How Indonesia's Underground Music Scene Helps Bring Down a Dictator
Jakarta. For most of the 1990s, Indonesia was still under the authoritarian New Order regime, which ended after 33 years with the fall of the military dictator General Suharto in 1998. But despite censorship and bans, Indonesia's underground music scene thrived as a youth subculture, allowing itself to become an alternative medium for artists and activists to express rebellious voices against the regime.
Underground bands organized DIY gigs at cafes, pubs and public squares, sharing spaces with popular dangdut — Indonesian pop music heavily influenced by Bollywood — bands and crowds. Both fans and musicians kept themselves abreast of the latest trends in underground music by mail-ordering demo tapes from obscure overseas labels and then duplicating them in their tiny rented kost rooms — illegally of course — to swap with friends.
Sometimes, not only tapes would change hands, but also, t-shirts, bandannas, patches and whatever band merchandise these "anak underground" — literally, underground kids — could lay their hands on.
Not many comprehensive accounts about what really happened back then had been written. An excellent, very political, first-hand account of the late '90s-early '00s hip-hop and punk scene, a compilation of essays by legendary Bandung hip-hop outfit Homicide's MC Harry "Ucok" Sutresna called 'When the Boombox Stops Barking" was released last year. But apart from that, most stories of the Indonesian underground music scene are buried within dusty photocopied zines in second-hand bookshops or in archives of nascent online music sites on the dark web.
Jeremy Wallach, an American cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, who turned his research on Indonesia's underground music scene into a 2008 book called "Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia 1997-2001" has now released its Indonesian version through local publisher Komunitas Bambu.
Wallach called his book an ethnographic study about people who listened to, performed and produced music. The book covers everything from the underground, metal and hardcore music scenes to the mainstream traditional music scene, though the "loud" genres are his specialties.
Wallach traveled to university campuses, showed up at gigs, recording studios and video shoots to do his research for the book, a method called the "participatory approach" in academia.
"I think it's an informative book [about] a very important period in Indonesian history. [It looks] at [the role] dangdut, pop, underground, punk, metal and hardcore scenes played in creating a national identity that has helped Indonesia successfully navigate a very difficult political transition to a fully-fledged, functioning democracy, to a very prosperous present that was not given, not the guaranteed outcome of a turbulent political transition," Wallach told the Jakarta Globe in an interview in Jakarta on Friday (07/07).
His original book had met with positive responses from fellow ethnomusicologists Andrew Weintraub and Henry Spiller as well as legendary Indonesianists the late Benedict Anderson and Clifford Geertz.
Rolling Stone Indonesia editor Wendi Putranto, who had helped Wallach with his research, also gave his endorsement for the Indonesian version of the book.
"It documented the real conditions of Indonesian music scenes at that time. [...] The book should be an inspiration for other writers to research the country's music scenes in 1965-1971, another [historical] turning point in Indonesia," he said at an event in @America, the American cultural center in Pacific Place, an exclusive mall in South Jakarta, on Thursday.
Wallach started his research in 1997, a year before the fall of the New Order and when no one was expecting it would fold so quickly.
"When I was here in 1997, it didn't look like the New Order was going anywhere. A lot of people say in hindsight, yeah, the New Order was on its last legs. It did not look that way. Soeharto had just won the election. The krismon [monetary crisis] was just starting, but it really didn't look like Soeharto was going to lose his legitimacy. [...] As far as anyone could remember, this was the first time protesting actually worked," the professor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio said.
Back then, underground, punk and hardcore music — the distribution of which was very much untraceable by the public eye — was essential to convey feelings of dissatisfaction, mainly toward the government.
"It was an indicator of a feeling that we're not all the same. A feeling that we want to be able to express ourselves. A feeling that we want to be able to disagree. We want to be able to have freedom to dissent, to be different. We want to embrace global culture in ways that we can't right now under an authoritarian leadership," Wallach said.
Wallach was surprised to see such a well-established underground scene back in 1997 when internet penetration in the country was still low. He did not expect Indonesian metalheads to have deep knowledge about not just more mainstream metal bands like Metallica, Slayer and Sepultura, but also underground bands that were often little-known even in their own country.
The metalheads already figured out a way to quench their curiosity for non-mainstream music. In Bandung, for instance, people would mail-order demo tapes, posters and other merchandise from catalogues made available by clothing and accessories stores known back then as "distros," such as Reverse Outfits.
They would also attend gigs, which were held sporadically in different places at first. As years went by, certain venues became popular as an underground hangout where different music communities found out about and got to know each other.
