In the midst of the pandemic, Bali’s musicians have harnessed their reserves of creativity, humour and resilience
Nicodemus Freddy Hadiyanto
In early 2020, I returned to my homeland after a family visit to Melbourne as the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Jakarta.
When I arrived at the airport in Bali, where I live, some preventive measures had begun. I was given a yellow sheet to fill in declaring that I was in good health, and had my temperature checked. It was only a sheet paper with no medical examination, other than the temperature check.
A few days after arriving from Australia, I returned to my usual work as a DJ. At that time there were still a lot of tourists, everything was as usual. I didn’t feel that Indonesia or Bali was a concern, even though I was worried about how the pandemic was developing abroad in places like China and Italy, where at that time the situation was severe. On television, I saw updates from the government that showed Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’), the President of Indonesia, saying that people do not need to worry about COVID-19 because it is not dangerous.
The newspaper reported that the Vice President, Maruf, said that he had prayed that COVID-19 would fail in Indonesia. Even the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, said that Indonesia’s tropical and humid climate meant COVID-19 would not develop in Indonesia. It was then that I started turning off the television and decided to stay away from the media, as I believed that COVID-19 could enter Indonesia at any time.
By March COVID-19 was spreading and the Indonesian government began to tighten its supervision. The central government handed over responsibly for COVID-19 planning to their respective local governments.
It was at this time that I received news via a message on a WhatsApp group, that all DJs were to be stopped indefinitely, and so I became unemployed until further notice. The Bali government also began to tighten its surveillance of the pandemic following the discovery of positive cases of in Bali. Denpasar introduced a colour mapping system; green is a COVID-free area, while red is a zone that is considered contaminated.
After Nyepi, which fell on 25-26 March, the Balinese government implemented restrictions on community activities (pembatasan kegiatan masyarakat), referred to as PKM. A curfew was introduced; all stalls, restaurants, and cafes were now required to close at 9pm. Supervision and operational restrictions on community activities were carried out through traditional village systems in Bali, in this case the banjar and the pecalang. Restrictions on community activities or PKM, impacted the lives of Balinese people who are very dependent on tourism. Slowly, the number of tourists visiting Bali began to shrink, hotels large and small started to reduce their operations or even closed, and thousands of employees were being furloughed or retrenched.
This situation continues to decimate the economy in Bali, which is very dependent on the tourism sector. Following the closure of Ngurah Rai airport to flights entering Bali in August 2020, the economic situation worsened. Of the many professions in the world of tourism, artistic and creative activities were increasingly affected. In addition to DJs like me, café bands, traditional dancers in hotels or modern dancers in restaurants, gamelan musicians and others were beginning to be laid off; and so, a death knell out rang for the Balinese economy. It was the beginning of what would become a bad year for the Balinese people, starting with being laid off or furloughed with no end date.
I come from Yogyakarta and I am devoted to the art, and especially music, originating from that city. When I moved to Bali, I realised that the world of art and creativity in Bali is very different from my hometown, or even other cities in Indonesia. In Yogyakarta an artist lives his art, while in Bali art feeds the artist. I always think of it like this; Yogyakarta is like a rice field or garden for planting art, while Bali is a huge market for art and the creative world.
In Bali art and the creative world are tightly wrapped together with the world of tourism; a complete package that cannot be separated. In this large tourist market, art and the creative world are directly presented to tourists without a long curation process, and form the main source of livelihood for the artists in Bali.
As such, when it hit, the COVID-19 pandemic very quickly killed off that livelihood.
In this world of tourism in Bali, a lot of people are paid on a daily basis and live hand to mouth. This is the case with the many artists. Bands, dancers, or gamelan players are often paid after they perform, so if the wheels of tourism are disturbed their financial situation quickly becomes vulnerable. Incidents such as the Bali bombing and the eruption of Mount Agung are examples of other events that have had significant economic consequences. During those periods, many tourists cancelled their trips to Bali and so many performances were reduced or cancelled.
I felt this impact two years ago during the eruption of Mount Agung. I was working as a DJ and some of my work schedules were reduced due to the declining number of tourists at that time. However, as the situation improved and tourists began returning to Bali, my work schedule went back to its original state, as it did for others working in the creative arts.
Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the performing and creative artists that I meet all speak with a similar tone. This disaster will be different from anything that has happened before. They agree that it would take a long time for Bali to return to its original state as a world tourist destination and that this will certainly be terrible for everyone in the performing and creative arts economy in Bali, so dependent on tourism. Their daily subsistence income will die, leaving them without a guarantee or pension.
An idea in the middle of a crisis
In June, I contacted a friend of mine via a video call who, like me, had been laid off from his work. As we chatted we talked about a new trend we’d seen happening in Bali – cycling. And, we realised, this was also coinciding with a new culinary trend. Soon an idea was born to create a bicycle courier group. With our network of friends from the arts and the creative world, we started an online home cooking business. So, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our Balinese bicycle courier group was formed, a new style of business for Bali, which we named ‘Antar Baik’. Our target at that time was to deliver homemade food, documents, clothes and so on.
The ‘stay at home’ messaging which encourages shopping online has proved very beneficial for us bicycle couriers. Due to restrictions, more and more people in Bali are using our service. In addition to the good reception from the community of those following directions to stay home, many who of those out of work were also interested in joining us. From an initial five bicycle couriers, the business has now grown to twenty bicycle couriers, covering Denpasar, Nusa Dua, Jimbaran, Canggu and Ubud. Finally, out of the crisis we could glimpse something positive; we must be ready and adaptive to learn about new things.
But what about my other colleagues who have been separated from each other during this pandemic? How are they? What are they doing? How did they adapt when the Balinese economy crashed, and then they got laid off?
I was finally lucky enough to have time to meet up with them to chat about their current situation and experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are some of their stories.
Coffee, cigarettes and apa kabar?
My friend Gatot, used to work as a sound engineer at a bar in Canggu. The bar has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. To make an income Mas Gatot has had to change his profession to that of a scavenger, collecting household waste.
In Ubud, where bars and cafes were also affected by the pandemic, my musician friend Eka has started farming and raising chickens to meet his family’s food and economic needs. When so many scheduled events for bands cancelled, Eka was forced to produce homemade dishes which he sold from door to door. Eka longs to play with his band again. He once offered to play at several bars and cafes in Ubud for free, just to indulge his nostalgia, but most places refused because local regulations would not allow performances that result in large gatherings. ‘Remember Fred, when we would play two or three times a night and even when we were tired we refused to quit; now there is nothing, said Eka.
My friend Raup from ‘Kaset Kulcha’, is a cassette collector who played a lot in the campus area around the Balinese youth scene. Raup lost work for events that were contracted a year ahead. ‘About five events including New Year were immediately cancelled’, he told me. The lost income of around Rp 5 million from just one show must be forgotten. Now, in order to survive Raup was forced to sell almost half of his cassette collection and has started training to be a mobile phone or computer repair technician.
‘In the past, as a band crew member, I could go on tour to Europe, like the Netherlands or even Melbourne’, Tobi told me. At that time, there was no problem with money because apart from being in the crew for a local band, Tobi was often hired by national bands like Tompi, or jazz maestro, Indra Lesmana. ‘I thought it was time to buy land and build a house on Bali’, he said. ‘But now all of that is just like a dream; I don't know when money will come back to Bali’. Now Tobi is more often the crew for artists who perform their shows online. The demand is there because many fans around the world miss music from Bali. ‘Do you think you will still be able to buy land?’ I ask him. ‘Yes, but maybe only a funeral plot’, he says with a laugh.
Nobody knows when this will end. No one can tell us when Bali will return to its former state as a global tourist destination. However, the new face of Bali has a spirit and a fire to push on in order to survive this pandemic and its economic hardship. This new face demands that Balinese artists, actors and those in the creative world must be adaptable and willing to learn new things and give birth to a new creativity. Hope, of course, exists in every artist I meet, and we all hope that Bali will come back again. But hope does not stand alone, time continues to turn and ‘the show must go on’ in the new face of Bali.
Nicodemus Freddy Hadiyanto (email@example.com) is a Bali based sociologist and musician, well known for his role as vocalist and lyricist for the critically acclaimed post-punk group Armada Racun. Fredy currently works as a DJ, and continues to make electronic music is his down time.