Underground music gives young people back their voice
Halfway down the road to Parangtritis, in the isolated Gabusan Art Building, wedged between sugar cane and rice paddies, a crowd of Yogyakarta youths endure the intense mid-day sun to watch an underground music concert.
Outside, near the parked motorbikes, the atmosphere is vibrant. Small groups cluster in narrow strips of shade to dodge the harsh noon glare. Some chat and joke as they wait for their favoured bands to come on. Others rest in silence, conserving energy before they perform, or recovering from a stint of brutal pogo dancing inside the airless hall. Not all the spectators are from Yogya. Many travelled from neighbouring cities in Central Java or from further afield in Bali or West Java to see the poster-billed bands and check out new local talent.
Vibrations from the hall hum through the air. Each time watchful police open the venue's doors to let sweaty bodies slip through, broken lyrics and fast drum phrases spill out into daylight.
Like most underground concerts these days, this event showcases several music genres: the loud angry disorder of Punk, the low growls and grunts of Grindcore, the melancholic and nihilistic screeching of Doom Metal, not to mention Black Metal, Brutal Death and Skacore.
Distinctive musical styles are coupled with dramatic fashion. Metal fans decked out in monochrome black contrast with the vivid ripped punk style, as do the checked shirts, braces and black boots of the skinheads. This is an 'anything goes' space, both stimulating and disseminating self-expression.
Underground concerts are not unique to Yogyakarta. The scene has flourished throughout Indonesia since the early nineties. Similar events are mirrored in Bandung, Malang, Denpasar, Blora and numerous other cities.
United by the desire to reclaim artistic creativity, the underground movement offers musicians an escape from the clutches of commercial culture. Hollers, screams and growls are let loose. Unlike the mainstream music world which is engineered by profit-oriented major label corporations, expression is not restricted. 'When I'm fed up, this music lets me get out my emotions and become positive' says Dempak, vocalist for the Bandung hardcore punk band Jeruji.
For many of the kids at this concert, music is more than just a hobby. Close-knit communities of young people sharing an interest in underground music have emerged throughout Indonesia. Underground youth cultures provide a network of like-minded people to experiment, hang out and jam with. A place of refuge from families who don't understand the aspirations of their youth, and from a society preoccupied with other issues. These groups provide a sense of belonging and family-like support for members who choose nomadic life on the streets in preference to living at home. Distinct from other more segregated social structures, the underground scene is open for all to join and participate in. Money and education are not barriers.
With its roots in the underground movement, punk is the most theatrical youth culture in Indonesia. Intentionally in your face and necessarily cheap, punk dress code, music and lifestyle have been adopted by young people from a cross section of classes, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Uni students, street kids, salespeople and the unemployed unite in a show of studded jackets, gravity-defying hairstyles and pants patched with angry slogans. They have redefined these symbols of a western tradition in a new setting.
The seventies British punk scene grew out of a climate of high youth unemployment, poverty and illiteracy. Found objects were given new 'absurd' contexts: over-sized safety pins pushed through earlobes and spiked dog collars buckled around human necks. These visual statements set out to ridicule the conventions of respectable social life. The tough non-conformist attitudes of punkers were a reaction to a conservative government which offered limited prospects to its youth.
Indonesian punk has a similar history. According to those who have been involved in the scene for almost a decade, some of Indonesia's youth began parading punk fashion as a rebellious visual stab at unappetising social 'norms'. At that stage, fear of repercussions ensured that they rarely voiced discontent with the establishment openly.
Ironically, the increased freedoms after the fall of the New Order produced an intellectual rift that divided the punk scene. One section chooses to remain uninterested and disenchanted by politics. Others look to punk activism in other parts of the world as a blueprint for how to voice concerns. 'It's time for us, the next generation, to open our thoughts, hearts and ears to fight for what we are sure of and what is right' cries a cut-and-paste photocopied leaflet, handed out during a concert in East Java.
The Do-It-Yourself ethic long associated with this branch of the underground music movement encourages young people to be active in a sub-culture they can call their own. The realisation that anyone can record their own music or publish a homemade fanzine is self-empowering. Alternative distribution systems replace dependence on the unattainable and limiting commercial media. The movement values independent thinking and self-education. Most opinion pieces in underground newsletters cockily invite critical feedback.
Samples from political speeches are mixed into three-chord thrash and then coated in layers of rebellion and dissatisfaction. Weapons of consumer culture such as packaging are appropriated and disarmed. Album covers, for example, are used as a space for critical commentary. Stamped with images selected to stimulate a reaction, this medium opens another doorway for bands to communicate directly with their audience. The compilation Punx 'n Skins: Street Sounds of Revolution is wrapped in the printed aspirations of the thirty bands involved in making the album. A short text inside the simple cover dedicates the album to the ideals of freedom, togetherness and the environment. It states its opposition to injustice and oppression. The words 'ELIMINATE THEM!' ('Basmi mereka!') in bold capitals are aimed at the corruptors who have eaten through Indonesia's bureaucracy.
Music is not their only medium of criticism. Concern for the future of Indonesia often leads these youths to the forefront of heated demonstrations. They assert their personal beliefs and try to raise awareness in others through street posters, stickers, badges, fanzines and handouts.
But sharp spikes, superfluous zippers, and tattoos still twig a sensitive nerve in today's Indonesia. In the rare event the media looks at this group of young people it usually paints an ugly ('jelek') portrait. When last November the weekly tabloid Adil published a feature article on 'Bandung's sea of gangs', it described the punk community as 'disturbing' and placed it on a par with the thugs who rule Bandung's underworld. Music mag Mumu in its April edition said punk members were paid to take part in demonstrations. ('They are happy to do it as they are getting paid' - 'Mereka sih senang-senang aja disuruh seperti itu karena diberi uang'). Prejudice stemming from conservative values also comes in more sinister forms. Random beatings, threats and tales of harassment are not uncommon.
Punk and other underground music may have originated in the west. But Indonesia's youth have indigenised these cultures and given them new meanings. Amidst Indonesia's current upheaval, they offer young people an identity to participate in, and a support base. Even more important, the underground has broken down barriers to expression and given youths back their voice after a long period of silence.
Jo Pickles (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student at the Australian National University, Canberra. She was in Yogyakarta with Acicis (the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies).