PRINT November 2010


Indonesian pop

Dara Puspita, London, 1969. Photo: Handiyanto.

THE DESIRE TO HOLD ONE’S HEAD HIGH, to determine one’s own future: This is the reason so many regimes throughout the twentieth century rose and fell. But to hold one’s head high while crisply dressed all in white and wearing a black velveteen pillbox hat? This was Indonesia’s fate alone. When Kusno Sosrodihardjo, known simply as Sukarno, became the first president of Indonesia in 1945, he wanted all to see that the legacy of Dutch colonization and a brief spell under Japanese rule had done little to dampen his—and, by extension, his freshly christened nation’s—sartorial flair. “I say, let us hold our heads high bearing this cap as a symbol of Free Indonesia,” Sukarno explained to a biographer in the mid-1960s. He hoped that his neat, proper suits and trademark pitji (as his headgear was officially known) would become symbols of modern progress for his largely poor, newly uplifted countrymen. This was a selfless, magnanimous kind of vanity. He wanted to swagger on the proletariat’s behalf. “This I transmit to my people,” he continued. “They need it.”

That the clean, prim Sukarno was so deeply aware of the power of symbolism perhaps explains his fierce paranoia toward Western influences, no matter how jejune. Hula-hoops, comic books, novels about cowboys, and magazines depicting busty, immodest American girls: All of these seemingly innocuous items were branded instruments of neocolonialism and repurposed as bonfire kindling at one point or another. But Sukarno’s greatest scorn was reserved for rock ’n’ roll, that terrible ngak ngik ngok sound from abroad. He made it a priority to stamp out this supposed menace and its vanguard, the Beatles. In August 1965, on the twentieth anniversary of Indonesian freedom, Sukarno devoted a portion of his address to encouraging his citizenry to “wage a campaign against Beatle music” and its associated fashions. Sukarno’s fears were valid, insofar as “Beatlism” seized the imagination of Indonesian youths, who had little interest in state-approved forms of entertainment like classical music—another Western import, ironically—or shadow puppetry. They wanted what they could not have: rock ’n’ roll, albeit their own version of it. These subterranean passions spawned a number of Beatles-loving, Sukarno-baiting rock bands. Once scarce in Indonesia and abroad, records by two of these groups, Koes Bersaudara and Dara Puspita, are now available via a recent set of reissues from Sublime Frequencies—offering an opportunity to appreciate a nearly lost chapter in the history of pop music, as well as to consider the radically different meanings of rock ’n’ roll in its various global manifestations.

To its fiercest (and often its oldest) detractors in the US and Europe, rock ’n’ roll represented a heathenish Communistic conspiracy. But in the messier global context, it was inevitable that some of those reacting against the Beatles would themselves represent the revolutionary order. What was merely countercultural in the West was potentially counterrevolutionary elsewhere. In the case of Sukarno and Indonesia, a new nation shrugging off centuries of rule from abroad, music from abroad threatened burgeoning, native forms of cultural patriotism. Rock’s hormone-loosening harmonies and shrieking, hysterical underage fans represented a serious affront to the increasingly unstable regime. “A form of mental disease” is how Sukarno described it, and its symptoms were everywhere. Fancy, nonutilitarian leather shoes were confiscated. Barbers were prohibited from giving “Beatles” haircuts. Teenage boys with rebelliously long manes had their locks shorn in the streets.

In prosecuting what he believed to be a global culture war, Sukarno made a classic tactical mistake: He turned his worst enemies, Koes Bersaudara (translation: Koes Siblings), into martyrs. As the most famous band of its kind, Koes Bersaudara were for all intents and purposes the Beatles of Indonesia. In 1965, they were, rather peculiarly, invited by a government official to play a concert at his home. After finishing their set, which was marred by protests from Beatles-hating fundamentalists, they were seized by police, imprisoned, charged with political subversion, and subjected to lengthy sessions of interrogation and reeducation. Their release was as bizarre as the circumstances of their arrest: They were set free without explanation one day before the 1965 coup that toppled Sukarno.

In any case, taking Koes out of the picture did little to stem the mania for their brand of Western-influenced pop. One of the bands that followed in their wake—the all-female, teenage Dara Puspita (Flower Girls)—looks particularly significant with the benefit of hindsight. The group formed in 1964 in the eastern Javanese city of Surabaya as Irama Puspita (Rhythm of Flowers). The following year they renamed themselves Dara Puspita, finalized their lineup—guitarists Titiek Adji Rachman (Titiek A. R.) and Lies Soetisnowati Adji Rachman (Lies A. R.), bassist Titiek Hamzah, and drummer Susy Nander—and, after their big break (opening for Koes Bersaudara at a local amusement park), relocated to Jakarta. Their ascent was swift, thanks to sensational concerts where jumping, stomping, and shouting syncopated their irrepressible harmonies. When they released their debut album, Jang Pertama (The First), in 1966—the dawn of post-Sukarno Indonesia—it sold a staggering forty thousand copies. For a brief period, they had their own Saturday morning television show in neighboring Malaysia. This was a distinction not even the Beatles could claim.

