Indonesia and Jamaica may be half a world apart, yet the two nations have found common ground in a music genre that has connected people globally: reggae.In Indonesia, devoted musicians have taken up reggae to express their feelings and make a living.
Alex Morrissey, a 24-year old Jamaican, discovered Indonesia’s love for reggae when his website, Jamaicansmusic.com, received more than 500,000 likes from Indonesia on its Facebook page over the last few years.
In total, the page has 2.5 million likes, so the traffic from Indonesian reggae fans is not to be ignored. Morrissey travels to Jakarta occasionally, but on this particular trip he intends to dive into the widespread reggae scenes of Jakarta and Bali, meet local musicians and record them for a documentary, “Many Languages of Reggae.”
“Every country is a little different, but Indonesia is the one that caught me off guard,” Morrissey said during a break on the first day of filming in Jakarta on Monday. “It’s the number one fan base on our page, out of 2.5 million people.”
Several Indonesian reggae musicians and bands, including Monkey Boots, Day Afternoon, Nath and the Lions, Souljah, Gangstarasta and Ras Muhamad, speak their thoughts and share their experiences in the documentary. Many draw inspiration from Bob Marley, but it’s the spirit of the music that keeps them going.
Day Afternoon’s frontman, B.A. “Dodo” Priambodo, calls reggae the music of the fighters, saying this was why he and his friends established their band back in 2006. He said he was aware that Jamaica had its own culture of politics and struggles that could be heard in Marley’s songs. Even so, he said he believed Indonesian reggae was a unique form because it didn’t necessarily feed off that culture. Instead, the songs are framed around local issues and channel the local musicians’ own voices. Day Afternoon, for instance, mixes reggae with blues, jazz, ska and rocksteady.
“We are not Rastafarian, we are not crazy about weed, but we want to use reggae to voice our fight,” Dodo said. “We don’t want this music to be simply an excuse to get drunk, because you don’t have to play reggae to get high.”
Day Afternoon was established at Jakarta State University seven years ago. Today, Dodo said the music was more widespread than ever. The popularity of reggae is still growing strong. The band once performed in Wonosobo, a small city surrounded by mountains in Central Java, with 55 other reggae bands.
“Even though you don’t see reggae on TV every day, you can hear it in small alleys, especially outside Jakarta, like in Tangerang and Surabaya,” he said.
Sisca Nathalie from Nath and the Lions said reggae music allowed a deeper level of expression. Nathalie used to sing classic rock and just formed her reggae band earlier this year. She saw a lack of female reggae singers in the country and decided to become one.
“In reggae, we can often talk about world peace and mental slavery, not just love songs,” she said. “There is a demand to be smart and wise to understand humanity.”
As a reggae singer, Nathalie said she felt like she had a lot to prove, not only to the reggae world but also to musicians in other genres as well. When she founded Nath and the Lions, she quit her job to become a full-time singer.
“It’s expensive to make music; we need to be better than just average,” she said.
The documentary “Many Languages of Reggae” will premiere in Jakarta in February and in Jamaica in March. In conjunction with the February launch, Morrissey also plans to release the Indonesian version of Jamaicansmusic.com. The website, which catalogues new songs and upcoming gigs in Jamaica, will soon cater to the need of Indonesian reggae musicians.
Jamaicansmusic.com began five years ago as a personal website for Morrissey, who was at the time studying at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in Florida.
“I just wanted to keep anything related to Jamaican music when I was away, because it was my only connection to home,” he said.
It started to become more than a hobby when musicians began e-mailing him, asking to be featured on the website. After a couple of years, it began to receive revenues from advertising, merchandise and commission from iTunes and Amazon. There were modifications as Morrissey tried to figure out the best way to present the site. Currently he is handling the business with friends Tanaka Roberts and Biko Kennedy.
The website focuses only on reggae and dancehall musicians because these are the two major music genres in Jamaica. Dancehall, which is a mix of reggae and contemporary genres such as rap, pop, hip hop and R&B, is especially popular in Jamaica. The traffic on the website is massive because a Jamaican musician can create up to five new songs every week. However, because of this fast cycle, a single doesn’t last very long.
In neighboring countries like Belize, where reggae is still popular, dancehall is equally favored. This is why the popularity of reggae in Indonesia surprises Morrissey and friends.
“It’s quite a shock because I’m coming from a country where dancehall is number one, and here, there is no dancehall, a few people who know dancehall artists don’t even like them,” he said.
When they visited a live show in Ancol a couple of weeks ago, Morrissey, Roberts and Kennedy were amused to see the concert pause for the prayer break.
“That has never happened to me anywhere before in my life,” Morrissey said.
He said he believed the appeal of reggae had a lot to do with the late Marley, whose personality managed to open a lot of doors for the genre.
“There’s something about the music that makes you feel, and it’s timeless, it can go from generation to generation,” he said. Morrissey added he wanted to make his documentary in countries where reggae was unexpected.
After Indonesia, his next stop is likely Brazil, which is the number one fan base on Bob Marley’s Facebook page.
In exchange for traffic, Morrissey hopes to give exposure to musicians.
“Hopefully, artists will now recognize Indonesia as a place to perform, and [Jamaicans will learn that] Asia is not just Japan,” he said.
“I also hope people in Jamaica can watch and maybe get them to perform for shows down there.”