Scattered Thoughts on Indonesian Music and Romanticism

By Azzief Khaliq.

Indonesia tends to loom large in the Malaysian cultural imagination, and likely for good reason: the quality and quantity of cultural production coming out of Indonesia tends to dwarf what we can produce ourselves. This perceived gulf in quality and mentalities has been the topic of many a long, heartfelt discussion (without, it has to be said, being able to pin things down), but it likely simply has something to do with the sheer numbers: there are as many people packed into the greater metropolitan Jakarta area as there are people living in Malaysia, or close to it. If someone were to put together a heat map of Southeast Asian cultural production then the islands of Java and Sumatra would probably be white-hot, and when there’s that much stuff going on, that many bands coming out, there’s sure to be a lot of good ones.

Malaysia has been interested, and some might say obsessed, with Indonesian music for a long while, at least since the days when bands like Sheila on 7, Peterpan and Dewa 19 ruled the charts (if not even longer), and it continues to this day, albeit in different forms. Witness the covetous glances some experimental and noise musicians cast at Indonesia (and especially Yogyakarta’s) noise scene. Witness also bands such as Payung Teduh, Sore, Silampukau, and White Shoes and the Couples Company, bastions of a sort of Indonesian musical romanticism, if we may be allowed to go that far.

There’s something about the hybrid nature of the music that these bands play, the way that it often is a meeting point of nostalgically-inflected folk, jazz, indie and keroncong traditions, that gives it a certain kind of pull that’s difficult to resist. That these bands sing in Bahasa Indonesia very likely plays a big part, too: Malaysians seem to have this notion that Bahasa Indonesia is a richer, more romantic language. An interesting perception, seeing as how we’ve had conversations with Indonesian friends who’ve expressed the opposite, feeling that some of the Malay-language words we use and take for granted are the more poetic, more mellifluous words.

Regardless, the combination of lyrical and musical languages results in something that really strikes at the heart of some sort of, how shall we say, Nusantara longing, some sort of saudade, imagined or otherwise (one should never forget the common desire in this part of the world to be melancholic for the sake of it).

It’s a music that seems to evoke an imagined youth, a yearning for the comparatively more innocent days of being able to while the hours in between class away while thinking of some object of affection or another, and in that sense, it becomes a style of music that pretty much perfectly soundtracks a range of romantically-related emotions, from rainy evenings curled up with a mug of tea thinking of loved ones, past and present, to hot afternoons in a dorm room cursing endlessly unrequited love and wishing things were different. And sometimes it’s just good music to zone out to, to fall asleep to, to drift off to, and in those reveries, often returning to some sort of romantic impulse, some sort of wistful longing. It’s mood-driven music, and music that drives moods.

It’s a very nostalgic sound, although like retrowave, it’s probably a nostalgia for a past that didn’t exactly exist like that, a past that wasn’t all pure, romantic love, folky earthiness and authentic existence, just like how not every 1980s action movie was a a neon rave-up with copious amounts of analogue synthesizer arpeggios. And, crucially, it’s a sound that you don’t get much of from Malaysian bands and musicians. Noh Salleh’s Angin Kencang is probably the only example that immediately comes to mind, although given the fact that the songs on the album were arranged by Mondo Gascaro of Sore fame, the… Indonesianness (for lack of a more suitable word) shouldn’t surprise anyone. Mondo Gascaro’s involvement also further serves to reinforce the notion that it’s just not a sound that Malaysian musician-composers are keen on, or capable of, offering, possibly for good reasons.

While keroncong and other potentially-nostalgic, traditional Malay/Nusantara musics haven’t totally been forgotten here, the music and musicians definitely seem to exist in a realm that’s totally separate from the cultural and musical world that a lot of music-loving Malaysian youth exist in: formal events, weddings (where it’s pretty much sonic wallpaper), conferences, and other events of the sort. It’s a bit of a curiosity that, for a lot of young Malaysians, their only experience of keroncong is probably through the hybrid keroncong-influenced styles of these contemporary Indonesian bands, rather than anything traditional. We bring this up not to praise or condemn this state of affairs; it is what it is.

“It sounds Indonesian.” That raises a particularly interesting question: is there something in the water (or air, or whatever) that makes all of these bands mentioned sound the way they do? Are they drawing from some sort of spirit, some sort of fundamental inspiration that we Malaysians don’t have (or simply aren’t capable of drawing from)? Or is it, as with so many other scenes, so many other trends in cultural production, simply a case of artists from the same (or closely related) scenes/countries/regions picking up on and adapting popular and recognisable styles and genres?

Far be it for us to question the authenticity of these bands—particularly since we consider questions about authenticity in cultural production to be some of the most tedious and unfulfilling questions imaginable—but it’s worth thinking about whether there’s some sort of real profound drive behind this seemingly recent tendency towards romanticism in Indonesian indie music or whether it’s just an example of bands jumping on a bandwagon after the success of one or two trailblazers.

But it has to be said that one of the most interesting things about Indonesia is the presence of a very strong, unmistakably European—and particularly Germanic—influence in its art: witness authors like Chairil Anwar, whose work bears a clear influence of Germanic romanticism, particularly the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. There’s a very German sense of melancholia and romanticism present in his work, and one could say the same for these Indonesian romantic indie bands like Payung Teduh; this isn’t to say that this inherently makes their melancholia better than whatever we produce, but there’s an elegance, and, in a strange way, a weight of history, a weight of cultural influence, that sets it apart from our own brand of melancholia, which is often cloying and overly sappy, with mawkish string arrangements and wailing protestations of longing and/or eternal love.

It’s different. One might even say more cultured, and that’s something that draws you in. Less charitably, maybe it’s just that the trite and sentimental just sounds better when it’s sung in a foreign tongue, set to a style of music that exists at an intersection of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Nusantara longing meets German romanticism makes even the most banal tale of love and unfulfilled longing more fulfilling, perhaps.

But, at the end of the day, beyond all the waffle, it’s just hard to ignore the fact that some styles of music just speak to people, just trigger certain emotions and fantasies and desires. This whole wave of romantic Indonesian indie music isn’t the only genre that does that, but right now, here in Malaysia—and possibly in Indonesia, too—not only is it the genre, arguably, but the fantasies and desires that these bands represent, give rise to, and soundtrack, are probably the fantasies, the desires, especially in these troubled (and troubling) times. One need only to go back to Rilke and consider the times he lived in, to see how the romantic can serve as something to hold on to, take refuge in, and perhaps even aspire to, in uncertain times.

The world is aflame and this country has managed to turn going down the drain into an artform, but hey, at least we still have romance. To some, that’s probably more important. And, at the end of the day, these people might not be entirely wrong.

Azzief KhaliqAzzief Khaliq mostly spends his days thinking about, buying or listening to music. He used to play music too, but finds that it’s not something he’s all that interested in doing anymore. Remember, kids: you can’t polish a turd.