May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Rock'n'Roll radicals

Published: Sep 30, 2007

DAVID HILL and KRISHNA SEN scour the music shops. They find that foreign music is now as Indonesian as batik. From Hindi film to 'Indie' punk rock, foreign musical genres are being indigenised, and imbued with Indonesian political meaning.

In 1995, total retail sales of recorded music in Indonesia amounted to less than three percent of the USA's US$ 12,880 million. Yet, even ignoring pirated recordings, Indonesia's music market dwarfs those of its neighbours. On 1995 figures, sales in the Philippines were 16 percent and Thailand 65 percent of Indonesia's.

In the early 1980s many recording companies were profiting from pirating cassettes of Western pop music produced without license. In the late 1990s, from its plush office in a prestigious Jakarta skyscraper, the Sound Recording Industry Association of Indonesia (Asiri) promotes a new 'professional' image for the industry, highlighting efforts to eliminate record piracy.

The Association of Indonesian Composers and Musical Arrangers (Pappri) believes that for every legitimate cassette there may still be up to five pirated copies. But, pirated or legal, foreign music has not overwhelmed local creativity. Rather, the foreign has been indigenised and transformed into something other than a mere copy of an imported product. More importantly, some of the foreign imports have been re interpreted in the Indonesian context to become signifiers of opposition to the New Order.


An influx of Anglo-American recordings after the end of the Sukarno-era in 1965 challenged the Indonesian industry. One response was a reinvigorated attempt to synthesise an identifiably Indonesian modern popular music. By all accounts Rhoma Irama is the central figure in this invention of dangdut as national-popular music.

With his Soneta Group and co-performers like Elvy Sukaesih, Rhoma Irama transformed older-style Malay orchestra music into up-tempo dangdut - dubbed onomatopoeically after its syncopated drum beat,dang then dut. In so doing he became one of the best-paid and most widely recognised contemporary Indonesians.

Rhoma Irama took the rhythmic style of Indian film songs popular with lower class urban Indonesians and transformed it into a national treasure. In the 1980s it was favoured even by the middle classes, and enjoyed the patronage of cabinet ministers. In the 1990s about 35% of total record sales in Indonesia are dangdut.

Some established pop performers adopted dangdut as part of their repertoire since the 1980s. University students saw in it a way of playfully adopting lower class music as a gesture against commercial pop.


The Armed Forces monthly music program on TVRI, Aneka Ria Puspenhankam Abri, frequently featured dangdut, often played by military bands. State officials began to include dangdut entertainment in formal and social events. By the mid-1980s dangdut had become an established vehicle for populist politicking, endorsed by the highest levels of government. It is now championed by State Secretary Moerdiono, who declaredthat 'dangdut is of the people, by the people, for the people'. It is, he declared, 'very, very Indonesian'.

Rhoma Irama's attempt to use his music as a medium of Islamic evangelism also made dangdut a point of party political contention. His lyrics, rhythms and performances tapped the early 1980s Muslim resentment against the New Order and were well received by scholars and students in Muslim schools and colleges around the country. H

e aligned himself with the Islamic opposition political party, the PPP, campaigning for them in general elections and singing at the rallies. For this allegiance, TVRI blocked his television appearances for most of the 1980s and strict security conditions were applied to his public performances. But by the 1990s, Rhoma was back on television. His allegiances were shifting too, as he and dangdut were becoming a vehicle for the New Order's rapprochement with the Muslims, finally enacted in the Raja Dangdut's Golkar candidature in the 1997 elections.


At another point on the Indonesian musical spectrum, 'alternative' or 'underground' bands, closely following the latest global trends in youth culture, operate outside the mainstream recording companies. They produce their own albums on small independent or 'Indie' labels using strategies and the technology of the 'pirate' cassette producers in the early 1970s. For as little as Rp 1.5 million (AU$800), they can hire a cheap studio (or record 'live' on rented equipment in someone's home) and reproduce in small production runs. They sell by word of mouth, through a local radio station, at gigs or by mail order, priced to undercut commercial cassette and sometimes even at a loss. Most are fiercely proud of their creative independence from the major record labels, and of their rejection of middle-of-the-road Indonesian musical styles. They adopt, as one local commentator said, 'creepy whitey-sounding' names like Closeminded, Full of Hate, Insanity, Sonic Torment, Trauma, Koil, Sadistis and so on.


