There is an urban myth in Yogyakarta that if you hear the sounds of a Javanese marching band at 3am, you are destined to stay in Jogja until your death. It seems that this particular ghostly troupe has been busy. Yogyakarta (more commonly known as Jogja) in Central Java is in some ways the Melbourne of Indonesia; it has sucked creative people from all over Indonesia to it. Within fifteen minutes walking distance from my house there is at least 4 universities, and young people come from all over Indonesia to study here. As well as study, Jogja is also known as a centre for the arts, both traditional and modern, and especially as place in which Javanese culture remains strong amidst many other competing cultural influences: Western, Islamic, and Mainstream Indonesian culture. In recent years two Jogja bands, Senyawa and Punkasila have toured Australia with success. Punkasila, playing their own abrasive political punk, and as part of The Lepidopters, a collaborative theatre show with Australian experimental artists. Senyawa, with their caustic deconstructed metal-Javanese fusion have toured Australia several times, including once as the support for Regurgitator. Both these bands have come into being in Jogja, supported by its rich musical climate. After touring to Jogja in a band last year, and living in Jogja since September of this year I have witnessed a huge diversity in music and many bands playing interesting and innovative new sounds. This article is an attempt to capture some of that diversity and style that makes Jogja such a magnet for creative people throughout Indonesia.
Experimental History and Diversification of Styles
Indra Menus has been playing music, organising shows, releasing music, helping touring bands, and being a general all-round legend of the music scene in Jogja for the last decade. According to him, in the last ten years the amount of experimentation within the music scene in Jogja has increased exponentially. Compared with ten years ago, bands nowadays are far less hesitant to explore new sounds and ideas in their music. This is in no small part due to some seminal bands who broke new ground and inspired other Jogja musicians to try new things too. Many musicians in Jogja have a lot of respect for Seek Six Sick, an experimental noise-krautrock crossover band who have been playing for around twenty years, and are often credited with pioneering experimental music in Jogja. Their popularity can be seen a barometer of how experimental music has come to be embraced in Jogja. In the early 1990’s, when Seek Six Sick first began, crowds were unreceptive and even hostile to their music, and it was difficult to find any venues that would host them. Jimmy Mahardhika, one of Seek Six Sick’s guitarists recounted a story to me of a show in the early 90’s when people threw rubbish and heckled them, but at the end of their set applauded and cheered. He still doesn’t know whether they were just clapping out of relief that their set was over. Regardless, nowadays they have a multitude of loyal fans and the space that they have opened up has been filled by a great diversity of new experimental bands. From balaclava-wearing electro-clash duo Chika dan Pistol Air, dystopian circuit-bending electronic collective BBDKK, black metal karaoke duo Cangkang Serigala, lo-fi post-rock/indo-folk Rabu, and distortion-drenched mongrel noise-rock outfit Belajar Membunuh.
Zoo, Senyawa and “Indonesian-ness” in Jogja Music
Several Jogja musicians that I interviewed testified to the existence of a particular Jogja sound, a sound with a stronger Indonesian, and particularly Javanese character, compared with music from other Indonesian cities. When asked for examples of this sound, the first things that everyone cited were projects involving Rully Shabara. Best known as the singer of Senyawa and Zoo. Many Australian experimental music fans have already seen Senyawa play, having toured several times and with an album out on Lucas Abela’s Dual Plover label in Sydney. Following a European tour this year they also have a forthcoming release via the Lebanese label Morphine records and a remix from recently rediscovered US modular synth exponent Charles Cohen. They will also return to Australia in January to play the MOFO festival in Tasmania as well as a few dates in other large cities.
Rully’s older band Zoo has been playing since 2004, though have only released two albums. Sitting with Rully in his home-office-studio and hearing him explain the concepts and philosophy behind these albums makes the slow pace of their output understandable. The first album, Trilogi Peradaban comes in a wooden boxset containing three CD’s titled Neolithikum, Mesolithikum and Paleolithikum respectively. This chronologically reversed progression of geological epochs as CD titles is intended as an exploration of the early stages in the emergence of a civilization. The second album, Prasasti attempts to explore what Rully considers the next important development in the emergence of civilization: language. To make this album, he translated each of the ten songs into a different local Indonesian language (Indonesia has over 200 different local dialects). After, this he invented his own encryption code, in which the lyrics are written on the Papyrus sheet that accompanies the CD, which is housed in a concrete boxset. Frustratingly difficult for an English, or even Indonesian speaker who wants to understand what he is saying, but a work that I personally find interesting as a statement of the value of language barriers in maintaining the cultural heterogeneity of the world. Zoo is currently in the process of recording the third album, the next release in what Rully hopes to be a six part series, each exploring a different aspect of the fundamental elements of a civilisation.
