Our Dance Music Has Never Been This Vibrant: Indonesia’s Underground Dance Music Scene, Past and Present

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By Gembira Putra Agam. Translated by Azzief Khaliq. Photo by Azzief Khaliq, from Jakarta Movement ’05 digipak.

It was quite a time for electronic music in Indonesia. Confetti colours decorated the dancefloors at new rave gigs, set to by robotic rhythms and repetitive guitar licks. A new generation emerged on the scene, infiltrating the dance music establishment with an effortless cool and their own kind of elegance.

In the middle of the 2000s, my playlist, like everyone else’s, was dominated by nostalgia. A nostalgia for (post) punk, electro and minimal wave, filtered through electroclash. CSS had their single Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above, while Crystal Castles had become icons despite still generally being an underground band. There were also names like Digitalism and Fischerspooner, who were two of my favourites at the time, as well as Uffie, who I loved to death.

In established clubs (whatever “established” means), soulful house music continued to emanate from chillout rooms and hipster cafes, and often served to fill up those long weekend nights on Jakarta’s radio stations. In the underground, beyond all the new electroclash bands that were filling up gig lineups, musicians and scene kids were all getting into italo-disco, nu-disco, Balearic house and dubstep, bored of going to to guitar music shows but also too lazy to go to progressive house clubs.

If I may make a Stranger Things reference, I was in the Upside Down at the end of the decade, whether I was being a loner at the underground clubs where Indonesia’s first-ever UK bass collective—24/7 Dubstep—plied their trade in order to experience the thrill of the sub-bass in my chest, or enjoying the more melodic tunes to be had at Buddha Bar. I still remember the shivers that went down my spine when we all sang along to Paris together at Jakarta’s hipster “temple” back then (2008? 2009?).

I was on an endless nostalgia trip from the end of the decade up until the first few years of the 2010s: alternative promoters with great taste in music were bringing down all the cult dance music heroes. Ashram and Threesixty offered up an incredible lineup of French electro and house warriors, such as DJ Mehdi, Busy P and the Ed Banger Records crew, while Lifelike, Holy Ghost, Digitalism and Shit Robot also came down. The blog Too Many Sebastians was like a bible, USLS bootleg tees from Jakarta were a fashion statement, and Willow and Buddha Bar were the places to be.

Catra Darusman—the founder of Deadrec collective, producer under the pseudonyms Blackbody Radiation and ASAM, and former producer for Mjolnir—remembers that era as a high point. He singled out the French duo Justice, who’re probably best remembered for their songs D.A.N.C.E. and Waters of Nazareth, with managing to change his view of what dance music could be with their distorted and aggressive sound.

Catra wasn’t the only one who felt the same way. There were a lot of indie kids who, even though they didn’t want to drop their guitars or leave behind their distortion pedals, were keen on experimenting with dancey beats, regardless of whether they were organic or machine-generated. Some of them even ended up filling the floors at underground clubs, be it as DJs or as performers.

So many memories to cherish.

One of the Indonesian releases that sparked an interest in the scene for myself and many others from the same generation was Jakarta Movement ‘05 (Aksara Records, 2005), a double-CD compilation that emerged from a series of immaculately-curated dance music festivals also called Jakarta Movement, organised by a collective called Future 10.

Established by Hogi Wirjono, the festival had taken place twice by the time the compilation was released, with the first edition taking place in 2003, and second edition happening in 2005, although the latter suffered some interference at the hands of certain parties (no, not those kinds of “parties”), as reported by The Jakarta Post.

The second Jakarta Movement festival also suffered from low attendance. Hogi Wirjono told me that even though there were more than 10,000 presale tickets sold, only six thousand or so party-goers actually came to the festival. The comparatively small attendance for the second festival was a low point for Hogi and his team, and one that dented their morale. Nepathya, one of the partners for the festival, would later split up, while Future 10 would go its own way.

If the festival itself was losing steam, you wouldn’t have known it based on the aforementioned compilation, which was being sold at venues during that period. Jakarta Movement ‘05: A Compilation of Indonesian Electronica showcased a selection of tracks curated by Hanin Sidharta (Aksara Records), Hogi Wirjono (Future 10), and Leo Rustandi (Nepathya). Of the curation process, Hogi told me that it was “simple”, and that the curators “selected associates that had a cool sound and that represented the era.” Hogi also added that it was an era where “electronic music was blooming all around us. What’s more, festivals back then were really focused on local talent, and not only interested in foreign performers.”

Up until the release of Jakarta Movement ’05, Indonesian DJ culture was all about DJ mixes, which had been popular ever since the ‘80s (back in the day when names like Jockie Saputra and Adam Jagwani filled my cousin’s cassette rack), and any compilations released had generally focused on specific smaller communities. Jakarta Movement, on the other hand, managed to bring together a list of musicians that crossed community boundaries, all united by a love for dance and electronic music.

The compilation also featured some really big names from Indonesia’s dance music underground. The presence of these names, the inter-community nature of the compilation, not to mention the quality of the tracks they’d provided, led me to think that the compilation was, at that point, a high point for Indonesian dance music.

