Chanting Indonesia’s Punk Rock Anthem
Katrin Figge & Marcel Thee
Last weekend, a group of punk rockers was arrested by the Shariah Police in Aceh and held in detention for some “rehabilitation” through religious indoctrination.
While the police called the punks a public nuisance and accused them of being involved in theft, brawls, attacks and assaults in the area, the boys denied any wrongdoing and said they had joined the punk community because they wanted a creative outlet and more personal freedom.
While most people know about the punk scene that began in London and New York in the early ’70s, few realize that over the last 20 years Jakarta has had a rich punk subculture of its own.
While the capital’s punk scene has evolved over the years, the recent events in Aceh hark back to the early, rebellious spirit of punk in Indonesia. It was a subculture that gave youth an alternative way of thinking, inspiring their creativity and offering an escape from the bounds of strict social conventions.
Without question, the punk subculture has often stirred controversy and raised eyebrows. Ever since its humble birth in New York and London, the public has looked at the movement with a sceptical eye. For most of the punks themselves, however, the subculture means a lot more than just music. It is a way of life or maybe even a state of mind.
Pioneering punk bands New York Dolls and Television spoke to many teenagers who felt constrained by society and were dissatisfied with their lives. At the time, unemployment was on the rise in the United States and young people could identify with the bands’ image, as they suddenly found people who were not afraid to break free from conventions.
Punk, however, remained underground until The Ramones and The Sex Pistols exploded onto the scene in the mid-1970s and made punk more fashionable, especially with their deliberately torn clothes, pierced lips, spiky hairstyles and raucous behavior.
It took more than a decade for punk to reach the shores of Indonesia.
Eka Annash, the frontman of local band The Brandals, counts as one of Indonesia’s first-generation punks — in the early ’90s, he belonged to the punk community Young Offender, a name taken from a song by British anarcho-punk band Disrupter. “There were only a few kids at the beginning,” he said.
The Jakarta-based community was founded by Ondi Rusly, who was the vocalist of the band Submission, which mainly played covers of British punk bands.
“Submission had a regular Friday night gig at Black Hole, a weekly underground music event that took place at a nightclub on Gatot Subroto between 1992 and 1993,” Eka said. “That was the only place where you could find bands that played music that wasn’t mainstream. It was like a tribe back then, a communion for these misfit kids and musicians where they could express themselves freely and not give a toss what people thought.”
Thus, the first generation of punks in Indonesia was born, inspired and linked by the freedom of being themselves. Even though most of them were still young — some only 17 or 18 years old — Eka said they “smelled the sense of the radical and revolutionary and wanted to be a part of it.”
During a time in Indonesia where there was no Internet, no free media and no MTV, being a punk still meant frequent ridicule or even attacks, but that didn’t stop the community from growing.
“Pretty soon, most of us formed our own bands, and more kids joined Young Offender and the Black Hole tribes,” Eka said. “The rest, as people say, is history.”
Among the first local punk bands were Antiseptic and Dickhead. Some members of the Young Offender community had the chance to travel abroad and bring back punk-related literature, magazines, music and fashion accessories.
Fathun Karib, a member of the Indonesian punk-metal band Cryptical Death, wrote his 2007 thesis on Jakarta’s punk subculture. According to Karib, the domination of the Young Offender community only lasted a short time. By 1995, several members of the group shifted their focus to other music genres. After Young Offender disappeared, the punk scene in Indonesia stagnated for a while, even though occasionally the bands would still perform at different venues around the city.
Karib himself first started to get into punk when he was introduced to the subculture by classmates in junior high.
“I was fascinated with the punk scene because I hated our government and the society,” he said. “It was as simple as that. I became a punk because I didn’t like anything institutional like the government and the mainstream way of thinking. For me, being a punk means having a different perspective on life as an individual who tries to live his life in a mundane society.”
He added that to him, punk was not as much about the music and fashion as it was about the idealism and spirit of the scene.
“In that regard, I have been very much inspired by Paul Feyerabend,” he said in reference to the Austrian-born philosopher who was known for his anarchistic view of science and his rejection of methodological rules.
In Jakarta, the punk scene evolved again when several new subcommunities emerged in the mid to late ’90s. The groups were mostly linked to certain areas of the city. Also, the introduction of CDs to Indonesia meant that music lovers could now receive mail orders from abroad and it became easier to keep up with what was happening on the international scene.
The scene also experienced the political uproar that started in late 1997 and led to the fall of former President Suharto in May 1998 — an event that, for the first time, brought real politics into the group dynamic.
During this time, punk also spread to other cities including Bandung, Yogyakarta, Malang and Surabaya.
But the scene was about to change. According to Karib’s thesis, the punks, especially in Jakarta, became “fashion” victims of capitalism, a mass product rather than a group of outspoken, rule-bending individuals.
Eka said the meaning of punk had drastically changed from its origins.
“Sadly, it doesn’t mean much to most teenagers anymore,” he said.
“They seem to miss the whole idea of the punk identity. What we have now is the typical punk look played out in fashion spreads and music from stereotypical bands that are completely at odds with punk rock’s initial spirit of being an individual.”
He added that even though there were still punk collectives and communities throughout the country, “the media projection of punk rock has been manipulated to the point of parody.”
This fact pains him especially because Eka knows the original spirit of punk could offer the younger generation an alternative way of thinking and teach them how to be individuals without having to conform to society’s values. “Hopefully there will be a whole new generation of kids who will take up the punk principles again and bring change to our society,” he said.
One man is trying to preserve the spirit and ideals of Indonesia’s early punk scene. Wok the Rock, a Yogyakarta-based artist who has been involved in the punk scene since the late 1990s, is the man behind a book titled “Untukmu Generasiku” (“For You, My Generation”) in which he aims to chronicle the Indonesian punk scene.
For the book, Wok collected photographs and essays related to Indonesia’s punk scene.
“For a community that has been around for over 20 years, it is important to have some documentation,” he said. “Writing down the history of the punk subculture is one way of keeping it alive.”