A painful history retold through jazz music

David Becker
David Becker has performed jazz around the world for more than 20 years. An American now based in Europe, his latest album retells the story of his family's adventures in Indonesia during the Japanese invasion during World War II.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Growing up, jazz guitarist David Becker heard stories of how the Japanese captured his Dutch grandparents during the invasion of Indonesia in World War II.

On his new album "Batavia," Becker retells his family's adventures through music.

Instrumental jazz might seem an unusual medium for a family war story, but for Becker, it just happened.

"Suddenly music was coming out of me in a very strange way," he said during a recent recording visit to the Twin Cities. "Things that I necessarily wouldn't write, but I knew they were related to these stories."

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One of the first tunes to emerge was called "Li," after Becker's grandmother.

She married young, and in 1921 set off from northern Europe with her husband to seek their fortune in Indonesia. They lived in the Dutch settlement called Batavia, later to be renamed Jakarta. The marriage ended in divorce, and Li was on her own.

"There are improvisational moments on the record," Becker said. "But life is improvised, and I think in this story here my grandmother had to improvise a lot, so the improvisation they did is reflected by the improvisation we did."

Li later married the Indonesian Minister of Agriculture. In 1942, she was alone with her young children -- Becker's mother Tine, and her brother Dolf -- when the Japanese invaded.

When locals ransacked their home, his grandmother mustered her courage and went to see the local Japanese commander.

"We can do something for them. We can give the remaining people who are still alive, like my mother, their dignity back and say your suffering was not in vain."

"She said, 'I'm German,' because she was German by birth -- didn't show her passport. 'I have a house here, it was looted, and I want my belongings back,'" she told the officer. "And the officer said, 'Well madame, you can go back to your house.' And she said, 'I'm not going alone!' So he said, 'I'll accompany you.'"

As Li and the officer walked to her house, they saw many people hanged in the trees. Her family got their belongings back, including a trunk filled with family photographs. Li gave it to a Chinese woman for safekeeping. She knew things were likely to get bad.

"One day the Japanese showed up and said, 'Pack your little suitcase. We're leaving to go to a camp,'" Becker said.

The Japanese split the family, sending Li and Tine to a women's camp, and 10-year-old Dolf to a men's prison. One day, frantic with worry, Dolf slipped out of the gate and set off through the jungle to find his father, who was being held in another camp.

"He walked for hours and hours and hours in the hot sun, and he ended up at another men's camp somewhere on the island near Batavia," Becker said.

Some Dutch men took Dolf back to the barracks where, exhausted, he fell asleep.

"Suddenly somebody pulled his big toe, and he looked up, and it was his father," Becker said. "That was one of the first pieces we recorded -- 'In Search of his Father.'"

The meeting was bittersweet, because his father had to leave immediately, and they didn't see each other again until after the war.

Becker said it was a challenge to wrestle with the emotions of the story and translate them into music.

"It's a very difficult thing to do. I just let these stories come out through these musical notes," said Becker. "I just sat down with my guitar one day and suddenly this cadence came out. And in my mind I was seeing Dolf, at age 10, walking through the jungle."

Despite horrible suffering, they all survived. Li retrieved her photographs, and many are featured on Becker's CD along with liner notes explaining the tunes.

After the war the family returned to Holland. People seemed to have little interest in what had happened to them. So Li and her family moved again, coming to America.

"She was taken from us at age 55 from cancer," Becker said. "She died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She's buried in Rochester."

Becker says he'd like a memorial built to commemorate the suffering of people in Indonesia during the war. He's going to use a website linked to the CD to raise awareness.

"We can do something for them. We can give the remaining people who are still alive, like my mother, their dignity back and say, 'Your suffering was not in vain.'"

Becker, who is once again touring with his band the David Becker Tribune, hopes to return to Minnesota in the new year to play tunes from Batavia and retell some of the stories.