The audience at the Gramedia outlet in South Jakarta’s Pondok Indah Mall went on a trip down memory lane, as local music act Kepak performed cover versions of legendary Indonesian rock band Koes Plus’s classic hits, “Dara Manisku” (“My Beautiful Maiden”) and “Jangan Bersedih” (“Don’t Be Sad”). Combining the sentimental lyrics of Indonesian ballads and a beat evoking early Beatles hits like “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “She Loves You,” Kepak managed to capture the essence of Koes Plus during the band’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the performance wasn’t part of a retro ’60s and ’70s night. Instead it set the tone for a book launch for “ Rock N’ Roll Industri Music Indonesia: Dari Analog Ke Digital ” (“Rock N’ Roll And The Indonesian Music Industry”), by veteran Indonesian music journalist Theodore K.S. Hutagalung.
The book chronicles the development of the local music scene over the past 50 years since the dawn of the rock and roll era and encompasses the oppressive years of Sukarno through the financial crisis at the end of the 20th century to the short-lived era of ring back tones.
Theodore said he first had the idea to write the book in 1985, 11 years after he started off as a music journalist.
“I started off writing at Top Magazine, a publication owned by leading Betawi cultural figure S.M. Ardan, from 1974 until 1979,” he said. “As a big music fan, I always wanted to meet Koes Plus and God Bless, as they were the pre-eminent musical figures of the time. But I didn’t want to do so as a mere fan, they had loads of them, so being a music journalist helped get me access to them.”
Theodore’s work with Top raised his profile in the music industry and he also used the opportunity to raise greater awareness about local music.
“I noticed Kompas newspaper back then didn’t touch music, probably because it was so chaotic at the time,” he said. “There were no reliable figures on album sales, there was no way of knowing where the music producers are, and most of all, there were no reporters in the music beat. So I started contributing articles to Kompas.”
During those years, the information on albums, such as the artist, their album, the song list, as well as record company and year it was released, had to be jotted down manually. The same applied for data like album sales and the audio quality of the recording, Theo explained.
“We didn’t computerize our music files then so I wrote down the information that was needed for copyright purposes. Besides, the precise annotation of the files enabled me to write this book.”
However, Theodore did more than just chronicle music.
“I wrote the lyrics for the songs ‘ Selamat Pagi Indonesia ’ [‘Good Morning Indonesia’] and ‘ Balada Sejuta Wajah ’ [‘Ballad of a Million Faces’] for God Bless’s 1980 album ‘ Cermin’ [‘Mirror’], at the request of their lead guitarist Ian Antono. Seven years later I wrote the lyrics for their song ‘ Rumah Kita ’ [‘Our House’], which turned out to be one of their biggest hits,” he said.
Aside from God Bless, Theodore also wrote lyrics for other singers like Chrisye and Keenan Nasution.
Recalling the history of modern Indonesian music
Theodore pointed out the Koes Plus covers sung by Kepak signify the beginnings of modern Indonesian music.
“Koes Plus was influenced by the western rock music of its time. Aside from the Beatles, songs like ‘Dara Manisku’ were influenced by Everly Brothers tunes like ‘Lucille,’ while their decision to keep the band in the family is influenced by the Bee Gees,” said Theodore. “This got them in trouble with President Sukarno’s regime after it banned Western music as part of his anti-Western politics. The band was jailed by the authorities in 1965 for performing Beatles songs and were eventually released just before the Indonesian Communist Party attempted a coup d’etat [sic] that year.”
Koes Plus eventually recounted the experience in their 1967 song “ Di Dalam Bui ” (“In Prison”).
The influence of Western music even extended to Indonesia’s most iconic traditional musicians.
“The late Benyamin Sueb might be known today for his pioneering work in the age-old Betawi musical genre gambang kromong , through such hits as ‘Kompor Meleduk’ [‘Imploding Stove’] and ‘ Si Jampang .’ But he started off his musical career by performing covers of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck,” Theodore said. “Even Rhoma Irama, the so called king of dangdut , was heavily influenced by Deep Purple.”
Theodore pointed out that President Suharto’s regime initially loosened the strictures imposed by his predecessor on Indonesian music.
“Many Indonesian rock and pop songs in the 1970s and ’80s were oriented toward ‘sound impressions,’ namely the noise or sounds that the instruments make, instead of lyrics like Western rock. God Bless was one of the proponents of this trend, as they’re heavily influenced by hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. They played as an opening act for the latter when they played a concert in Jakarta in 1975,” Theodore said.
“God Bless’s hits like ‘Rumah Kita,’ ‘Cermin,’ and ‘ Neraka Jahanam ’ [‘Hell for the Damned’] feature aggressive guitar riffs and hard-hitting, thunderously rolling drums, with which they sought to make a musical impression.”
According to Theodore, the focus on musical impressions was also a by product of the restriction of musical themes following the Suharto regime’s crackdown on free speech.
“Western music is free to address themes like sex, social issues and other controversial subject matter, whereas in Indonesia they are limited to subjects like love and loss of innocence,” he said.
“Some acts did voice their criticism of conditions, such as Koes Plus with their hit ‘ Penipu Tua ’ [‘The Old Cheat’] and Mogi Djajusman’s single ‘Rayap Rayap’ [‘Termites’], but they did so symbolically. But others, like Iwan Fals, still pointedly criticized the Suharto regime with his hit 1989 ‘ Bento ’ [short for ‘Fortress Suharto’], as did Benyamin in a more humorous way with his tune ‘ Digusur ’ [‘Driven Out’] two decades before.”
The future of Indonesian music
One aspect that never ceases to amaze Theodore about the Indonesian music industry is its dynamism.
“Whether it be pioneers like Koes Plus, stalwarts such as Chrisye, or newer acts like Dewa 19 or Nidji, the country’s musicians never seem to run out of ideas. They also seem to come up with new styles over the years,” Theodore said.
“Indonesia’s music industry thrived to the extent that its one of Indonesia’s biggest taxpayers. It’s a far cry from the country’s film industry, which is perennially asking for government subsidies.”
He also pointed out that the music business managed to weather the 1997-1998 economic crisis.
“Some bands at that time managed to sell over four million CDs, which is an unthinkable number nowadays.”
But Theodore warned that the industry still faced some challenges.
“Indonesian musicians are often let down by the music industry. For instance, one source of royalties came from ring-back tones, but that dried up after the government banned them in 2011, after RBT providers like Colibri were suspected of using them to scam cellphone credit from the public. The company chief, known only as NHB, got away with a fine, on grounds that the online evidence wasn’t tangible enough,” he said.
“Weak law enforcement as well as piracy, among other things, has been a constant challenge for musicians and cost them billions of rupiah annually. However, the sale of original CDs from companies like KFC and Gramedia, which weren’t known as movers in the music industry, helped recoup royalties for the musicians after the ban on ring-back tones.”
But all concern aside, Theodore is still upbeat about the future of Indonesian music. He pointed out that festivals like Java Jazz and Java Rockin’ Land has helped the sector thrive, as they reflect Indonesia’s bustling music scene and drew more fans. In that regard, the music industry is alive and well; and Theodore will be there for a fair assessment.