Discovering Indonesian history in Jakarta's old music stores
The music of Indonesia is a dense, eclectic sprawl of sounds, in the most positive sense.
Like the capital city of Jakarta, it takes patience to fully experience all it has to offer.
This music may exist outside of the remit of MTV and may even be considered specialist or inaccessible. But it is never made in a bubble.
It is one of the most interesting ways, I think, to discover the myriad influences on the country and the people, weaving its own tale about shared histories, trade routes and social comment.
Sifting through these sounds links the islands of the archipelago as they reach the Pacific, right back through the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden.
There's no shortage of classical recordings available in the city’s shopping malls or online, but it is the popular music of Indonesia’s more recent past that intrigues me, as it was shaped by the turbulent 20th century as Asia shed its colonial past and reconfigured its identity.
Indonesian music draws parallels with that of its Southeast Asian neighbors, with American and British music that influenced their surf and rock n’ roll experiments, culminating in a genuine psychedelic rock scene in the mid-1970s.
Then there is the separate evolution of Melayu and Dangdut, which contain elements of Indian and Arabic music as well as indigenous rhythms and arrangements.
The latter in its more modern form has drawn ire from conservative critics, as the lyrics often broach taboo subject matter, particularly with regard to relationships.
Preceding these, though, was another style called Gambus, named after a now obsolete lute (Qambus) from Yemen.
Music and religion
Due to the coffee and spice trade, many Yemeni emigres settled in what is now Indonesia, and it was one of the conduits through which Islam was spread to the country; even today, many of the songs are sung in Arabic.
Not surprisingly, this music also exists in Malaysia. Another early style, Kronchong, incorporated European instruments, after the arrival of the Portuguese.
One album I founnd, "Kronchong Tarian Melayu," features lazy Latin rhythms peppered with melancholic eastern music modes.
Though this LP was instrumental, earlier Kronchong was often a vehicle for patriotic songs in the run-up to independence.
These different sounds and elements could be clearly heard as I sifted through the piles of records in the various shops up and down the street.
There is the odd psyche rock of an artist called Harry van Hove, (his surname pointing to the pre-independence Dutch occupants) and the soul/funk stylings of the Sitompul Sisters, coming across like a deranged version of The Ronettes.
There are also the hypnotic sounds of Gamelan drum and gong orchestras from both Java and Bali, as well as Bollywood influenced Dangdut by Elvy Sulaesih, the queen of the genre.
The fact that all this was recorded locally points to the astonishing rich seam of sounds, the surface of which I merely scratched.
One could possibly find the same links tracing the up-to-date versions of these styles, but to find the original music, often made at the time it was being forged, is always more telling as it documents the trial and error of creativity in real time.
Buying old music will also guarantee interactions with local characters you’d be unlikely to run into if you were just breezing through the craft markets. One owner, Lian, took over his father’s business, which had been going since the 1950s.
He had clearly experienced a lot of Western record buyers in his time, and, as I came to discover, had a cunning knack of quickly figuring out what you wanted and producing attuned piles of discs (most of which I’d take) every time I passed his shop, as well as ordering in coffee and clove (kretek) cigarettes.
One stand out was an LP entitled "Qasidah Modern" by Fantastique Group.
Qasidah is another style with direct Arabic influence, and refers to a form of Middle Eastern poetry. The album yielded an astonishing version of the "call to prayer" over ominous synths and measured drumming.
The vocal had the same intensity I’ve heard in the best Pakistani Qawwali or the rawest blues and gospel.
It’s only through a journey like this that one can experience the same general "tourism" of any brief visit, while also discovering a starting point for wider exploration of the music and the country’s history itself.