The first thing to know about the music of Indonesia — Southeast Asia’s biggest economy — is that it owes as much to authenticity as it does to its more popular, somewhat domineering influences.
In 1965, as the young country was looking to weed out any traces of Western culture, the legendary pop group Koes Bersaudara were arrested for performing a cover of The Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ After a three-month prison stint, they put out To the So Called the Guilties, an LP of 10 mopey dirges about a time spent not knowing what other surprises their fates had for them.
The Temper Trap live in Singapore
In retrospect, The Guilties wasn’t really a confrontational up-yours to the malevolent hands that got them in the slammer — comparing it to, say, Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin’ or D'Angelo's Black Messiah, The Guilties is pretty benign.
But if you want to look at it the other way, it’s fine, too because: a) It sounds a hell lot like The Beatles and b) it’s defined by its release date and the subsequent narrative it produced (i.e. prison record).
Sometimes I wonder if this trope – one that beleaguers countries who have been through enough with cultural oppression and all that jazz – may intrigue us more than the, you know, music. In some cases, the stature of albums like, say, To the So Called the Guilties holds up not because of retrospective analysis (I have a hunch I’ll be writing one next year, but we’ll see), but because of its fate as a collectors’ item.
So when in 2011, Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies put out The Guilties and its companion LP Djadikan Aku Dombamu, it’s easy to land on the conclusion that some Indonesian music generates extraneous interest behind the at-times rudimentary music. Not that the music’s – that kaleidoscopic, veritable music – is bad or that an Indonesian LP would make a great VH1 Behind the Music episode, but the varying aspects of Indonesian music emphazise its variety and, thus, its appeal.
Okay, lest I bore you with more backstory, I’ve compiled six essential Indonesian recordings that were released by foreign labels. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find something in this pot of gold.
Suarasama – Fajar Di Atas Awan (Drag City, 1998/2008)
Senyawa – Hadirlah Suci (Morphine Records, 2015)
Koes Bersaudara – Apa Sadja (Sublime Frequencies, 1965/2011)
White Shoes & the Couples Company – Windu & Defrina (Minty Fresh, 2005/2007)
Benny Soebardja and Lizard – Candle Light (Now-Again Records, 1975/2011)
Dara Puspita – Tanah Airku (Sublime Frequencies, 1966/2011)
Bandwagon in 2017