Quite unknown to the tourists, Balinese youth are creating a dynamic musical identity that refuses to be colonised. EMMA BAULCH joins the death thrashers for an evening of metal.
Every second Sunday at around dusk, a stream of motorbikes starts trickling down from the Sanur bypass towards the beach at Padang Galak. They turn east at the shore, traverse the vast expanse of graded earth that is to be Bali's first 'Recreation Park', and come to rest at a grassy flat beneath the Penyu Dewata swimming pool. By nightfall, around 1000 two wheeled vehicles have banked up. They have come to witness what is currently Bali's biggest local music event - the bi-weekly Sunday Hot Music.
Most visitors to Bali will have heard a local band play at one of the pubs or clubs around Kuta or Sanur. But unknown to most of them, a locally oriented rock scene lies beneath this gloss of tourist entertainment venues and less than perfectly rendered covers of 'Hotel California'. This local music scene is booming and some attribute the boom to Sunday Hot Music.
'Sunday Hot Music has produced a snowball effect whereby the more gigs there are, the more kids want to be in a band', says Gus Martin, Bali Post's resident rock historian who originally proposed the idea to the backer of Sunday Hot Music, Crapt Entertainment. According to Martin, Sunday Hot Music is more than just a music event, 'it has become an important part of teen life in Denpasar'.
Whether Sunday Hot Music can be credited with creating the boom is a moot point. But clearly, the local music scene has shown signs of invigoration since the event started two years ago. Because of the increasing number of bands, Crapt has recently been forced to turn many hopefuls away. Each Sunday Hot Music showcases six bands, three of which are invited without audition and three selected after auditioning. Now Crapt has started to use a random pre-selection system to cull the pool.
Some veteran Balinese musicians see the greater accessibility of musical equipment as having prompted the boom. According to Agus Lempog, a guitarist who plays in several of the well-known clubs in Kuta and Sanur, 'musical instruments are easier to come by now. Look in Jimbaran for example. People sell their land and if they've got teenage kids they buy musical instruments. For the kids, it's a form of prestige and it gives them a hobby.'
I'll dump you anyway
At dusk, the crowd at Padang Galak is still sparse. A single strip of Hondas - Sunday Hot Music's 'back row seats'- lines up 200m back from the stage. Clutches of adolescents group on the rise under the trees and on the flat. Not until darkness descends does the flow of incoming traffic increase. The vast empty space between the stage and the back row fills with an ever thickening crowd. Under the night sky, spectators sit cross legged, knee to knee on the dusty earth. Together they form a silent mass, completely focussed on the floodlit stage to the north, waiting for the show to commence.
When the first players appear, they are wearing jeans cut off at calf length, runners, and the vocalist dons a fat tie over his ripped T-shirt. Superman is Dead (SID) is a Kuta-based punk band formed at the end of 1995 by three university students - Bobbie (vocals), Eka (rhythm) and Jerink (drums). If I can't have you/ That's alright/ Because I'll dump you anyway/ I've got no love mother fucker. Lips resting on the mike, Bobbie screams out the phrases.
'Our punk is about an anti-establishment attitude that's communicated musically with a letting go, anything goes kind of approach', Jerink explains later backstage where some crop-headed teens had minutes before been moshing to the music.
'We want to stress the value of taking things lightly, don't get into anything too heavy, just be realistic, play whatever', Jerink says. SID's punk style is commonly lumped with the broader alternative genre, widely quoted by musicians as currently the trendiest. Since the Green Day and the Alternative Rock concerts in Jakarta earlier this year, 'alternative' music has fast become an integral part of what it is to be an ultimately modern teen.
While the gathering places of Bali's other music genres tend to be private spaces - studios or family compounds - it is the NDA shopping centre in central Denpasar that is the major hangout for 'alternative' adolescents. The SID groupies backstage had met up there before moving on to Padang Galak, and now they were about to return, get a snack at McDonalds and play a few rounds of Street Fighter before going back to someone's place to watch MTV.
Despite the opportunities it offers to advertise to the youth market, Sunday Hot Music has failed to capture the attention of other potential sponsors, and Crapt remains the sole main backer of the event. In 1994 and 1995, when it consisted of four consecutive shows in the month of May, Sunday Hot Music took place at the Art Centre in Jalan Nusa Indah. But since January this year, when it's been running every two weeks, the event has been moved to Padang Galak.
Crapt manager Rahmat Hariyanto quotes lack of sponsorship as the reason for relocating from the under-used Art Centre to the windy dust bowl of Padang Galak. 'Income from ticketing wasn't covering overheads at the Art Centre which came to a million rupiahs a show', he said. 'Now at Padang Galak, Penyu Dewata supplies the venue and electricity for free, and we no longer ticket the event. With the move, we've cut our operational costs in half.'
As the punk rockers wind down, a small group of boys in black T-shirts start to gather backstage. They are the 'death thrashers' - supporters, roadies and managers for the 'death metal' band Behead, which is next to appear. When Behead kicks off with Cerebral Fix's 'Quest of Midion', more death thrashers emerge individually from the silent crowd and walk briskly to the edge of the stage. Backs to the spectators, bent over like a rugby scrum they surge and recede, whirling their black manes to vocalist Lolot's death growl.
