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#WYNTK (what you need to know): Indonesian rock music in the Nusantara

Catchy, controversial and going places.


Published: 28 Jun 2018

Pen 2

Updated: 17 May 2023

Time taken : >15mins

Catchy, controversial and going places

Contemporary Indonesian music has always transcended its origin country and won over fans in the rest of the Nusantara, or Malay and Indonesian archipelago, since the rise of dangdut music in the 1970s. But it was only in the 2000s that a new wave of Indonesian pop-rock bands, led by the likes of NOAH (formerly known as Peterpan), Sheila on 7 and Dewa 19 (formerly known as Dewa), truly made their mark in the Singapore and Malaysian music industry.

These bands became so popular that in 2008, the Malaysian artists association KARYAWAN proposed that radio stations in Malaysia impose a quota on Indonesian music, lest they threaten the viability of their homegrown talents.

Indonesian bands often emerge as winners in the major categories in Anugerah Planet Muzik (APM), an annual Malay music awards show organised by Singapore media company Mediacorp to celebrate music from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Sheila on 7’s Berhenti Berharap, for example, won Best APM Song in 2005 while GIGI’s Nakal won in the same category in 2008. From 2002 to 2008, Indonesian bands like Padi and Sheila on 7 swept up the Best Duo/Group & Band categories.

The popularity of Indonesian bands continue and many still hold large-scale shows in Singapore and Malaysia today. These include GIGI, a quartet that, while not quite in the same league as bigwigs like NOAH and Dewa 19, are certainly one of the most prolific. The band has released over 25 albums since their formation in 1994 and returned to Singapore to perform at Esplanade Concert Hall on 14 Jul 2018. Indie bands like Efek Rumah Kaca enjoy continued popularity as well, with the band returning to Singapore in 2023 after a 13-year absence.

Top Indonesian band Sheila on 7 played in Kuala Lumpur on 10 Feb 2018 to a 7,000-strong crowd while two other scene heavyweights—Padi Reborn (formerly known as Padi) and Radja—also performed in the Malaysian capital in the same year.

From dangdut to psychedelic rock

Like Malay bands in Singapore and Malaysia, each Indonesian band has their own distinctive sound and musical style, taking influence from Anglo-American acts ranging from 1970s hard rock outfits like Led Zeppelin to 1990s alternative rock bands like Nirvana.

Unlike their Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts who sing in Bahasa Melayu, Indonesian bands sing exclusively in Bahasa Indonesia. But while spoken Bahasa Indonesia is distinct from Bahasa Melayu, the way the bands sing in all three countries can sometimes sound somewhat similar. This is usually because Malay artists in Singapore and Malaysia often sing in “bahasa baku”, which means that the pronunciations are similar to Bahasa Indonesia, although they often have their own lingo.

And because of the country’s large population, bands in Indonesia benefit from a much larger domestic music market compared to Singapore and Malaysia. NOAH have sold over 9 million albums while Sheila on 7 have four out of 10 albums that have sold over one million copies each.

Evolution of Indonesian pop and rock

Indonesian pop and rock music had a tumultuous start in the 1960s. The government at that time frowned upon rock and roll and the Beatlemania phenomenon, deeming the music and lifestyle a decadent Western influence on the nation’s youth. In 1965, rock and roll pioneers Koes Bersaudara, later known as Koes Plus, were arrested and jailed for three months for playing a Beatles song in a live performance.

Anglo-American rock and roll flourished after Suharto took over from the country’s first president, Sukarno, as head of the country in 1967. While dangdut, a style of music that incorporates Malay, Indian, Arabic and pop elements flourished in the mainstream from the 1970s, there were also many bands that drew influence from the increasingly esoteric subgenres of rock music propagated by Anglo-American outfits, from progressive to psychedelic rock.

Indonesian rock veterans God Bless started out in 1973, taking musical cues from the likes of prog rockers Genesis and hard rockers Deep Purple and Van Halen, and are still actively gigging today. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of Slank, a highly influential band that inspired later acts like Dewa 19, who would go on to dominate the music industry in the 2000s together with counterparts like Sheila on 7, Padi and NOAH.

Rise of the alternative

Away from the mainstream, Indonesian bands in the underground and independent scene are thriving, especially after Suharto resigned 1998 after three decades as president. Metal music is highly popular in Indonesia—Jokowi, the current president himself is well-known to be an ardent fan of metal music—and bands like Burgerkill and Jasad have toured Europe.

The 1990s and 2000s saw a proliferation of bands playing indie and alternative music in all its subgenres and permutations, with many acts making their name in the region. These include Payung Teduh, which performed at Esplanade’s Malay arts festival Pesta Raya in 2017, and Barasuara, which performed at Esplanade’s Baybeats music festival in the same year.

Four Indonesian bands to check out

NOAH (formerly known as Peterpan)

One of Indonesia’s most successful pop-rock bands, Peterpan changed their name to NOAH in 2012, soon after frontman Nazril “Ariel” Irham was released from jail after being convicted of a sex tape-related offence. Formed in 2000 in Bandung and starting out as a band playing alternative rock covers of acts like Nirvana, Coldplay and Creed, the band has released albums under both names.

These include debut album Taman Langit (2003), their bestselling release Bintang Di Surga (2004), which sold 3.2 million copies, and Sings Legend (2016).

Despite the change in moniker, the band’s sound has not deviated much over the years, especially in their hit songs. Ariel’s placid and velvety vocals drive the songs, often shrouded in breezy guitars and keyboards, with driving mid-tempo beats and catchy, bittersweet melodies.

