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Ambon: Of Spice and Song

Historically known as the Spice Islands, Maluku is now just as renowned for producing some of Indonesia’s biggest singing talents. Valentino Luis explores the musical legacy, natural beauty, and centuries-old sites in capital Ambon and surrounds.

Words by Valentino Luis

The atmosphere inside Sibu-Sibu Café is exactly as I expected: warm and vibrant. As soon as I get off the public minibus on Said Perintah Street, I go straight inside the red-washed room. There is little empty space left on the café walls, which are covered in posters of various sizes.

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The posters show photos of celebrities: singers, film stars, footballers, musicians, and other famous Ambonese people. Ruth Sahanaya, Glenn Fredly, Broery Marantika, and Andre Hehanusa are just a few of the top names who represent Ambon on the entertainment stage of Indonesia, while Daniel Sahuleka, Sharita Sopacua, Kim Sasabone (Vengaboys), and The Tielman Brothers represent Ambon on a global level. The close association with the entertainment world, especially music, is nothing new; the people here are so well known for their high sense of musicality that UNESCO named Ambon ‘city of music’ in October last year.

“It’s difficult for us to live without music. There is no such thing as a bad voice, or unpleasant music, if it can be harmonised,” says Alson Pisarahu, a local who accompanies me during my few days in Ambon. We sit listening to ethnic melodies while sipping Rarobang coffee, which combines a caffeinehit with lemongrass, ginger, and walnuts.

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An hour earlier, Alson and I had spent some time near the Maluku Governor’s Office, where some of the local youths were outside playing football, while others jogged or played volleyball in another field nearby. We took photos in front of the large red letters spelling out ‘Ambon Manise’ – ‘Sweet Ambon’. There is also a Monument to ThomasMatulessy, a local hero better known as Kapitan Pattimura, remembered for his rebellion against the Dutch in the early 19th century.

Across the road, Victoria Fort, a Portuguese relic from the 16th century, opens its gates to welcome visitors. “Its original name was Nossa Senhora Annucida, but it was changed to Victoria when the Dutch seized control in 1605. Two centuries later, the fort was a silent witness to the execution of Thomas Matulessy,” explains Alson. Victoria Fort is said to have been the embryo that grew into the city of Ambon.

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Next to the fort, another monument stands in the middle of the road. It is called the Peace Gong Monument. It was erected both as a reminder and a reflection of the importance of preserving peace in our lives.

Today, the situation in Ambon is peaceful and pleasant. Numerous activities are being promoted to encourage the creative spirit of young people, in particular through sport and the arts. This is a necessary step to erase the trauma caused by the riots of two decades ago and to develop a positive mindset in the younger generation.

I am travelling solo, and not for a single instant do I have any concerns for my security from the moment I first set foot in Pattimura International Airport. On the contrary, my first impression is one of positive excitement. The public minibus I take to the city plays a selection of typical romantic Ambonese tunes; I become familiar with the names of some of their popular singers such as Doddie Latuharhary and Mitha Talahatu. When I was younger, I knew only of Joice Pupella and Nanaku Group. I love how close the people here are to their music, and my pleasure increases further when I see the captivating ocean view at the beautiful inlet of Ambon Bay.

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Alson invites me to stay in his family home in the village of Nusaniwe. The houses are built on the hillside, and, at first glance, it reminds me of the Portuguese city of Lisbon. The housing concept here is simpler, but the sunrise views are unrivalled in their spectacle.

Wishing to see more of Mount Nona, after getting a glimpse from the village, we travel through dense, green forest until we arrive at a location that offers a panoramic city view. I can see clearly the distinctive Merah Putih Bridge, at more than 1km, the longest bridge in eastern Indonesia, connecting Ambon city centre with Poka.

Apart from the capital, Ambon’s beauty is perfected by the islands surrounding it. One of the most well known is Seram Island (‘Spooky Island’), which, despite its name, has an exquisite paradisiac beauty.

The largest island of Maluku province, the main attraction of Seram is Ora Beach. Its name is currently a trending online topic of conversation; I was instantly captivated when I first saw uploaded photos of the beach, and immediately added it to my list of must-see destinations. It is not easy to reach Ora, but I am determined to get there. From Ambon, I take a fastferry from Tulehu Harbour. It takes two hours to cross the sea, and then I go to the town of Masohi to find a car that will take me to Saleman village.

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From the flats of Masohi, the car takes me along the steep, winding roads characteristic of Seram Island. We are surrounded on both sides by thick, fertile forests, with vines clinging to most of the tall trees. Deep valleys and narrow ravines come into view one after the other. The scent of lush vegetation is everywhere. The panorama appears intermittently, alternating with the shadows of faraway hills. After arriving in Saleman, a small boat takes me to Ora Beach.

Late afternoon and early morning are the best times to sail on the calm, clear sea. A flock of birds takes off from the mist-clouded hillside as we depart. “Those are Lusiala birds,” says boat owner Udin. “They only emerge around dusk.” The white sands of Ora Beach come into view. The sight of swaying palm trees and rows of floating houses greets me as we draw closer.

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The expanse of coral stretching along the entire length of the beach is like a divine creation just completed. It feels as though I am looking into a huge aquarium – abundant coral and numerous fish species are clearly visible from the harbour. The backdrop is a row of limestone hills towering majestically into the sky, with karst cliffs in between, including Hatu Pia, Hatu Supun, and Hatu Gurita.

There are actually three islands that lie between Ambon and Seram – Haruku, Saparua, and Nusa Laut. All three are home to beaches and historic Dutch forts worth visiting. Haruku is home to the Nieuw Zeelandia Fort (1655) situated right on the seafront, while Saparua’s Duurstede (1676) was built on top of a high coral rock that visitors must climb if they want to see inside. Nusa Laut’s fort, Beverwijk, dates from 1654.

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The existence of these forts helps tell the story of the rich history of Ambon and Maluku in general. The Maluku Islands, also known as the Moluccas, have more colonial forts than all other parts of Indonesia, with a total of almost 40, a legacy of when the famous Spice Islands were a magnet for the rest of the world from the Middle Ages onwards. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and England were engaged in disputes for centuries as they fought to take control of the region.

“Nowadays, people don’t come here to look for spices but to discover the stories and bring to life the nostalgia of the past. Whatever the reason, we welcome them in the same way: with the sound of music and singing,” says Alson on the evening before I leave his city.

Jakarta to Ambon


Flight Time 3 hour 10 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours February 2020

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5 Senses – Touch
Ambon Bay Festival

This annual event, organised by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism, showcases performances of cultural music and dance over several days. Usually taking place around August, marine wealth is the main theme.