A glimpse on Indonesian subculture: Fast and feast in Jakarta


The traffic appears to me as a tremendous, roaring continuum of million motorbikes, unlicensed busses, Bajajs and Korean SUV’s. It seems to have its own invincible existence and while crawling through the streets twenty four hours a day, that beasts feeding time is at dusk, turning the twenty kilometer distance from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport into an almost two hour cab drive. One simple explanation for this can be seen in the city’s recent demographic development: Over the past years, the metropolitan area rapidly grew up to the second biggest in the world, with about 30 million people living in and around Jakarta. Indonesia’s capital is booming, and it’s booming in every way: „Many people think that Jakarta has nothing to offer, but you may just need to find the right informant“, says Eric Wirjanata, a local graphic designer and founder of one of the country’s biggest fanzines, „deathrockstar“, with a grin. He started his blog in 2002 and soon after he also began hosting shows. Today, he is kind of a networking personality in the Alternative music scene between East Java and Bali. “The music scene is very big and diverse in Indonesia, basically every city and suburban area has its own microcosm. And still it’s getting bigger and bigger every day, mostly undetected by mainstream media.”

While western Pop and Rock tunes became increasingly popular since the 1960s, the big bang for underground subculture came in the 1990s, during the final years of long-time dictator Suharto. In 1990, 15-year-old Ondy Rusdy, admiring Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, played guitar in a band called Submission (after the Pistols song). He furthermore decided to form a true teenage punk community. With about 15 kids involved at the beginning, the “Young Offenders” soon had a reputation amongst Jakarta’s youth, not at last because of their looks: Torn jeans and leather jackets, Mohawks and liberty spikes, colorfully dyed with the help of aerosol cans. Easy to imagine, that an authoritarian society, lacking a ’68-experience (or at least some hippies), but with a harsh anti-communist history, had its problems with defiant kids of this appearance: “Not only the police attacked us, it were common people and thugs that regularly started fights with us in the streets”, Ondy tells me.


“Submission”, with Ondy n the middle. Pic: Ondy Rusdy


Young Offenders. Pic: Ondy Rusdy

Today, the Young Offenders are widely considered as pioneers of punk in Indonesia. They finally gained nationwide attention after a certain incident in 1993. In April, Metallica came to play a show in Jakarta’s Lebak Bulus stadium, supposed to be the biggest Rock concert that the country has seen until this day. Tickets were limited and prices expensive. “A friend gave us free tickets but, we decided rather to burn them. We didn’t listen to Metal, we were punks”, Ondy smiles. At concert evening huge chaos broke out, when tens of thousands, many without tickets, pushed towards the entrance and against an overcharged security, which called police forces and even military for support. Destruction of the area began, fires blew up and heavy clashes followed. The Young Offenders, not involved at this point, were playing football close to the scene, watching with interest, but decided to move away, since security forces were pushing forward. On their way home, the riots already went over to surrounding parts of the city. “We saw some nice cars, luxury ones, and decided to make a mess. I remember kicking the emblem of a Mercedes-Benz with my boots, crushing the windscreen and so on. But we didn’t steal anything like some of the Metallica fans did.” Finally the police crossed their way, and the Young Offenders, in front of a demolishing platoon, were trapped. After being beaten up with bats and gunstocks they got detained. Stripped down naked, they were presented by military commander to the media’s flashlight and became the troublemaking face of that night. The riot’s total record was hundreds of injured people and damaged cars, dozens of burned out shops and sadly the death of one person. In the end, the boys had big luck: The father of a befriended bass player, Levi “the fly”, was a senior journalist and well connected to high ranking general Hendropryono (nicknamed as the “Butcher of Lampung”), so the boys got out of jail after one night. Myth, however, was born.


Arrested Young Offenders after the 1993 riot. Pic: Ondy Rusdy

Suharto’s fall in 1998 marked the start of a process of liberalization that went hand in hand with the growth of Alternative music in the 2000s. Today, big Indie acts from the States or Europe constantly come to Jakarta besides the weekly events of multiple local acts. Stories about Sharia law and suppression of youth culture, labor camps and forced head shavings, were actually overplayed by Western media in recent years. Islamic law is only practiced in the region of Aceh, and it has imposed there because of the emergency situation after the 2004 Tsunami. The predominant majority of the world’s biggest Muslim country practices a moderate Islam. Current difficulties for open minded projects and urban activities rather derive from administrative barriers like expensive approvals for hosting events. But, no big troubles at all. One of today’s hotspots is the South Jakarta district Kemang, with its huge amount of book shops, record stores, art galleries, urban bars and cafes. It’s the place where Jakarta’s hip community is working and feasting.