Still, the band can be quite versatile. Soon after dropping the Peterpan name, the quintet recorded an album that comprised instrumental versions of their old songs, albeit rearranged with guest musicians such as Karinding Attack, an outfit that makes music with Sundanese bamboo instruments. The album was released in 2012 under their own names—Ariel, Uki, Lukman, Reza and David.

The controversies that plagued the band, including riots at their concert, have not dampened their popularity. The band regularly plays shows to fans as far as Europe and North America, and holds a record for staging concerts in six Indonesian cities within 24 hours in 2004. The band is also highly decorated and have won multiple awards at Indonesian awards shows like Anugerah Musik Indonesia and the SCTV Music Awards.

Sheila on 7

Sheila on 7’s brand of catchy alternative rock tunes captured the imagination of fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While they were prone to belting out moody, heartbreak songs like many of their contemporaries, the quartet often stood out with positive songs celebrating young love and camaraderie, as well as their playful demeanour. They became the first Indonesian band to have their first three albums sell more than one million copies each—their eponymous 1999 debut, Kisah Klasik Untuk Masa Depan (2000) and 07 Des (2002).

Many of their tunes employ earworm-like choruses and bridges designed for mass sing-alongs. The band is also known for often expanding their palette, employing rap-like verses, jangly and raw indie rock guitars as well as perky, upbeat drumbeats in tempos that are a lot faster than the average Indonesian pop rock band. Their music videos often used humour as well as kooky storylines, like in the single Itu Aku from Pejantan Tangguh (2004), which saw the band members play the role of astronauts jetting off into space.

Formed in Yogyakarta in 1996, three of the band's founding members, singer Akhdiyat Duta Modjo, guitarist Eross Candra and bassist Adam Muhammad Subarkah, are still part of the line-up. With eight studio albums under their belt, the band has also picked up numerous gongs at various Indonesian awards shows, most recently winning Song of the Year for the tune Film Favorite, as well as Band/Group/Duo of the Year at the 2018 Indonesian Choice Awards.

Dewa 19 (formerly known as Dewa)

Formed in 1986 by schoolmates in Surabaya, the band has risen above multiple personnel and name changes to become one of Indonesia’s most popular rock names. While their early incarnation dabbled in jazz, the band's 1992 debut album of melodic rock tunes marked the start of their rise in the mainstream music industry. The self-titled album ended up winning Best Newcomer and Most Popular Album at Indonesian awards show BASF in 1993.

They have since released nine albums, including the 1.7 million selling Bintang Lima (2000). Spearheaded by keyboardist, guitarist, producer and singer Ahmad Dhani, a man known as much for his musical prowess as the controversies surrounding his marital affairs, political activities and provocative statements, the band went on hiatus in 2011 but have reformed for several concerts in the past few years.

Dewa’s brand of rock is often sprawling and ambitious. Many of their best-known tunes, whether those sung by early singer Ari Lasso or his replacement, Once, are romantic ballads with a grand, symphonic vibe, often enhanced with layered vocals and dense instrumentations.

They are also probably one of the most musically adventurous among Indonesia’s big-name bands. Their sound has evolved from an early, glam rock style reminiscent of American hair metal bands from the 1980s, exemplified in songs like 1992 track Kangen to a more experimental, electronic, dance-rock sound in the mid-2000s, such as in the 2006 song Sedang Ingin Bercinta. The band often incorporates other influences such as traditional Middle Eastern music and progressive rock arrangements in songs like Laskar Cinta (2006).

Efek Rumah Kaca

Recognised for their progressive musicality as well as memorable lyrics informed by socio-political issues, alternative rock band Efek Rumah Kaca has garnered a cult following since its formation in 2001. Having gone through several different monikers—Lull, Hush, Superego—the band’s original members Cholil Mahmud, Akbar Bagus Sudibyo and Adrian Yunan Faisal landed on their current name, which translates to “greenhouse effect” in Indonesian.

The band first came into the public eye with their 2007 self-titled album. It contained hit songs like Cinta Melulu, Desember and Sebelah Mata, which later became a rallying song for supporters of Novel Baswedan, an investigator who worked for the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and lost an eye after an acid attack. Later albums include the introspective Kamar Gelap (2008) and cinematic Sinestesia (2015), among smatterings of hit singles and EPs throughout the years. More recently, the band released Rimpang (Indonesian for rhizome), adopted from the famed concept of the rhizome by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. This album is one of the most sonically ambitious so far, with the use of shimmering synths on tracks like Fun Kaya Fun. Of course, the lyrics are still hard-hitting, addressing topics such as corruption, resistance and the fight against oppression.

While the band has since gone through several line-up changes and adopted flecks of pop, electronica and jazz into their distinct alt-rock sound, their philosophy towards their music remains the same. “The music has a role. It’s not only for entertainment. I can learn a lot from music. So I put out my music as a work of art to start a discourse,” says vocalist, guitarist and the band’s main lyricist, Cholil Mahmud.

Experience the music of Efek Rumah Kaca live on 21 May at Esplanade Concert Hall, happening as part of Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2023.

Contributed by:

Eddino Abdul Hadi

Eddino Abdul Hadi has been the music correspondent for The Straits Times since 2007. A musician, songwriter and frontman of garage rock/surf punk outfit Force Vomit, he sits on the board of directors at the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS) as a writer-director, a position he has held since 2012. Prior to his current position at The Straits Times, he was one of the main writers for BigO, Singapore's only independent music magazine. In 2017, he was awarded the Patron of Music Award at the Compass Awards.

The good vibes continue

Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2023

Celebrate the icons and treasures of the Malay community in its diversity and richness through the best in theatre, dance, and music from the Nusantara.

18 – 21 May 2023
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