Several underground bands have been absorbed into the mainstream media. Surabaya band Boomerang opened the 'live' Indosiar broadcast of the Gong 2000 concert, staged to celebrate Armed Forces Day, at the former Ancol racing circuit before a crowd of 50,000 on 12 October 1996. But this institutional co-optation does not appear to tame either the radical message of the lyric or the anarchic message of the performance.

The first track on Boomerang's 1996 cassette 'Disharmoni', is a Who-like rock anthem, 'Generasiku' [My Generation], whose gravelly-voiced refrain yells out: 'Raise your hands high/ yell out This is my generation/ raise your hands high/ this is my generation'. It challenges 'those who are sharp-tongued, poisoned/ by ambition and crazy for power/ don't be taken in by their tricks/ this world belongs to us!'.

Another track, 'OKBM', expressly attacks the leaders of the country: 'A million dreams you've offered/ but you've only left frustration/ you've tricked and destroyed me/ you've sucked all my blood dry./ It's false.. everything that you have done for me/ desire [nafsu]... it's only to satisfy your own desire/ .../where are you taking the kids of our country?' And their advice to their fans on their cassette cover: 'enjoy and play it loud, stay crazy okay...!!!' ( in English).


Perhaps the most successful band bridging 'underground' and 'commercial' genres of popular music is Slank. Since its first album in 1990 it has had a string of 'best selling album' awards and maintained a hold on the commercial Top Ten listings with a mixture of soft sentimental songs and growling angry protests. The sentimental 'Terbunuh sepi' ('Killed by loneliness') rated amongst the ten best video clips on RCTI's Video Musik Indonesia program for 1995-96. By contrast, the title track from their 1995 fourth album (on 'PISS Records'!) is the Led Zeppelin-ish 'Generasi Biru' (Blue Generation). On their 'Generasi Biru' album is a laid back blues track 'Blues Males' ('Lazy Blues'). The lyric plays on sleep/ sleeping around (tidur/ tidurin), about how great it would be to get a (girl-)friend (the band is all male) from a (powerfully connected) conglomerate, 'so life wouldn't be destitute any longer/ waiting for inheritance while sleeping around.../ If you know the most powerful people/ you can let troubles pass you by/ you can get a well-placed position to sleep around/ .../ a water-bed to sleep around/ a (five-) star hotel to sleep around/ a stack of money for whoever you're screwing'. In the scribbled song on the cassette cover, the final line is 'Punya jabatan...Buat nidurin bawahan!!!' ('Got a (high) position to screw the underlings!') - the word 'nidurin' struck out but visible through the pen stroke.

Politics and fashion

'Generasi Biru' went 'double platinum' as BASF's largest selling cassette across all musical categories in Indonesia in 1994-95. Slank has diversified to establish a management bureau, recording studio, production house and recording company, as autonomous enterprises. Slank market research on their first five albums indicated that 43% of the buyers were between 15-19 years old, and 35% between 20 and 24. Fifty-eight percent were males. Though the majority of Slank's fans are in Java their appeal is national, their sales broadly reflecting population densities.

In the 1990s the musical messages about bosses screwing everyone, and indeed screwing up the younger generation, is fashionable, bought and listened to by the thousands of youth (remaja) fans of the 'alternative' music scene. The message and the medium are so much the defining 'taste' of the youth that large recording companies are embracing these bands for the sake of the markets. The anti-authority message, the invitation to disorderliness, underlying the medium may well be more important than the verbal discourse of the songs. Disorder, always the political antithesis of the New Order, is now 'in' for the younger generation.

Summing up

Ever since Sukarno implicated western music into his nationalist rhetoric, in effect banning Anglo American rock, certain forms of foreign music have signified opposition to the ruling regime. Even dangdut, the New Order's 'national music', in some contexts escapes the moral order of the New Order regime. In the late New Order, punk, death metal and other 1990s headbanging genres, adopted from the Euro-American scene, have come to signify a gesture of generational opposition to the ageing regime, led by an old man.

Dr David Hill and Dr Krishna Sen both teach at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. This article is extracted from their forthcoming book on the Indonesian mass media, 'Media culture politics in Indonesia'.

Inside Indonesia 52: Oct-Dec 1997

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