraghi and Lesmana at the Hotel des Indes, singing Western hits such as “Blue Moon,” “Unchained Melody,” and “When I Fall in Love.” In the 1960s, the Indonesian government issued a ban on Western propaganda and routinely interrogated artists who played Western songs and failed to conform to societal standards. To navigate the sociopolitical ban on Western influences in Indonesia, Sueb maintained he was contributing to keeping Betawi culture alive through his own compositions. Sueb’s songs often mirrored James Brown’s soul sound or John Mayall Bluesbreakers’ blues, with synthesized rock, funk, gambang kromong and dangdut sounds.
In 1968, Sueb composed the songs “Nonton Bioskop” (Watching a Movie at the Theater), “Hujan Gerimis” (Drizzle), “Endeng-Edndegan” and “Ada-Ada Saja” (It Is What It Is) for Indonesian singer/actor Bling Samet. All became big Indonesian hits. From 1968-1971, Sueb recorded and released no less than 50 albums, including the bestsellers Si Jampang (1969) and Ondel Ondel (1971). He also starred in 54 films, until 1976. He was honored by the Indonesian Film Festival, winning the Citra trophies for Best Main Actor in, Intan Berduri (1973) and Modern Doel Anak (1976). In 1977, he wrote a song for the Indonesian government named “Pungli,” which translates to “Extortion” in English, perhaps to help inspire positive citizenry and promote social order in Indonesia, which was suffering from corruption.
Sueb’s intersectionality growing up in poverty may have contributed to his prolific career. He often created his works from the standpoint of marginalized populations, his stories connecting and resonating with his fellow peoples due to “commoner” contexts. Sueb was propelled to superstar status in Indonesia by starring in films that focused on local archetypes: tukang (or “handymen”) in Tukang Solder and Tukang Becak; waria (or “transgender persons”); lovesick partners; bohemians; artisans; and eccentric horror movie characters. He formed a film company, Jiung Film, and produced works such as Musuh Bebuyutan (Arch-Nemesis; 1974), Benyamin Koboi Ngungsi (Benjamin the Refugee Cowboy; 1975) and Hippies Lokal (Local Hippies; 1976). He also starred in 11 films with his name in the title, like Benyamin Biang Kerok (1972), Benyamin Brengsek (Benyamin the Asshole; 1973) and Benyamin Jatuh Cinta (Benyamin Falls in Love; 1976) and others (Revolvy).
In the 1980’s, Sueb starred in Betty Bencong Slebor (Betty the Frightful Transvestite), an important film that openly presents waria (transgender) and homosexual behavior in Indonesia. Unlike neighboring countries Singapore and Malaysia, which were influenced by British colonial rule, Indonesia did not criminalize homosexuality. Sueb’s character Betty challenged the moral ideals propagated by Suharto’s “New Order” beginning in 1966, to control the social order by limiting Westernism in Indonesia and promoting Muslim ideals based on gender ideology. Suharto’s rule, a.k.a. ibu-ism, promoted men as being “productive” beings and women as “reproductive” beings. Suharto promoted concepts of gender conformity. In order to be a “whole” person, Indonesians must conform to gender roles according to heteronormative family principles. Men are the head of the household, with woman as wife and raiser of children, all aligned in harmony with Islam. The government pushed heteronormative conformity through public campaigns that reinforced the expectations for women to reproduce and be obedient mothers/wives because this was their God given “destiny” (kodrat). Morally, homosexuality was seen as contradictory to God’s nature for Muslims in Indonesia, even though Indonesian indigenous language and culture acknowledged transgendered and homosexual behavior and allowed it to play a part in religious rituals (Munir, 2014).
Betty Bencong Slebor stars Sueb playing a waria servant who serves the wealthy Bokir family, owners of a recording studio. In modern Indonesia, a waria is an indirect term derived from abbreviating wanita (woman) and pria (man), or “men with women souls.” LGBTQI+ Western binaries do not translate to Indonesian traditional societies, where ethnolocalized identities parallels links between professions with homosexual and trangendered behavior, e.g. gemblak-warok partnerships participating in the reog drama rituals in East Java, and male-to-female priests, or bissu, conducting religious rituals and rites in South Sulawesi neighborhoods. Betty is a jobless young man who becomes waria for employment much like ethnolocalized reog drama rituals of bissu, rather than becoming waria to conform to sexual/gender identity. Betty Bencong Slebor also challenges how social concepts in stereotyped gender binaries shape feminine and masculine traits that are attached to sexual identity. Betty dresses with make-up and wears her hair in a bun to appear attractive or “feminine.” She is a subservient maid who takes care of the family she serves. Betty also exudes toxic masculine traits by mocking a weak male pedicab driver because he cannot transport her up a hill in his pedicab. She sees him as weak and takes her aggression out on him by ridiculing him and throwing him into a field. Afterwards she squats in the field to pee, imitating women’s urinating behavior. Betty Bencong Slebor intelligently contrasts the fluidity of maleness and femaleness coexisting, although the concepts are not always fixed and mutually exclusive (Munir, 2014). Unfortunately Sueb closed his film company after he made Betty Bencong Slebor due to financial difficulties.
Before Sueb’s untimely death, he founded his radio station Ben’s Radio, on March 5, 1990. Ben’s Radio’s purpose is to spread awareness for Betawi culture by transmitting Betawi culture through dialogue and musical programming. The radio station, located at 106.2 MHz FM in Jakarta and streaming online, is currently operated by Sueb’s children. The Sun City Girls wrote a song called “Ben’s Radio,” released on their album Funeral Mariachi on Abduction in 2010.
The song opens with samples in Betawi taken from Ben’s Radio transmissions. Sun City Girls’ fans know members Charles Gocher and Richard and Alan Bishop often synthesized ethnic musics from South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America with jazz, rock, prog and experimental music. It makes me happy to think Sueb’s music has influenced legendary cult bands like Sun City Girls.
On Sept 5, 1995, Benjamin Sueb passed away from a heart attack after playing soccer. He was 56 years old. He is survived by his nine children and his wife, all of whom continue his legacy in keeping the rich Betawi culture alive. Indonesia continues to celebrate Sueb through Ben’s Radio as well as an autobiographical musical, Babe, performed by the Jakartan theater troupe Teater Abnon, in 2017. There is also continuing speculation among Sueb’s children and the Indonesian government about converting their father’s residence into a museum commemorating Betawi culture and Sueb’s unique life, a life cut short too soon.
Munir, Maimunah (2014), Challenging New Order’s Gender Ideology in Benyamin Sueb’s
Betty Becong Slebor: A Queer Reading http://www.plarideljournal.org/article/challenging-new-orders-gender-ideology-in-benyamin-suebs-betty-bencong-slebor-a-queer-reading/
Wikipdedia Benyamin Sueb
Written by Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour) & Jim Bunnelle (Center for Cassette Studies).