Rully is an impressive live performer, prowling the stage like a Javanese Freddy Mercury, howling and bellowing, but with a focused determination that reflects the mastery of his craft. The sound that emerges from his relatively small frame is huge and resonant, erratically switching stylistically and sonically, from Gregorian-esque low bass tones, to tortured ghostly howls. Whereas Senyawa is only counterpointed by the unique sound of Wukir Suryadi’s DIY mutant string instruments, Zoo is a larger group, sounding more like a Mr Bungle-esq pastiche of rhythms and textures, with a particularly Indonesian character. However, you are unlikely to hear any traditional Indonesian instruments like the Gendang or Kempul in their music. This is something that is important to the music philosophy of Rully. He explains his artistic vision not so much as an aversion to traditional Indonesian instruments, but more as a desire to convey the essence, the patterns and feeling of his indelible local influences in a non-token way. You can quite commonly hear this experimentation with traditional Indonesian sounds, for example in some hip-hop bands from Jogja. But while expressing support and respect for these projects, Rully says this kind of ‘throw a gamelan into a song that is essentially follows a western music structure’ is “too easy”. It is harder, but more important to express the substance of a musical style, than its form.
Jogja’s vibrant music scene has thrived despite a perpetual problem with venues. According to Indra Menus, the longest a venue that has catered to experimental or abrasive music has lasted is five years. This is due to a number of factors; rising rents, physical fights at shows (especially punk/Hardcore shows) and noise complaints. Indonesia is now one of the fastest growing economies in the Asia-pacific region, and gentrification is happening at a relatively fast rate in Jogja. As such rents are continually rising, making it difficult to financially maintain a venue. The urban arrangement of Jogja is also another major problem. Residential dwellings are relatively high density, meaning you are likely to share a wall with a neighbor, and there is rarely any neat separation between commercial and residential areas. This causes constant problems with noise complaints. Last year my band played at a great venue called Terminal Kopi that shut down this year after one of its owners went to prison for Marijuana possession, due to Indonesia’s very punitive drug laws. Rumour has it that one of the neighbours, sick of the loud noise, informed the police that they would find drugs there, as a convenient way to end her sleepless evenings.
This constant struggle to find and maintain supportive venues, a desire to be able to organise shows more spontaneously, and the relative unpopularity of noise music led some members of Jogja’s noise scene to instigate a new movement called Jogja Noise Bombing. This basically involves organising shows in public locations, usually through battery powered amps. Jogja Noise Bombing had their first festival this year, with bands from America, Japan and Singapore alongside local noise artists Sodadosa, Suffer in Vietnam, Palasick and Sulfur.
Bigger shows in Jogja often happen at the Jogja National Museum, a large concrete-framed modernist building complex which houses rotating local and international art exhibitions. The site itself has an interesting history. For most of the latter part of the 20th century it was the campus of the Jogja Visual Art School, but was abandoned after it moved to a new site in 1998. It was then squatted by art collective Taring Padi and some other art school students and used as an artist commune. It existed like this for some time until police raids (allegedly because of narcotics), kicked the artists out. To dissuade them from re-occupying the site, or others from following in their footsteps a shaman was brought in, who summoned a ghost to the site. Belief in ghosts and supernatural entities is particularly widespread in Indonesia, and the trick seemed to work. The site remained empty until it became the Jogja National Museum in 2006.
Live experimental music has been given a place to evolve in by the many art spaces around jogja, such as MES 56, Survive Garage, Ace house, Kedai Kebun and Langgeng Art Foundation.
Politics, Music and Media
In the last 15 years the themes in the music in Jogja have also changed dramatically. Around the turn of the century, politically-charged music was more common, driven by the political situation of the time; the cry for freedom and reformation that finally saw the overthrow of the thirty year Suharto dictatorship. An authoritarian military-dominated government, with restrictive media censorship that was responsible for the mass genocide of communists or anyone suspected of being one in the 1960’s. Suharto essentially sought to transform Indonesian society into a de-politicised “floating mass”, supportive of his aims of national economic development, following neo-liberal trends in the West. However, his aim to de-politicise Indonesia clearly failed. In 1998 an explosion of clearly politicised students instigated a national revolt that brought the beginnings of a more legitimate democracy to Indonesia. Nowadays, fifteen years since 1998, explicitly political music is less common and themes, along with genres, have become more diverse. However, there are still some bands that wear their politics on their sleeves, Kepal SPI, Talamariam and Sisir Tanah, being only a few examples.
Tommy Wibisono, editor of Jogja’s relatively new Warning Magazine (two years online, one in print), says that this decrease in political themes has been concurrect with a rise of political apathy and disengagement in younger music fans. He has used Warning as a vehicle to address this by trying to convey social-political ideas through a pop-culture lens. In this way he believes political issues will be more appealing and relatable to younger fans. In the four issues of their existence, amongst more standard music writing, they have also detailed features about the 2014 presidential election and an interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of the now-renowned documentary The Act of Killing. Lelaini Hermiasih who plays music under the name Frau, has recently also organised a series of discussions, with themes centred around the overlap of music and politics in Indonesia. Some of the topics thus far have included Music and Social Transformation in the 90’s and Politics and Dangdut (Indonesia’s unique Indian/Rock/Booty-dancing blending genre). Kunci Cultural Studies Centre also regularly host discussions and seminars on the intersection of music and social-political issues.
Social Media, Labels and Music Distribution
Seek Six Sick began in the age before the explosion of social media. Their inspirations (Can, Faust) came from loaned or recommended records, CD’s, or tapes of bands that were very obscure in Indonesia at the time. However in Indonesia, as in the west, social media and online music exchange exploded around the turn of the century, and its popularity has grown exponentially since then. Indonesia has been labeled the social media capital of the world, and social media played a large part in the 2014 national elections. Social Media has also had a large influence on Indonesian music culture and has been an important driver of the diversity of music styles that exist in Jogja nowadays. According to Jimmy from Seek Six Sick it now means that bands draw influence from wherever they want internationally. The progression of social media in Indonesia has largely paralleled the west. The popularity of MySpace waned and now Soundcloud or Bandcamp are mainly used. Youtube is also commonly used by bands to upload film clips.
Kebun Binatang Film is a video project initiated by Rully Shabara of Zoo and Satya Prapanca, whose youtube channel is a good place to watch high – quality documentations of music in Jogja.
In recent years a large network of internet labels distributing music free-of-charge has emerged in Indonesia, under a unified banner of the Indonesian Netlabel Union. During the rise of the popularity of music piracy and file-sharing, in the mid 2000’s, Indonesian record label owners realised that bands were now making their money primarily from selling merchandise, and releasing physical copies of recordings in the form of tapes or unique and special physical packaging such as the first two Zoo albums. Rather than resist this natural use of new technology, netlabels, inspired by online trends like Creative Commons and Internet Archive, embraced it and started releasing music online for free. Jogja label Yes No Wave is credited as one of the pioneers of the netlabel movement in Indonesia. In a public discussion in early 2014, Wok the Rock, the manager of Yes No wave, said one of the inspirations to start a netlabel was seeing some detrimental aspects that money issues have on relations between people, and that sharing was more important than seeking profit from music. This particular point is one of debate and controversy amongst the Indonesian music scene. Especially contrasted with the interests of bands to ensure their own sustainability. However, there are some examples, that demonstrates that it does not always take away an artists ability to make living off the sale of their music. Jogja songstress Frau’s mini album Starlit Carousel, was released for free on Yes No Wave Music in 2010, but also as a physical version. In three months, the free online album had been downloaded 3,000 times, but the CD version still sold over 1000 copies. Apart from Yes No Wave, some other free Internet netlabels from Jogja are Mindblasting and Ear Alert Records. For interested readers, these netlabels are great places to access modern Indonesian music for free.
I still haven’t heard the 3am Javanese marching band, so its unlikely that I’ll be in Jogja to experience the change and evolution of the scene long into the future. The many people I interviewed for this article all expressed different hopes for the future of the music scene in Jogja. From desires for more stable venues, a less cliquey music scene, to hopes that young musicians will maintain local traditions in their music and not just imitate western sounds. This year has seen several Jogja notable instrument makers, Wukir Suryadi from Senyawa and electronics whiz Lintang Radittya, exhibit and collaborate in Melbourne as part of the Instrument Builders project. Also, at least three Indonesian bands that I know of plan to tour Australia in 2015. However musical exchange between Indonesian and Australia has been, and still is largely a one way street; the number of Australian bands that have toured Indonesian greatly outweighs the vice versa. My personal hope is that in the future this situation can be more balanced. However with large international inequalities in the value of currency, touring overseas is for many Indonesian bands remains prohibitively expensive. Until that changes, the majority of Jogja’s rich and diverse music can only be seen and heard here.
Special thanks to Noor Alifa Ardianingrum for her help with interviews and translation.
All photo credits: Warning Magazine