Koes Bersaudara, Jakarta, Indonesia, 1965. Photo: Handiyanto.

As suggested by the title of Sublime Frequencies’ new anthology of their best material, Dara Puspita 1966–1968, the band’s career was teasingly and mysteriously short. After their brief spell as bona fide Southeast Asian rock stars and a flirtation with the European market, they broke up in 1971. The anthology—the first of its kind anywhere—collects the self-penned gems from three of the group’s most sought-after records: the albums Jang Pertama, Special Edition, and Green Green Grass, as well as the EP A-Go-Go. Dara Puspita’s sound was powered by the same engine that drove 1960s British beat groups and American garage rockers: breezy, angelic harmonies (albeit in Indonesian); shards of electric guitar; loping, melodic bass lines; primitive drum-stomps; and an infectious, amateurish energy. Their songs rival the best that American and European bands had to offer, partly because they recognized the best bits to appropriate. Tanak Airku” (My Homeland) mimics the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over,” and more than a few others feel like deconstructed versions of the Beatles’ “Rain.” “Mari-Mari (Come On, Come On) opens with a quivery sampling of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” riff before veering toward a laid-back, sunset vibe. “Pip Pip Yeah” speeds up and then rewords the “beep-beep-yeah!” refrain of the Fab Four’s “Drive My Car,” while “Ibu (Mother) adds an exuberant sheen to the British group’s “She Said She Said.”

Dara Puspita’s music and that of Koes Bersaudara grew increasingly divergent throughout the 1960s. After the latter band’s release from prison, their tunes coursed with political conviction. In 1967 they recorded To the So Called “The Guilties” (reissued by Sublime Frequencies with bonus material as Koes Bersaudara 1967), a supercharged collection of snotty, defiant guitar pop tunes. There’s a feeling of having nothing left to lose in tracks such as “Voorman” (Jailer) and the eerily pristine “Di Dalam Bui” (In Jail), which touch on the band’s brief spell behind bars, while “Poor Clown” trades in three-part harmonies for garage punk hollers and sneers. The cavalier title track feels like an SOS signal, with its occasionally mangled, English-language lyrics about crooked judges and arbitrary overseers. By contrast, Dara Puspita’s songs don’t bear the striations of social rebellion, beyond the odd sizzle of electric guitar or the unrepentant, haughty shout of a chorus; their lyrics are vague and rarely topical. They’re woolly and wild but not quite LSD-unhinged like their American garage rock comrades.

Nevertheless, it might be argued that it was Dara Puspita, not Koes, became the truest expression of Sukarno’s feared “Beatlism”: a genuine, interregional sensation. You could cut a young loafer’s hair or steal his shoes, but you could not stop him from humming—you could not contain a pop song within national borders. Dara Puspita represented a possible future: the everyday defiance that consists in recognizing the official symbols for what they are, and choosing the subterranean virus instead. Such radical self-determination starts with a feeling: first, that you can do it yourself, and second, that you can do it better. Dara Puspita may not have been the cultural patriots Sukarno’s regime had requested, but they refused to be global pop’s second-class citizens. While they clearly learned their instruments by playing along to Western records, and despite their penchant for appropriation, their songs never sound like knockoffs. It’s as though they’ve carefully scraped their favorite bits off their favorite singles and reworked them with perfect confidence. They own these tunes.

Though clearly in league with the demonic forces of ngak ngik ngok, Dara Puspita, strangely enough, never faced the kind of punishment to which Koes Bersaudara were subjected. They played at the same concert that landed Koes Bersaudara in jail, yet they evaded arrest. They were merely summoned for interrogations every so often—some of which consisted of them performing private concerts for government censors in order for their audience to determine which songs were indecent. (Strangely, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was not.) Nobody is quite sure how they escaped Sukarno’s wrath—or why they were eventually granted permission to tour throughout Southeast Asia.

Perhaps what Sukarno, a man infatuated with the possibilities of modernity, sensed was the most modern of problems: the power of the circulated image. The Indonesian archipelago comprises seventeen thousand islands; it’s a considerable space to govern. For all the charisma that Sukarno wielded, it was technology that helped sew Indonesia’s national identity together. A photograph of a leader with a self-fashioned crown; miles of wire remapping the jungle; radio waves articulating beyond the reach of the border; televisions broadcasting girl power on a Saturday morning. Ruler or rock star, this was how the remote, hopeful followers could be conscripted. In Sukarno’s mind, the gleeful sounds and ragged cool of Dara Puspita—and, even more powerfully, the masculine rebellion of Koes—presented a threat to his carefully engineered order. Theirs was a uniform counter to his. Long hair doesn’t look good underneath that little velvet cap, and it’s hard to do a military two-step in tight trousers or high heels. These were images that flouted control. “Indonesia’s swaggering President Sukarno almost never takes off his black military-cut pitji in public,” a 1957 article in Time magazine explained. “He doesn’t like to reveal the fact that he is getting balder as the years go by.”

Hua Hsu is an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a widely published critic.