Going to see music in Jakarta is often a community event. The musicians never seem to take with them the attitudes of rock stars, rather they tend to play for the people. Any song requests are accepted and attempted, any budding musicians can join the band, or steal the microphone for a whole set, with barely the hint of an eye roll from the singer. Certain things are guaranteed; classic hits, some rock ballads and certainly an Iwan Fals song by the end where the whole crowd may stand and sway and sing-a-long together. The nights are fun because the musicians are generally good, occasionally way too good to be singing other people’s songs and they are not afraid to attempt to sing even the most difficult song – and nail it.
Last week, we went out expecting more of this, and to our happiness another great band was playing – this time Smiths covers and the Cure covers, and our 1980s nostalgia was encircling us as we bopped in our seats and sang a long. As the night progressed, and one band replaced another, things seemed to be taking on a strange vibe – and we thought it had peaked when four men stood on the stage in matching black tshirts and red shorts and proceeded to tune their instruments as the compere worked the room, bleating into the microphone and laughing at his own jokes in the Trans7 style. We saw those in the crowd, unaware of what was happening, glance at each other, trying to work out what grown men were doing wearing short pants – it is the ultimate way to de-man a man in Indonesia – you graduate out of your short pants when you graduate from primary school. But these guys weren’t afraid – and those short pants let us view the epilectic style dance moves of the lead singer as he tore from one end of the room to the other. It was impossible to know how to react to this vision – like watching punk rockers play netball – there was something a little oxy-moronic about the whole situation and we could only sit with mouths agape.
Perhaps the distraction of the skinny legs kicking stopped us from noticing a whole new crowd who had entered – not just any crowd – they were adorned in giant wigs, panda suits, horse head masks, Obama masks – we didn’t pay them much attention thinking that maybe they were having a private party in their wacky gear. Then they took the stage.
It was amazing – there was a man in a wrestling mask and ballerina tutu leaping and diving across the dance floor as the lead singer in his cat mask proceeded to belt out wild and carefree tunes – the girls bopped behind him with abandon as the violinist hit the high notes. We stared at each other, willing the other to explain what on earth was going on in our once-predictable night, the boys in short pants forgotten as this vision grew before us. “This is weird, “ mumbled my sweet man beside me, but we were too busy trying to understand what the hell was going on to comment.
I guess the strange thing was that this was the first time we had encountered this type of thing in Jakarta. Of course we are constantly surprised or amused by what is going on in Jakarta, but perhaps never mesmerized in the same way. As outsiders we laugh and enjoy things that are every day things for Jakartans – horses and carts running up busy roads, men with microphones strapped to their chests singing out the front of warungs – but it seems that we have been distracted by the amusement of daily life and have so far missed the growing artistic community gathering on the edges of this city. Or so it seemed on Saturday night. Maybe we just miss it because we can’t actually understand it with our terrible understanding of Bahasa Indonesia, Jawa and Betawi and we have to wait for the English translation 10 years later.
I may be very wrong but I guess it wasn’t so long ago that it wasn’t safe to be different in this city, a community based culture likes its people to fit the mould, and certainly past governments jailed great artists for thinking too much and too freely. But you can’t keep a good artist down. Pramoedya told his tales in prison and Iwan Fals wrote subversive lyrics which were too difficult for governments to decipher, but people understood the message of these men, and they remain Indonesian heroes.
With only the evidence of the band leaping across the stage on Saturday night to inspire my thoughts, I feel full of hope that there is a whole buzzing excitement lurking beneath the daily chaos of Jakarta – a time where artists are more free now than ever before to bust out their tutus, and to re-frame what it means to be Jakartan, or Indonesian. As an outsider to this country, it always seems more that life is imitating art, but it’s a pocket of joy when art comes and smacks you in the face and says, “Didn’t expect that, did ya, dummy?”