The Future of Music
Indonesia's most popular band shows how American musicians can support themselves.
By Ray Huling (culture11.com), January 25, 2009
Indonesia’s biggest rock band, Slank, revealed the future of music a couple months ago at a small, dark bar
in Boston, where their long-haired front man, Kaka, kicked off the gig.
Grinning broadly, his body chiseled and bare-chested, he addressed the
audience in Bahasa, the dominant language in Indonesia, and the kids
went crazy. Slank fans are known as 'Slankers', and they have a
reputation for devotion. They waved their Slank flags, which consist of
the word 'Slank' shaped into a graffiti-style butterfly. They sang
along with several punk-rock songs and performed a stadium-worthy
call-and-response routine. One fan even held up a New Hampshire license
plate with SLANK imprinted right below “Live Free or Die”.
college boys!” cried Kaka in English. “Boston University!” he said, to
wild cheers. “Stanford!” he said, to confused looks and laughter.
“Where are we?” he asked.
He was kidding, of course. Sitting on their tour bus before the show, knocking back Heinekens, you'd find
Slank to consist entirely of thoughtful, well-spoken, good-humored
guys, all of whom have paid very close attention to the U.S. for a long
time. After selling millions of records and causing the occasional
political controversy in Indonesia, they're now touring the States to
promote their first English-language album, Anthem for the Broken-Hearted.
“If you want the world to see what you want to say,” says Abdee, one of
the guitarists, “you better go to the highest mountain. And for music,
the highest mountain now is in the U.S.A.”
It’s true. The United States remains today’s music capital. But tomorrow? Anyone
curious about where the music business is headed should look to Slank
and their compatriots. The music industry in their native Indonesia
suffers from piracy rates somewhere above ninety percent. Major record
labels there, even more than here, have lost millions in record sales
over the past ten years, and continue taking a huge cut of performers'
revenues from song sales. Indonesian musicians have to diversify their
means of income in order to make a living—and that includes doing
wide-ranging tours in small venues, like Bill's Bar in Boston.
Slank is a curious blend of old and new. To listen to Slank is to hear the
rock of yore, but to watch them live is to see where Western stars may
eventually end up. Imagine Lil'Wayne playing Charmaine's Bar in
Jakarta—not for the kicks, but for the money. Economic and
technological trends seem to be taking us in this direction. So let’s
investigate a little further into how music works in Indonesia, and
what it portends for American recording artists.
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, one whose inhabitants sometimes
riot over perceived affronts to Islam, but that discrete fact paints an
incomplete portrait. The country, which divides along ethnic,
linguistic, religious, and geographic lines, is quite unlike certain
other Islamic nations. Indonesian kids, especially middle-class ones,
smoke and drink. They take pictures of themselves smoking and drinking
and post them on the Internet. Sure, people still get married at
twenty, but husbands and wives can now enjoy matching tattoos—and post
pictures of them on-line. These are not possibilities in Saudi Arabia.
The Indonesian affection for rock music is also something of an anomaly. In
most of the world, hip-hop gives voice to youthful rebellion. Indeed,
the Mediterranean triangle of France, Morocco, and Algeria now produces
the world's best rap. Indonesian rebels remain apart, firmly in the
camp of guitars, harmonies, and sung lyrics. Thus Slank has an archaic
sound to American ears—classically pure rock'n'roll. This purity is
Slank explains this predilection by suggesting
that Indonesians identify with the U.S. of the sixties, rather than the
nineties. The country experienced a long period of economic growth
under Suharto's dictatorship, along with intense oppression. Since the
Indonesian Revolution ousted Suharto a decade ago, a fairly
well-educated populace has endured economic stagnation, religious
conflict, and massive governmental corruption. “It's like everybody
wanted to scream for freedom since 1998,” says Abdee.
This scream carries the timbre of political rock. As did the Anglo-American
music of the sixties, Indonesia's rock contributes to social movements.
Slank uses its cultural and economic capital to criticize and sway
politicians. “Before we came,” says Abdee, who's wearing a Who t-shirt
and has a hairstyle reminiscent of Ronnie Wood's, “we had a song that
made the Indonesian Parliament...what do you call it?...freak out!”
In April of last year, the band performed “Gossip Jalanan” (Street Gossip)
at an anti-corruption rally. The song—first released in 2004, but
amplified by the occasion of the rally—refers to a slew of Indonesia's
problems: corruption, prostitutes, gangsters, drug dealers, gamblers.
The lyrics even include a common acronymic pun. In Bahasa, the
Indonesian Constitution is “Undang-Undang Dasar” or 'UUD'. Indonesians
joke that 'UUD' really stands for “Ujung-Ujungnya Duit” or “All about
the money." Despite a popular fondness for such jokes, Indonesian
legislators looked unkindly on Slank. The Parliament's House
Disciplinary Council threatened to sue the group.
“They want to put us in jail,” says BimBim, Slank's drummer and founder, a browner
and handsomer version of Joey Ramone. “Then the TV news had a vote: who
do you believe? The legislature or Slank? 99% believed Slank.”
Calls for prosecuting Slank faded when, a couple of days after the scandal
broke, Al Amin Nur Nasution, a member of the Parliament's lower House
and husband of a famous traditional singer, found himself arrested for
corruption. In the presence of an alleged prostitute.
Scandal is not Slank's preferred method, however. They are primarily a Message
Band—again, with all of the sincerity and straightforwardness of a
sixties icon. They've articulated a creed for themselves: Peace, Love,
Unity, and Respect, which, in Indonesian fashion, they compress into an
acronym, PLUR. Consider it a modern, Indonesian brand of 'bagism', only
without any irony. Slank instantiates their world-view in their music
by addressing certain themes in every record. “We always have four
elements,” explains Kaka. “We talk about youth; we talk about love,
romance; we talk about social politics; we talk about nature. Always
these four things.”
“Sometimes...five,” interjects Abdee.
BimBim nods vigorously: “Party!”
As viewed from the audience, Slank is fun. They deliver that good ol'
rock'n'roll experience. At one point in their performance at Bill's
Bar, Kaka offered a copy of their new record to any girl who would come
onstage and give Ridho, the band's second lead guitarist, a kiss, which
a young, Indonesian girl proceeded to do, shyly, on Ridho's cheek. (The
band has also suffered numerous break-ups and personnel changes because
of drug problems—it balances social responsibility with traditional