Oct 01, 2022 Last Updated 2:22 AM, Sep 25, 2022

Review: 25 years of music activism

Published: Aug 19, 2022

Julia Winterflood

The history of music, though constantly being rewritten, is inseparable from that of social movements. From revolutionary symphonies to punk rock, folk to political hip-hop, most genres feature artists who’ve created works to condemn injustice and inspire change. In Indonesia, the Bali-based rock band Navicula has spent the past 25 years tackling some of the country’s biggest social and environmental ills — corruption, human rights abuses, religious extremism, pollution, deforestation — through powerful, gritty, anthemic tracks.

It was this quarter-century milestone that inspired development expert and long-term fan of the band Ewa Wojkowska to produce and host A Soundtrack of Resistance, a podcast series exploring 12 Navicula songs and the stories of why and how they were made. Along with the band, she collaborated with other music industry members, researchers, writers, and colleagues on the project. The first episode was released in mid-2021, and a few months later A Soundtrack of Resistance reached number one on the Apple Podcast charts for music interviews in Singapore and Indonesia.

As the series' tagline goes, it’s 'a social history of Indonesia through the songs of Navicula, the best band you’ve probably never heard of.' If you are among those who haven’t yet heard of Navicula, comparisons could be drawn with America’s Rage Against the Machine, or in terms of lyrical content, Australia’s Midnight Oil. Navicula’s style is influenced by alternative ‘90s rock, particularly seminal groups such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, while also incorporating indigenous influences and psychedelic rock. Many Navicula songs feature the elements of an anthem: a simple yet potent chorus, steady beat, and lyrics that unite those singing along at the top of their lungs — an integral part of the band’s live performances.

Navicula follows in the footsteps of Iwan Fals, a singer-songwriter who, as Rebekah Moore writes, was instrumental in defining the rock musician’s role as social activist in Indonesia. Vocalist and guitarist Gede Robi says in Episode 1, ‘As artists, I feel we have the ability to challenge the status quo. For me and my band Navicula, we love music and we care about social and environmental issues. We believe every generation has their own revolution — I think social and environmental issues are the crucial issue of our generation.’

Ewa speaks with Robi and his fellow band members — guitarist Dadang Pranoto, bassist Krishnanda Adipurba, and drummer Palel Atmoko — about their activism on and off the stage, along with the people behind the movements they support: prominent activists, academics, and development leaders. This is what makes the podcast a first in Indonesia: socially conscious musicians sharing a microphone with those who have also dedicated a large part of their lives to improving Indonesia, albeit using different methods.

Each podcast episode focuses on a particular Navicula song. Episode 4 explores Aku Bukan Mesin (I Am Not a Machine), which the band recorded in response to the terrorist bombings that shook Bali and Jakarta in the early 2000s. It’s an angry, frustrated track, with a propulsive guitar hook and erratic instrumental sections. Robi tells Ewa the lyrics were ‘just the pure reaction as a human being, as a Balinese.’ He was ‘thinking about the people who have losing (sic) their heart, losing (sic) their entity as a human to do such a cruel, unimaginable action. It just destroys everything. The effect of the destruction is affecting everybody.’ Ewa is also joined by Sidney Jones, Director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, who many consider as a ‘rock star’ of her field. She examines the role religion played in the bombings, what makes people turn to violent extremism, and whether it continues to be a threat in Indonesia.

Navicula at Soundrenaline Festival promoting the campaign to ban single use plastics in Bali / Kopernik

Episode 6 features Mafia Hukum (The Legal Mafia), one of the band’s most popular songs, which became the anthem of Indonesia’s anti-corruption movement. The episode includes a cast of heavy hitters in the civil society and development space: international development expert and former World Bank lead social scientist for East Asia and the Pacific, Scott Guggenheim; award-winning documentary filmmaker Dandhy Laksono; former deputy commissioner of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, Saut Situmorang; and Indonesia Corruption Watch’s Sely Martini. 

Reaching new audiences

Many of the topics at the heart of Navicula’s songs are also addressed by the Indonesia-based non-profit Kopernik, which Ewa co-founded in 2010. A research and development organisation, Kopernik works with diverse partners — including musicians and artists — to find solutions to social and environmental challenges across the archipelago and beyond. Recognising that music is a means to reach wider audiences and a key component of social movements, for the past six years Kopernik has collaborated with Navicula on various initiatives, the biggest of which is a campaign to reduce single-use plastic consumption. This collaboration culminated in the feature-length documentary Pulau Plastik (Plastic Island), which was picked up by Netflix in June this year. Alongside Tiza Mafira and Prigi Arisandi, the film follows Robi as he investigates Indonesia’s plastic pollution crisis and what can be done to fight it.

The Pulau Plastik campaign features in Episode 7 of the podcast, which delves into the song Saat Semua Semakin Cepat, Bali Berani Berhenti (As Everything Gets Faster and Faster, Bali Dares to Stop). Released in 2016, the gentle acoustic folk ballad is the band’s love letter to Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu annual ‘day of silence’, and an ode to the island’s bravery to continue celebrating its customs in the face of globalisation. During the episode, Ewa and Robi point out that Nyepi isn’t the only example of Bali’s bravery to buck the trend. In 2019, the province became the first in Indonesia to pass a regulation banning the use of certain single-use items including plastic bags, styrofoam, and plastic straws in restaurants, cafes, shops and markets, and inspired other locations in Indonesia to follow Bali’s example.

People power. As depicted in the documentary Pulau Plastik, thousands joined Navicula lead singer Gede Robi in a protest march in Jakarta / Kopernik

Navicula may not yet be that well known outside Indonesia, but the band’s music does connect with foreign listeners, even though most of their lyrics being in Indonesian. The band’s first major international exposure was with the song Metropolutan (Episode 2), which decries overdevelopment and pollution in Jakarta. The song took out the RØDE Rocks! International Band Competition in 2012. Their prize was a session at the legendary Record Plant Recording Studios in Los Angeles with the band’s ‘dream producer’, Alain Johannes to record its Love Bomb album. A viewer of the Metropolutan video, which Navicula submitted for the competition, commented, ‘I do not understand what you are singing, but I feel this song. I love it. Awesome voice, awesome grunge sound’.

Just as a foreign listener who could not understand a word of Indonesian was able to connect with Metropolutan, those who’ve never heard the band’s music will find much to engage with in the podcast. For those with little knowledge of the world’s fourth most populous nation, each episode is an accessible introduction to a particular period in contemporary Indonesian history, soundtracked by the band that has been at the vanguard of Indonesian music activism for much of its career. As Robi says in Episode 4, ‘As an artist, it’s really important to capture a moment. I see Navicula as a journalist using music as the medium, so it’s really important to capture the original feeling of what we feel at the time, like a historian writing a journal through music.’

Ewa Wojkowska and Gede Robi, A Soundtrack of Resistance, Podcast Series

Julia Winterflood (julia.winterflood@gmail.com) is a freelance writer, editor, and translator who has called Indonesia home since 2014. She contributed to the writing and production of several episodes of A Soundtrack of Resistance.

Inside Indonesia 149: Jul-Sep 2022

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