Monka Music Records, Kemang. Pic: dailywhatnot

When I visited Kemang in July, it was during Ramadan, so people were more engaged with fasting. „Normally there is a hell of a party going on here“, says Kennedy Ashinze, chief editor of notable international lifestyle magazine „Globetrotter“, whose latest issue put a heavy focus on the city’s creative sector. We’re standing on a parking lot at 10pm and he’s pointing at the bar behind us- „The Treehouse“ , a typical hang-out venue in Kemang: Stylish interior, eco-friendly and pieces of local artists on the wall. Its doors closed early tonight. Even if things are going on more calmly these days, the scene is far from dying. In fact, some people use the fasting to throw a smart party , named “Rawkmadhan breakfast”, which takes place the following evening at Camden Bar near Kemang. After sunset, in the nice big garden behind the bar, a rich and free buffet is prepared for all visitors. Both Muslim and Atheist folks are gathering and have break-fast. It’s clearly a get-together for the local hip community and you won’t see any backpacking faces here. While it’s getting more and more crowded, inside, the DJ wearing a Captured Tracks shirt, warms up with Garage and New Wave records. They serve Bintang Beer in coffee cups and for a notorious Austrian they will pour a sip of Tequila into it. The evening’s line up of live music lists five acts and makes the city’s wide range of genre visible: Puti Chitara starts with sweet Indie Pop, followed by rockabilly guys from Young de Brok, Crossover Punk from Superglad, folk singer Matajawi and a jazzy Ska group called Sentimental Moods. This time, party goes on till early morning hours.


“Puti Chitara performing at “Rawkmadha Breakfast”. Pic: Eric Wirjanata”



R’n’r dudes at Rawkmadhan breakfast. Pic: Eric Wirjanata

After Eric showed me a bunch of local bands, I took a closer look at a group called “Jirapah”, who’s tracks I found quite promising. The band formed in 2009 while singer Ken Jenie was actually living and working in New York City. “I believe the initial sound of Jirapah was formed by the music that surrounded me there. I was overwhelmed by the many types of music and art and tough I believe that our sound has evolved, it’s a certain character that stays. It might be the reverb”, he states. Ken’s former roommate and today’s wife Mar, joined him on bass and since she was working as a promoter too, they started playing gigs in Brooklyn, supported by various friends on drums. In 2010, Ken couldn’t extend his visa so he moved back to his hometown Jakarta, but continued with the project. Finally, after Mar’s return in 2012, they completed their present five-piece formation. “The talent here is amazing”, the singer points on Jakarta’s recent development. Even though he was forced to come back from the States, he now sees its good sides : “There is a big and interested audience but a scene not that huge as in London or New York. So that will help you as a band to get noticed. I think, there are a lot of opportunities.”

Not only singer Ken is looking to future with kind of confidence: On the 9th of July, 200 million inhabitants of the 17000 island-archipelago were asked to vote for a new president, for the third time as a democratic state. The set up somehow showed parallels to the 2008 US presidential election. There was the promising, charismatic candidate, Joko “Jokowi” Widowo, who was nicknamed “Indonesia’s Obama” not only because of his looks, but also due to his reform-minded campaign for modernization and unification. As a graphic designer, Eric Wirjanata gave a little support to Jokowi from his side, illustrating the candidate’s portrait in several different comic moods and styles. Via social media this work soon spread and got wide attention, even from Jokowi himself. “It’s not that I’m a big fan of Jokowi, but my series was the least I can do to not letting the other candidate win”, he says. The other candidate, Praebowo Subianto, has been a high ranked general during the Suharto regime and is said to have blood on his hands from that time. His campaign also caused attention when Rock singer Ahmad Dhani supported Praebowo in a promo video, performing “We will Rock you” in a uniform similar to Heinrich Himmlers’. In the end, Jokowi won with over ten percent ahead, and while Praebowo never accepted the outcome, disputed against it and tried to mobilize his supporters, the situation remained: calm.

Jokowi illustrations by Eric Wirjanata

A few days later, the bluebird cab crawls out of Jakarta again, while in the back, a yellowish pall of smog is hanging above the cityscape. This scary appearance is seen best at dusk, and already minutes later, at 6pm, it gets dark. The dim light is now replaced by the glitter of the mammoth shopping malls along the highway. British news magazine “The Economist” has named Indonesia’s vast energy costs and resourcing hunts one main burden that now relies on the new elected president’s shoulders. However, the renowned paper shows big trust and calling Jokowis victory a “landmark” and the “most heartening piece of politics in a year of bad news”. Eric Wirjanata, on this point, remains more pragmatic: “I don’t have too much expectation, but as long as he can keep the country in a peacefull state, I’m fine with him.”

Text: Thomas Hoisl


The author and Eric Wirjanata. Pic: Daniela Prugger