Among the many old-fashioned and outdated debates that were going on in Indonesia’s DJ scene at around this time, one in particular was closely related to the release of Jakarta Movement ‘05: the idea that a DJ would “level up” if they also produced their own music. Not far removed was the argument that electronic music producers would be even cooler if they could perform their own songs live.

Regardless of whether you agree with these arguments, it’s to Jakarta Movement‘s credit that it managed to get many established DJs to come forward as producers, with names such as Andezz, Junko, Riri, and Random all featured on the compilation’s two discs.

What’s great about the compilation is the way that the tracks were sequenced in order to maintain a vibe, much like a good DJ mix. The two CDs offer up contrasting moods, with the first CD—featuring names such as Homogenic, Tabuh & Eyes, Andezz and .mute—covering more relaxed territory, from gloomy trip-hop to liquid drum & bass to chillout, while the second CD consisted of more energetic tracks with a much wilder atmosphere.

Underground Trash, one of the cuts on the second disc, is, for me, the song from this period of Indonesian dance music. Composed by names that are now icons in the scene—Anton, Hogi, Edo, and Aditya, collectively known as Agrikulture—the track has it all: grit, robotic and repetitive rhythms, a punk attitude, and the sort of beat designed to get the rock and roll kids out onto the dancefloor.

To me, it seemed that Jakarta Movement ‘05 was the only compilation that managed to really capture the essence of the decade: new rave, trip hop, numerous mutations of electro, a new energy and an inter-community spirit, all packaged neatly on two pieces of plastic.

Returning to the present day, I think that it’s worth appreciating the changes in pop music that have come as a result of dance music becoming part of the mainstream musical language. Pop music is a lot more exciting than it used to be. Dance music (ok, EDM) isn’t just something people listen to on the weekends on radio, like in the first decade of the 2000s. The headliners at high-school kids’ events are no longer bands, but DJs. DJ studios are coming up everywhere. DJ-ing is a thing.

Many, myself included, have taken to spending time in DJ studios to explore and hone their DJ skills. Many of these would-be DJs are also teaching themselves the ins and outs of composing dance music and entering studios to record their own attempts at dance music. Just like the old guard, then, but the big difference is that there’s now a lot more people doing it.

So, at the very least, we know that quantity has improved. But what about quality?

An answer can be found on a new compilation of underground Indonesian dance music titled Dentum Dansa Bawah Tanah (DDBT), released by Pepaya Records earlier this year.

Released on cassette, a format that’s definitely seen a resurgence in popularity over the past few years—even though the durability of the format has been called into question—the compilation features names and faces known for the uncompromising quality of their productions. If we were to compare DDBT to other similar compilations that have come before it, the thing that stands out the most is the quality of all the featured tracks.

Names such as REI and Sattle offer up high-quality productions, with Sattle’s disco/funk workout All Around being a particular high point in how it manages to really nail that 1970s sound, to the point where it doesn’t even really sound like something recorded in 2016. REI’s Evening Mood, on the other hands, combines some touches of hip-hop-style sampling with a thumping, yet languid, deep house groove. Very analogue.

In this day and age of widespread internet access and ease of publishing, compilations like DDBT are no longer a big deal; we can put out hundreds of similar compilations every year in order to prove that the underground is as booming as it’s ever been. The scene has been inundated over the past five years or so with small labels, all focusing on their own little niches, much like Pepaya Records.

To that end, there’s been a need for careful curation of compilations, in order to be able to define, predict and also spark future trends and innovations in the scene. That doesn’t happen overnight, and by inviting Studiorama—a collective that’s been involved in the Indonesian underground dance scene for most of the decade—to help market and promote the release, Pepaya Records definitely to managed to ensure that DDBT gets the recognition it deserves.

When I was given the chance to listen to the compilation by Pepaya Records founder Aldo Ersan Sirait, my immediate reaction was that DDBT is essentially a modern-day Jakarta Movement ‘05, with the same focus on presenting the contemporary sound of Indonesian dance music, complete with an attitude that crosses scene and community boundaries.

“Embracing the classics” seems to me to be the motto of Dentum Dansa Bawah Tanah. The tracks on the compilation embrace old school sounds, encompassing disco, boogie, acid house, deep house, Balearic and even garage, but with modern production values.

Nowadays, Indonesia has a wealth of underground dance music collectives with really interesting tastes in music, DJ/producers that offer up productions of a very high standard, and crowds that can appreciate even the most niche forms of dance music.

Eleven years after Jakarta Movement ‘05 was released, Indonesian dance music is undeniably on the up and up. Dentum Dansa Bawah Tanah proves that this decade’s dance music practitioners are just as sharp at moulding and shaping dance music culture with their own hands as their forebears were.

You can find the original article in Indonesian over at Gembira’s Medium.

Dentum Dansa Bawah Tanah was released on October 8, 2016, in conjunction with Cassette Store Day 2016.

James RiversGembira Putra Agam writes full time for SAYS Indonesia, DJs bass-oriented music as Fyahman, and plays multiple instruments in jazz unit Sungsang Lebam Telak.