Breaking into music biz can be notoriously difficult. Insiders tend to be cliquish and careers often seem to depend on connections as much as talent. The final product can sometimes get lost in the battle to become an insider.
Luckily, some rising artists and musicians in Jakarta have the “Secret Agents,” Keke Tumbuan and Indra Ameng, a pair of good friends who have taken on the mission of assisting musicians and others by organizing events, connecting artists and promoting up-and-coming Indonesian acts.
Keke, 33, and Indra, 37, are the driving forces behind Superbad!, a monthly showcase of indie music at the Jaya Pub, and RRREC Fest, a three-day film, art and music festival whose full name is the Ruang Rupa Record Festival. They also contribute work — mostly photography —to various exhibitions and seem tireless in their pursuit of an expanding and inclusive artistic terrain.
Talk, Not Sleep
“We’re really good friends who both have insomnia so we spend a lot of nights talking and ideas come up,” Keke said. “After we get an idea, we start to work.”
The two met in 2002 through the Ruang Rupa art collective, a burgeoning network of young artists in Jakarta that started in 2000. They stumbled upon their alias after a gallery-owner friend in Bandung asked them to prepare a photo exhibit for him in 2005.
“We came up with ‘A Diary of Secret Places … and The Secret Agents,’ a visual diary of places and the agents who found those places, these fantastic settings for events that could have been in the past or the present,” Indra said.
“The name ‘The Secret Agents’ recalls an old-school time,” Keke said.
The pair prided themselves on the inclusive nature of the “Diary ” show. Viewers were encouraged to use sticky notes to add their own commentary and create captions for the pictures. Keke and Indra wanted people to share their thoughts as a reflection of today’s more open society.
They bring that same inclusive spirit to music-related projects.
“We really love music, but we can’t make music and we can’t sing,” Keke said.
But they are good at organizing. Once a month, clued in music lovers head to the venerable Jaya Pub on MH Thamrin to sample some of Indonesia’s best independent acts in a venue that is more known for rock oldies than cutting edge new music.
“It is still kind of unknown,” Indra said. “We’re trying to keep it small because we need a platform for friends to perform and explore their sound. Superbad! is about developing new talent with small gigs in a small place.”
“We’ve been around for awhile so we know older bands and the younger bands know who we are because we have a track record of putting on shows,” Keke said. “People know we do quality control.”
The last edition of Superbad! coincided with The Secret Agents’ other project, RRREC Fest. Only in its second year, the event expanded into a three-day affair complete with film screenings, a bazaar and heaps of musical acts, including bands from the United States, Finland and Malaysia.
The festival took place at the end of November, and The Secret Agents are already planning the next festival.
The two are debating whether the event should go even bigger next year and what components to add while they keep their festival sponsor-free and maintaining its air of do-it-yourself aesthetics.
“There are no corporate sponsorships or brands, but that means we have to work harder,” Keke said, noting that bands play for very little, donations and foundations chip in and the festival does not have the commercial vibe of larger events.
The Secret Agents’ methods are also a bit of a mystery. There is no grand plan or paper trail and it all seems to come from an apparently endless conversation between the two collaborators.
“We haven’t changed the way we work but we’re more organized now,” Indra added. “We started with nothing to lose, but now people are starting to recognize our work and depend on us. It takes a lot of seriousness and responsibility to have as much fun as we are having.”
They say the recognition of their work stems from a growing appreciation here of the value of art of all kinds.
“Nowadays, people are starting to become proud of the arts,” Keke said.
For the new year, the Secret Agents are adding new projects to their increasingly hectic dossiers. There are plans to publish band photos, for example, in some form and perhaps do a video project.
“We are thinking about a magazine about music photography and working with young photographers,” Indra said. “Online, there are so many concert photos and our idea is to turn it into something physical.”
It’s the Bands
But above all, the Agents want to continue to develop Superbad! and the RRREC Fest and they focus the largest part of their attention on indie bands.
And it is when they talk about some of the bands to watch that the purpose of the enterprise seems most real.
“The Experience Brothers,” Keke said, when asked to name a favorite. “There are only two of them but when they play on stage, it sounds like a complete band.”
The pair also likes Hightime Rebellion for its blend of pop, folk and dance music and Risky Summerbee and the Honeythief, a more experimental band from Yogyakarta. Spanning musical genres, they also named Sigmun, a classic metal band, and Backwood Sun, which has a 1970s Americana feel.
In addition to all of their other projects, Keke and Indra said they would like to start a video interview series and hope to collaborate on another exhibition.
Despite the fact that their roots are in photography and the art scene, The Secret Agents say they can’t separate that from music.
“Music and art need each other and can be used to connect people,” Indra said.
The next Superbad! event takes place on Jan. 22 at the Jaya Pub. Admission is Rp 30,000 with the first drink included.