Indonesia, the World’s Metal Nation

One of the most interesting international reactions upon Joko Widodo’s victory as the president of Indonesia for 2014-2019 came from the world’s metalheads. Randy Blythe, the front man of Lamb of God –one of Joko Widodo’s favorite metal bands– enthusiastically congratulated and informed through his Instagram: “This is the world’s first heavy metal president, and might be the only one who is openly a metalhead”.

Imagine, Blythe wrote, "This is THE ONLY PRESIDENT IN THE WORLD with whom you can sit down and argue about which Slayer record is the best." Congratulations from world’s musicians upon Jokowi’s –as he is popularly called– victory as the Indonesian president, have indeed gave a unique spark to Indonesia’s modern politics world. Alas, Jokowi’s metalhead side could as well reflect the tip of an iceberg of the Metal music subculture in Indonesia. It sounds paradoxical to say that Metal music in Indonesia has “silently” grown into a massive subculture, if not to say worldwide; as the music is loaded with loudness and riots. How its massiveness in Indonesia could grew “silently”? Of course, the term is a figure of speech. Indonesia’s metal subculture bore their musical riots silently, because they must remain underground. But surely there’s something to be said about metal subculture surface performance in Indonesia.

Concerts as Mass Demonstrations

The history of rock music in Indonesia will always bring the blasphemy memory of “ngak ngik ngok music” –the sounds that mimic a violin– by Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president. To be honest, at the beginning there was no differentiations between rock or “sentimental music” for Soekarno: anything that was considered as popular Western music, was viewed as decadent music and is tainting the revolution spirit upheld by Soekarno.

Soekarno’s speech on August 17th 1959 addressed the “anti-imperialism” youth to ask themselves: why are they not anti “cultural imperialism”? Soekarno then mentioned Rock N’ Roll music, Cha Cha Cha dances, and “ngak ngik ngok music” as part of the fore mentioned cultural imperialism.

In reality, the anti-Western popular music sentiment did not really withhold the development of popular music in Indonesia. Singers such as Lilies Soerjani or Bing Slamet were known for being close to the President, while they also performed pop music with Western instruments and modern taste. What Soekarno’s political stage fought with at the time, were music what was considered bluntly influenced by Rock and Pop music from the US and Britain. Or in Soekarno’s blank words, music that copied Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

The president released Presidential Regulation No. 11/1963 which banned “sentimental or westernized music from being performed”. Those music were considered not reflecting “Indonesia’s cultural characteristics, spreading hedonism, and is contra-revolution”. On June 29th 1965, Koes Ploes –a local group which often pictured as ‘Indonesia’s Own Beatles’– were jailed for two months, after performing I Saw Her Standing There at a colonel’s house in Jakarta.

Rock music then emerged as an outlet or release for the young Indonesians’ rebellious spirit toward the “Father Culture” which grew during the Soekarno regime and then systematically continued by the Soharto regime. At the transition between both regimes, an all-female Indonesian rock group emerged. They are now considered as cult in both local and international music scenes. The group was called Dara Puspita.  

Dara Puspita was formed in 1964 and disbanded in 1972. They are Indonesia’s first and most successful female rock band. During 1969-1971, the band spent their time across Europe after stopping by in Iran, extending 250 shows in 70 major and small towns. They lived briefly in Chelsea, London, and met with Collin Johnson from NEM Enterprise; who has worked with The Beatles at the beginning of their career. Nearing the Europe trip, Dara Puspita released two singles titled Ba Da Da Dum and Dream Stealer; which both failed in the market. Dara Puspita’s main attractions were indeed their stage acts that were full of screamings and spontaneous rages. As time went by, Dara Puspita’s musical finesse gained more respect. The band was titled as "arguably the world's greatest all-female garage band" by sublimefrequencies.com.

Dara Puspita’s career much or less depicted the relationship between rock music, Indonesian youth, and the state itself. In 1965, when Koes Ploes was detained, Dara Puspita also endured police interrogations in relations with their ngak ngik ngok music. The regimes transition in 1966 sparked a dim hope of the youth’s freedom of expression and all respective subcultures at the time. Dara Puspita went abroad. Rock Music was celebrated.

One of the momentums of Rock music celebration in Indonesia was the birth of Aktuil magazine on June 8th 1967 in Bandung; initiated by Denny Sabrie and Bob Avianto. The magazine became the most influential Rock reference for Indonesian youth, especially during its glorios period of 1970-1975. Such rebellious character stood out when the magazine recruited Remy Sylado (one of the many pen names of Jopie Tambayong, based on notations in The Beatles’ song of And I Love Her). Remy wrote serials titledOrexas in Aktuil magazine. The title was an abbreviation of "Organisasi Sex Bebas" or “Organization of Free Sex”, a youth rebellion fantasy against the established normative morale at the time. Remy also gave literature and intellectualism breath to Aktuil magazine, by starting up a “Puisi Mbeling” or “Freestyle Poetry” movement, and musical reviews related with wider cultural issues.