Jakarta scenesters in the 90s frequented Poster Cafe on Jalan Gatot Subroto in South Jakarta — ironically, inside the Indonesian Military Museum complex — which accommodated not only metal, punk and hardcore bands but also ska bands, Britpop bands like Rumahsakit and the retro-influenced Naif before they achieved mainstream popularity.
In the early '90s, most Indonesian underground bands were still playing covers of Western bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi, Beastie Boys and Dead Kennedys. After a while, the bands started to write their own songs, first in English, and eventually in Indonesian, allowing them to widen their appeal.
Bands like Kremush from Purwokerto, Central Java, and Eternal Madness from Bali even experimented by combining metal music with traditional Indonesian music.
"[Underground] music had more and more fans as people stopped only listening to Western, imported bands and as the local scenes got larger and larger and started connecting to other local scenes. Those were rather vast grassroots networks, that formed from the beginning of the 90s to the end of the 90s, [and] that sustained a kind of a culture of dissent," Wallach said.
The underground music scene did not just grow, but also intersected with networks of student activists who often organized rallies to bring down Soeharto. Shouts to topple the regime were constantly heard from the stage during gigs and metal bands' lyrics started to incorporate harsh criticism of the government.
Student activists were attracted to the underground scene not only because the music was aggressive — perfect to vent their frustration. But the lyrics also introduced them to new ideologies, including Marxism, anarchism, anti-fascism and environmentalism.
"A lot of these [ideologies] got to Indonesia through music. This was one of the ways underground music helped create the conditions for change, for political transformation in Indonesia," Wallach said.
The activists and the underground scenesters also shared a love for independent publishing, releasing a lot of photocopied zines and chapbooks that helped spread their agitation.
"A lot of activism was also about zines, publishing and xeroxing them. [Underground] music was circulated the same way," Wallach said.
Wallach agreed Indonesia's underground music scene played a role in bringing down the New Order, at least indirectly.
"There's evidence for that, yes. I can't really say how much because that would require quantifying it somehow. It's impossible to say because that would require knowing how much the students had to do with bringing down the New Order regime. We'll never know that because there's always forces behind the scene," he said.
May 21, 1998, the day Suharto resigned as president, was a turning point in modern Indonesian history. What happened to the underground music scene after his fall?
Some had feared the scene would also peter away quietly as not only activists, but also bands, no longer had someone to fight against.
"You'd think that would happen, but actually it seemed like that further emboldened it. After Soeharto fell, it became easier to write anti-Suharto lyrics, so a lot of bands sort of indulged in it because it became easy and fun to do so. They wrote about how awful the New Order was, knowing that they wouldn't get in trouble for it," Wallach said.
Around 2002-2003, a period not covered in Wallach's book, the lyrics started changing. The New Order was no longer a hot topic, so some bands chose to sing about other political themes, raging against corruption and injustice.
Navicula, a band from Bali, was nicknamed the "Green Grunge Gentlemen" for their lyrics that criticized environmental destruction in their resort island, known by tourists the world over as the "Island of the Gods."
Wallach said that also signaled a change in the musical styles of Indonesian non-mainstream music. The sense of urgency was no longer there, so metal and hardcore bands experimented more with their styles, resulting in more varieties of sound.
Indie bands, which derived their influences from many genres, also rose to fame.
"The music got more experimental. It went from underground to indie. The music got less angry, less hard and more experimental. You went from bands like Puppen, Burgerkill and Koil to The Upstairs, Mocca and White Shoes & The Couples Company," Wallach said.
Wallach called the current underground scene, which still included bands formed in the '00s, as the next generation. He praised bands like Deadsquad, Seringai, Gugat and Vallendusk for their more diverse and artistically compelling sounds.
One thing that never changes is the spread of the underground music network. Wallach said in his book that by the end of the 90s, the most prominent underground scenes were in big cities like Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Malang, Bandung, Medan, Banda Aceh and Denpasar. However, new scenes had since burgeoned in smaller cities like Cirebon in West Java.
"I think the underground has become more diverse. The stuff I heard now is amazing and very well-produced. That's one of the major differences," he said.
However, Wallach believed the lyrical content will never be as politically charged as it was in the New Order, though there are circumstances where bands are more vocal than usual.
"Since [President] Jokowi's election, some metal bands are becoming more vocal again. I think a lot of older bands saw Prabowo as a sort of New Order Part Two, a symbol of the New Order coming back, so political [lyrical] content is making a comeback," he said.
After releasing his first book, Wallach co-edited "Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music Around the World," published in 2011, and has written several other articles on Indonesian music. The book received a positive review from Sam Dunn, the director of "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" and "Global Metal" documentaries, who said the book will be "one of the classics of heavy metal scholarship."