'Most of us are not so much inspired by the themes of death metal lyrics', says rhythm guitarist Kadek on the 'underlying concept' of his music of choice. 'The attraction is more the music itself, it gives us hope, it's about freedom, it's an expression of our soul.'
Death metal is the only genre to be represented by a formal organisation. 1921 takes its name from the now axed death metal program on Denpasar's Radio Yudha that ran nightly from 7pm to 9pm (19.00 to 21.00). At almost every Sunday Hot Music, one of 1921's seven member bands performs and this time Behead carries the organisational banner. Member bands get assistance from the organisation in applying to perform at gigs, and in the form of musical equipment. At gigs, 1921 'officials' regularly flank the stage and ensure that headbangers don't inadvertently stomp on cables.
The headbangers themselves are an integral part of the organisation. While emerging separately from the crowd, they join as a community in the scrum. The action of headbanging is a statement of alliance with 1921, an organisation which claims to stand for 'its members right to be different, in whatever form, and the right of young people to adopt images of extremity'. It also aims to 'challenge negative public perceptions of rock music in general'.
Although 'metal' music in Bali has been free of violence, it is perhaps a public perception of violence that prompted Crapt to line reggae bands up immediately after 'thrash' or 'death metal' bands. According to Rahmat, 'to place metal bands end on end could be like adding fuel to a fire, so we try to cool the situation down with reggae'.
So, when Behead strike their final metal chord, the Sanur-based reggae band Adi Thumb move in to take their place. As if repelled by the tassled rayon shirts and bright colours, the black robed death thrashers quickly back away from the edge of the stage and slip back in to the quiet mass, or just go straight home. Adi Thumb's vocalist Goes Toet drives a peace sign into the air above his head and shouts a cheery Rasta 'Jah', before the seven piece band launches into 'Caribbean Blues'.
Unlike the 'moshers' of alternative music, and metal's headbangers, reggae has no visible mass of fans at Sunday Hot Music. Being the last pre-alternative trend to hit Bali, reggae is now considered passe by much of the Sunday Hot Music audience, despite the numerous reggae bands that live on.
In other ways though, reggae has a lot going for it. Unlike the other musical genres, it is regarded as appropriate for the tourist market. This provides an opportunity for work in hotels and clubs and, consequently, real career prospects for reggae musicians. In turn, reggae affirms an image of Bali as a perfect beach paradise.
Although dominated by covers of Bob Marley songs, the Bali reggae scene is much less about the struggle for Rastafarian liberation than about creating a Caribbean atmosphere and promoting Bali as a beach culture. 'Reggae is always associated with the beach, and the lyrics often refer to peace, which fits in well with Bali being a peace-loving island', according to Goes Amin, keyboardist with Adi Thumb.
While the future looks bright for reggae musicians in Bali's expanding tourism market, the reality is different for most Balinese bands. Tourist-oriented venues are not interested in the same kind of music as Balinese youth, while many young musicians claim disinterest in the hotel and club scene because they don't like being told what to play. 'If we want to play in a bar, we have to have a repertoire of about 40 songs, provided by the employer', according to SID drummer Jerink. 'And they're bound to be songs we're not into, 'cause there's no punk bar in Bali yet.'
The result is that the tourist and locally oriented music scenes are almost exclusively separate, as Crapt manager Rahmat, who has interests in both markets, found. As well as running a rental business at Crapt, he manages local bands that play the bar circuit. His original idea with Sunday Hot Music was to 'bring together all elements of the music scene, including hotel musicians'.
'But', he said, 'I found the tastes of Balinese youth were totally different to what the hotel bands were playing, so in the end I scrapped the whole idea.'
Signing a contract with a record company is likewise a fairly unlikely prospect for most Balinese musicians. There are no locally based recording studios, and few bands have enough original music in their repertoire to record an album. The future of the Balinese music scene is caught in a bind between a tourism oriented circuit that demands adeptness at covering classics and a recording industry firmly based in Jakarta that has as yet shown little interest in the budding Balinese scene.
Rahmat sees the way forward as offering initiatives for local bands to produce more originals, then promoting them at the national level. During July this year, bands performing at Sunday Hot Music were required to play 75 per cent originals, which was recorded by Crapt to make an album. In early 1997, Crapt plans to tour Balinese bands through Java to promote the album.
Recording opportunities, though, lie a long way off for most local musicians. For them music is neither about making money nor carving a career path. So why the youth music boom? Perhaps it is a youth response to social change in the 1990s or, to use the less cumbersome local coinage, globalisasi.
As physical space on the island is increasingly crowded with hotels and clubs from which locals are often barred, and as colossal shopping centres fill spaces where sports grounds once lay, many young Balinese are choosing to fill their leisure time with music. It may be that music takes them beyond an increasingly alien landscape to a state of mind that is harder to colonise.
Perhaps the emerging genres of music also represent to Balinese youth their contribution to shaping globalisasi. Through reggae, Balinese musicians are gaining the power to play a part in economic growth, ensuring that they too get a piece of the mass tourism pie. After half a century of being anthropologically romanticised, young Balinese are discovering their souls in 'death metal', one of Western music's most esoteric underclass products. Via alternative music, Balinese youth are asserting a demand to enjoy capitalism's fantasy land free of the shackles of cultural preservation.
Emma Baulch is an Australian volunteer from Melbourne currently living in Bali.