Aktuil magazine was distributed to remote cities in and outside Java, introducing Indonesian youth to the early generation of Hard Rock, Classic Rock, and Metal groups; such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, and Deep Purple. Later, Denny Sabrie tied a closer relationship with Deep Purple, by following them in concerts across Europe and the US. The closeness enabled Aktuil in making a surprise to hold a Deep Purple concert in Jakarta on 4-5 December 1975. In two days, the audience who came to Senayan Stadium reached the number of 150 thousand people. The record has not yet been broken by following world class Rock concerts: Mick Jagger in 1993 (100 thousand people), Sepultura in 1992 (50 thousand people), and Metallica in 1993 9100 thousand people). Deep Purple came to Indonesia after wrapping their concert in Australia, with audience recorded of only about 3,000 people.

Apparently, Rock concerts that could top Deep Purple’s record in Senayan Stadium were the ones held by Kantata Takwa in 1990 and 1991. Kantata Takwa is a Progressive Rock group, with theatrical and majestic stage concepts. Their shows were practically the first ever in Indonesia to have incorporated laser lightings, and included both poet Rendra and Kyai Hajj Zainuddin MZ –the “million followers preacher” – to play with the audience’ emotions. According to Sawung Jabo, one of Kantata Takwa members, there were about 150 thousand people in their first concert of 1990.

Concerts were often marred with brawls and even riots. After the Metallica concert, overnight riots broke out, stretched from the concert venue in Lebak Bulus Stadium to the luxury housings in Pondok Indah and Cilandak. After that, massive concerts by foreign artists, let alone the ones of Rock and Metal genres, were banned by the New Order government. Even before the banning, the government has been taking meticulous treatments regarding Rock stages: security forces –often in thousands– were deployed to guard a concert, as if it was a mass movement which practically was also banned during the New Order regime.

In Global Metal documentary by Scott McFadyen and Canadian anthropologist, Sam Dunn, an interview with Wendi Putranto from Rolling Stone Indonesia magazine was included. Wendi said that those Metal concerts Indonesia were alike “mass demonstrations”. His remarks described how Rock and Metal concerts became releasing rites of political and social expression stagnations during New Order era.

When foreign Rock/Metal concerts were banned, the releasing rites needed new outlets. The indie andunderground scenes made room for such new releases. Actually, the boundaries between indie andmainstream for Rock and Metal music in Indonesia were quite vague. According to music observer/archivist Denny Sakrie, of the pioneering indie album milestones was the Guruh Gipsy studio album of 1976. The Progressive Ethnic-Rock album was self-produced, without involving a major music label that was located in Glodok Shopping Centre at the time. The album was also practically distributed from door to door (record/cassette stores), or directly to existing radio stations, and within the band’s supporters’ circles of friends.

But it was clear that the Guruh Gipsy’s social circles were the elites of Jakarta: Guruh Soekarno Putra as the main songwriter was Soekarno’s son from his third wife, Fatmawati. He was also the younger brother of Megawati, who then became Indonesia’s fifth president. Guruh set deep influences for the elites in Jakarta entertainment world. The Gipsy band personnel were, among others, Chrisye, Keenan Nasution, and Abadi Soesman. All of them, after Guruh Gipsy, developed to become Indonesia’s mainstream Pop and Rock musicians in the 80s. Chrisye became one of the most famous Pop song vocalists in Indonesia, to the day he passed away in mid-2000.

During the circa 1970s to 1980s also, aside from Jakarta, Indonesia’s Rock music scene grew in other cities like Malang, Surabaya, and Bandung. They grew watching such blended characters. Music communities in mentioned cities rooted with indie characteristics, in terms of building the freedom of creation and making music as identity projects for the actors; where their listeners could also differentiate themselves from the established culture during the era.

At the same time, bands that grew “underneath” those cities immediately entered the mainstream stages and record labels. It’s not until the 90s, appeared more bands who are more committed in carrying indiecharacters; making the indie music scene as an independent alternate production mode, through the DIY (Do It Yourself) spirit – which actually was more commonly known as a jargon in Punk scene.

Community, the Noisy Underground Circulation

At a village in Ujung Berung, Bandung, the Metal subculture grew since early 2000; that the village then referred to as ‘Kampung Metal’ or the ‘Metal Village’. For the youth and activists of Metal subcultures, Kampung Metal resembles their pride because it gave birth to Metal groups who later could perform in international stages; suck as the legendary Burgerkill, Jasad, and Forgotten. What’s more interesting is that how diversity came out as a hard fact in Metal scenes like Ujung Berung Village in Bandung. In Kampung Metal, almost all Metal genres are accepted: Heavy Metal, Grindcore, Grunge, Nu Metal, Death Metal, and Trash Metal. A new and distinct subgenre even emerged there, Metal with the spirit of Islamic Preaching, or popularly called as "Metal Satu Jari" or “One Finger Metal”.

