Indonesia's music underground finds political voice

by AFP/Arlina Arshad, Jul 7, 2009 | Destinations: Indonesia

JAKARTA, June 30, 2009 - The saccharine world of Indonesian pop is being rocked by a new wave of underground bands that aren't afraid to take aim at the country's political elite ahead of July 8 presidential elections.

Grungy rockers with names like Skull and The Vandals eschew the usual radio fare of teary love songs in favour of hard-hitting political comment delivered with attitude.

"They're a segmented group and untouched by the media. They move underground, performing at bistros and sharing their opinions in newsletters," music commentator Denny Sakrie said.

At the forefront of the movement is reggae singer Ras Muhamad, 26, named Best New Reggae Artist by Rolling Stone Indonesia magazine last year.

Wearing hip-length dreadlocks in a towering bun on his head, the US-educated singer warned fans at a recent outdoor concert in Jakarta not to be fooled by empty election promises from the presidential candidates.

"They are preaching righteousness but have filthy hearts/Them nah work a sincere only want a reward/Them get the whole place but still want our half/Them want to sit in position of the most high god," he sings in "Make Way".

The song -- in both Indonesian and English -- mixes with the marijuana smoke that drifts above the audience as fans decked out in Rastafarian colours of red, yellow and green nod their heads in cool appreciation.

"I don't care about politics but Ras's songs make me more aware about the kind of leaders we have," said a fan, 18-year-old ship crew member Madeli.

"They're mostly corrupt. That's why I'm anti-government, anti-colonial, pro-peace, pro-freedom and pro-reggae!" he yelled, making peace signs and swinging his own waist-length dreadlocks.

Despite the adulation he receives from loyal fans, Muhamad said his work attracts brickbats as well as bouquets.

"Not everyone likes what they hear. Lawmakers probably see me as an enemy. I don't single out specific individuals so I haven't got into serious trouble yet," Muhamad told AFP at a street food stall before the gig.

"I'm nationalistic and I want society to progress. I want the government to provide our youths with proper education, end child labour, protect migrant workers. I'm not a mere entertainer. I have opinions," he said.

Just over a decade ago, when the dictator Suharto still ruled the country with an iron fist that had smothered dissent for more than 30 years, protest musicians like Muhamad faced censorship and possible bans.

But in a sign of how times have changed -- and perhaps of how Muhamad may not be the public enemy he thinks he is -- lawmakers in today's democratically elected parliament welcomed his interest in politics.

"I don't see why any political leader should feel offended by the lyrics unless he or she has done something wrong and feels guilty," said Happy Bone Zulkarnain of the Golkar Party, Suharto's former political vehicle.

"They (musicians like Muhamad) provide political education for society and create a culture that allows democracy to thrive. They also call on the government to be more transparent."

Protest singers have been around in Indonesia since the 1960s but they have never appealed to a mass audience.

"Back then the bands sang in English to avoid attention. The bands now are bolder and more confident about voicing their opinions so they sing in Indonesian," Sakrie said.

Many of today's young artists also have university degrees and experience with civil society activism, he added.

Cholil Mahmud, the 33-year-old vocalist for a band called Efek Rumah Kaca (Greenhouse Effect), is an accountant by day and musician by night.

"Very few bands raise political issues. To us, music is not only to entertain but also to offer alternative views. Sales are not a priority," he said.

They may be big in the underground bar scene, but Indonesia's protest singers know they will never reach a mass market in a country plagued by political apathy.

"Many youths feel politics is just bullshit," Mahmud said.

Sales promoter Wina, 25, said she loved Muhamad's music but would not let it influence her vote in the upcoming election.

"I like the music because it's refreshing and I can dance to it. But I don't pay attention to the lyrics and analyse their meaning," she said.

"I doubt anyone else would, especially during a concert when we're all busy having fun and getting drunk."

Liberal ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is hoping to win a second five-year term at the polls on the back of his strong economic record and popular anti-corruption drive.

Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and outgoing Vice-President Jusuf Kalla are the other two candidates vying for the top job in the world's third largest democracy after India and the United States.

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