Monday, August 18, 2008


Yesterday was Indonesia's Independence Day and as we had Monday off, Chad, Trish and I decided we would wander down to Wapres and see if we could find some live music.

Wapres, or Warung Apresiasi, is a great little cafe down in Bulungan, next to Blok M that has a jam session and an open mic every night. This article has a good overview of the founder and the community that he and others created.

As luck would have it, this was no run-of-the-mill Sunday night at Wapres, but they had set up a big stage out the back and had dozens of bands playing from mid-afternoon until well into the wee hours of the morning. We wandered in and took a seat on the bricks in front of some jilbabed ibus while a band from East Java who were like a cross-between Iwan Fals and Evanescence had the crowd rocking.

The standard of the bands was pretty variable, but as the night wore on, people started to get a little more into dancing and a mosh-pit (or reggae-dancing-pit depending on the band) started up. It was tough to see what was going on, but much to the chagrin of the organisers, a couple of fights broke out. The first one seemed to flow towards the gate of its own accord, but the next few were assisted by some pretty enormous preman/security guards who seemed to think it was part of their job to lay an extra couple of punches into the already subdued troublemakers. Not cool, especially as the kids they were ejecting were about the scrawniest 17 or 18 year-olds you can imagine.

After a metal band made up of Wapres staff finished playing, and the slam dancing had caused a couple of ejections, a couple of the organisers got up to encourage people to take better care of each other. "Especially", they said, "as tonight we have an honoured guest in our midst".

I was out the back at the time talking to a friend who was preparing for his set when I heard this announcement come over the PA. All of a sudden things got really quiet, so I wandered back to the crowd to see what was happening. Mas Anto Baret, the founder of the Komunitas Penyanyi Jalanan and Iwan Fals had taken the stage for an impromptu concert...

For those who don't know much about Indonesian music, this would be akin to going to an independent rock show with a bunch of no-name bands and having Bob Dylan wander out on stage to sing a couple of tunes. I pulled out my camera phone and recorded the last song they played: Lonteku a song about finding comfort in the arms of a prostitute.

Looking back over that video, it's hard to say if it's due to the bad sound/image quality, but it seems a little underwhelming. You can barely hear Iwan Fals's voice, the footage is grainy as hell and, honestly, if I wasn't there and I didn't know the song, I might just think it was a bunch of nobodies around a campfire singing some boring strummy song.

In fact, a lot of the songs that Iwan Fals is famous for are just simple 4 chord songs with very plainspoken lyrics. Done badly (or recorded badly), they're about as dull a campfire song as you can get. Done well, just like those simple three chord Johnny Cash songs, they'll send shivers down your spine. What made this performance special, and it was special, was the feeling of community there. To see the next generation of street musicians, kids in their early teens, sitting in absolute rapture, singing along with every word with two old guys who wrote these songs before most of the kids were even born.

Jakarta is a cesspit of filth and misery, I don't think that can be denied, but despite (or perhaps because of) these challenges, these incredibly passionate and tight-knit communities form around everything from sport and music to religion and race.

It's tough to get a glimpse of these communities, but now and then, if you go looking, they're there. In the almost 7 years of my life that I have spent in Jakarta I can probably count the real glimpses I've had into these communities on one hand, but they are experiences that will stay with me forever.


johnorford said...

I'm a big Iwan Fals fan! U'r v lucky!!

Still don't understand why some Jakartans pronounce his name like "Iwan Phallus" tho : )

mr_john said...

Huh, I never noticed it sounded like that...

hana said...

hey john, just discovered your blog, very interesting! i was at warpres for merdeka last year, my first time there actually (love that place), and i did an impromptu interview with anto baret for JJK...too bad my formal indonesian isn't up to scratch.