Kampung Metal also housed a band like Gugat, where one of their two vocalists is a female wearing hijab: Asri Yuniar. Achie, as she is commonly called, is a vocalist of a Hardcore band. She is very fluent with screamtechnique in every song and stage, crying out their song lyrics full of social criticisms. So it’s clear that this isn’t a band of “One Finger Metal” subgenre. In her daily life, Achie is a Kindergarten teacher.

The roots of mentioned Metal subculture were planted in the 1990s. Bandung became one of the important wombs for indie subculture and music in Indonesia at that time. The births would mark the shift from previous production mode, where indie and mainstream communities were far more blended in. Bandung is the home and domain of work for legendary musician Harry Roesli; who often experimented with Rock music and helped thousands of street musicians.

In 1990, Pas Band was found. The band with mixed genres of Rock, Hip Hop, and Punk actually has built their reputations on underground stages since 1989. In 1993, the band released their first album titled Four to The Sap in indie manner. In 1995, their second album was not distributed by indie record label, but by a bigger label (major label), Aquarius. Since then, Pas has always distributed their albums via major labels; but the nuance of music communities in Bandung kept the band connected with their indie roots.

During the same period, there were two other bands formed in Bandung, who until now are considered to be more representative for indie and underground music in Indonesia. Two high school friends who got frustrated for not being able to attend Sepultura show in Jakarta on July 1992, decided to learn music and establish their own band. They are Robin Malau and Marcell Siahaan. They founded Puppen, who at the early days performed songs by Prong, SOD, MOD, and their original songs in many art and undergroundstages in Bandung.

Puppen also made various merchandise that thickened their cult status. Arian, their vocalist, designed a logo and two t-shirts which became collective memorabilias from the indie world then: the t-shirts with writings This Is Not a Puppen and F**k You We're From Bandung. Various types of activities by the band, who did only produce music, became one of the characters copied and being done in the indie music scene up until now. Intentional or not, Arian’s product designs (added to Arian and Puppen’s stage charisma) became identity projects for their fans.

After meeting Pas Band, Puppen then write their first single which then anointed as the cult song of the 1990s: This Is Not a Puppen Song. Eventually, Puppen’s songs were absorbed by radio stations and many stages. In 1996, an EP titled This Is Not a Puppen was published a sold 10 thousand copies – a bestselling album for an indie release. For more than two weeks, Aquarius record stores were packed by Metalheads in black t-shirts hunting for that particular Puppen album.

In their journey until the disband in 2002 and reunion in 2004 Pangudi Luhur fair in Jakarta, Puppen has been moving “upward” to a more elite direction in indie music scene which was centered in Jakarta. After leaving Puppen in 1998, their founder and first drummer, Marcell, became one of the most succesful Pop and R&B singer in the mainstream lane. Anyway, Puppen’s cult status remains in the indie environment; as if the band had become one of the important models in indie bandship.

Meanwhile, another Metal band who grew almost at the same period with Puppen, grasped tighter to theunderground roots. Even ‘Burgerkill’ was more ‘kampung’ or village oriented. Burgerkill was formed in May 1995, taking the Metalcore as their genre. They started with Eben, a Jakarta boy who went to college in Bandung, and met with Ivan, Kimung, and Dadan. They formed a band with the name that was a pun of a fast food restaurant chain: Burger King.

Burgerkill was more processed on various stages, and seemed to be struggling at the beginning when releasing proper studio recording songs. In 1997, they only released two singles in compilation albums. One of the albums –Masaindahbangetsekalipisan– was an important compilation produced by Richard Mutter. Pas Band’s first drummer. Burgerkill contributed a song titled Revolt! for the album. The compilation resembled the who’s who of indie bands based in Bandung at the time. Alongside Burgerkill, there were also Sendal Jepit, Cherry Bombshell, and Puppen.

Such compilations depicted how well established were the circulations of Bandung music community during an important era of indie music history. Bandung Metal indie circulation figure appeared bolder in a compilation of Grind core bands in Ujung Berung, titled Independent Rebel (1998). Burgerkill contributed asingle titled Offered Sucks in the album. The compilation marked the growth of Kampung Metal in Ujung Berung, as well as hinting Burgerkill’s involvement in the village.

Eben –who was mainly active in Ujung Berung– also helped the organic growth of Metal subculture which will later go global in circa 2000. Burgerkill launched their go international debut in early 1999, after taking an offer from a Malaysian indie label, Anak Liar Records. They released an album titled ‘Three Ways Split’ which was a joint album of three bands. Besides Burger kill, there were also Infireal from Malaysia, and Watch It Fall from France.

Burgerkill’s first album then came out in 2000; titled as Dua Sisi or Two Sides, under Riotic Records. The interesting part is the production mode which actively incorporated non-musical aspects were fluently applied by various indie bands. Burgerkill cooperated with Puma, an American sports brand, to sponsor their various performances in the year 2001. In 2002, Australian clothing brand’Insight’ also sponsored Burgerkill’s performances.

Actually, just like Pas Band, Burgerkill once joined the major label record horizon. In 2003, they were the first Metalcore band in Indonesia who signed a six-album contract with Sony Music. But after three albums, Burgerkill ended their contract with Sony in 2005; and formed their very own Revolt! Record.

From indie production modes and community root, Burgerkill became an example how they instead cold circulate internationally. They jammed the stages with overseas Metal groups such as The Black Dahlia Murder, As I Lay Dying, and Himsa. Burgerkill once also cooperated with Xenophobic Records to distribute their albums in Australia.

The phenomenon could indeed be repeated. Besides Burgerkill, there are several other Metal bands who emerged in international Metal scene from similar grounds. Among others was Death Vomit, a Death Metal band from Jogja; who once shared a stage with Behemoth from Poland, and Psycroptic from Australia. There was also Noxa, who became the first Metal band from Asia to have played in Tuska Open Air Metal Festival, Helsinki, in 2008. As the article is being written, Noxa was preparing their gig in Maryland Death Fest, May 22nd in Baltimore, US.

Global Circulation, Technology, and Stage

What happened in Indonesia’s Metal grounds could as well depicted the spirit of an era. In the 90s, Indonesia’s mainstream music and culture universe began to be defined and institutionalized more thoroughly. Along that, the indie scene also defined and institutionalized themselves.

The mainstream world produced, for example, Ariel and Noah band, or Agnes Monica. They have the go international passion by carrying the Finance Capital and Corporation Marketing. The said circulation pattern is clearly different from the one endured by Metal musicians from Ujung Berung or the Grindcore community of Jogjakarta.

The character that soon would stand out of the indie lane is:

First, community base. The base was formed from creations of spaces for performances and hang outs, producing joint works. For example: through alternative stages, underground, which sometimes could appear in villages; as well as hang out spaces to exchanges ideas about music.

Second, the indie production mode.

It does not only relate with cheap production mode, DIY, and usually are communal. It does not only refer to the door-to-door distribution, gethok tular (mouth to mouth recommendation), or communities’ events. This production mode also included the creations of various complimentary attributes and symbols, which overall became the symbolic mode in identity building for those who are “in the scene”.

Third, technology enability.

Especially the digital technology and the internet. Indonesia’s most meticulous Metal subculture observer, Yuka Narendra, once mentioned how the recording technology transfer from cassette to CD made the demo-making process much easier and simpler for new emerging bands. Such technology transfer posed a role in developing indie production mode in Indonesia’s music horizon.

The internet technology has proven to be a great help. Take for example, e-mails. When Noxa band went on three-city tour in former Czechoslovakia in 2010, it all began from electronic mails exchanges between Noxa and Curby, owner of Obscene Record. Curby also held Obscene Extreme Festival and invited Noxa to perform. Curby heard about Noxa after meeting Robin Hutagaol, the band’s first vocalist, when Robin attended the festival in 2005 and 2007. Curby then helped the band’s first two albums distribution. Robin died in 2009 after a motorcycle accident. But Noxa continued his legacy to emerge in international scenes until today.

The three characters also appeared in other genres that grow within Indonesia’s indie scene. For example is Bottlesmoker, a group also from Bandung, who performed electronic music. Their albums production started out in their rooms, as Angkuy and Nobie –Bottlesmokers’ founders and personnel– operated their computer and digital music gadgets. After being composed, their music was spread among others via social media Myspace.com. From the internet circulation, their music penetrated various nations. Now, they are one of Indonesia’s alternative bands that have gone global.

But Metal subculture indeed marked a special meaning in Indonesia’s current culture. Hear this: in 2014, a self-uploaded video went viral, showing a young girl –15 years old– in hijab, playing an electric guitar with exceptional finesse to Lamb of God’s Hourglass. The girl, Meliani Siti Sumartini, called herself Mel. Her play was highly praised by metalinjection.net which also plays Mel’s video.

Looking at Mel is like looking at Jokowi watching a Metal concert. Not only because they turned out to be the fans of Lamb of God; but the bursting feeling that Indonesia is, among many things, a Nation of Metal ***

Hikmat Darmawan is a Critics, Culture Analyst, Asian Public Intellectual Nippon Foundation 2010 and Creative Director of Pabrikultur which concerns on media and cultural activities.