Indonesia’s Punk, Just Not Young

What is punk rock? Is it colored, spiky hair held up by glue? Is it abrasive three chord rock ’n’ roll played at breakneck speed? Is it leather pants, pierced noses and discordant noise atop irate, socially conscious lyrics? Or is it something much more, a symbol of an independent mind frame that goes beyond all of these stereotypes?

Punk rock’s bad reputation is not new. Even a half-century after the birth of the culture, punk rockers still face a barrage of negative perceptions from the people whose ideologies the movement has railed against for decades.

It is perhaps this strident adherence to image and ideology that got 65 punk rockers in Banda Aceh arrested for their unorthodox appearance. The incident was a reminder of exactly why punk originally came into existence: to rid the world of archaic notions and suspicion of anything different.

Many “senior” punks (they’re not “old,” just “older”) have spent the better part of their lives in various forms of a punk rock existence, but have since moved on to seemingly more conventional lives. There’s nothing conventional, however, about the ideals they live by. Socially conscious and spiritually independent, the “older” generation of punk rockers lives up to the adage of “once a punk, always a punk.”

Rudolf Dethu spent more than 10 years managing the successful Balinese punk band Superman Is Dead, with its brand of fiery pop-punk. Along the way, he worked to get the band to release numerous albums with a variety of independent and major labels, arranged concerts abroad and tried to encourage the band’s fans to be mentally independent in a culture that discourages such thinking.

Rudolf Dethu with Superman Is Dead, the early days

Dethu was in his mid-30s when he walked away from his job managing the band and now leads a simpler life with his wife and child. He works independently in education and the arts, and has lived in countries including China and Australia.

“I’m quite involved with education, running a music foundation, organizing festivals to celebrate creativity, writing and generally running in fields of ideas, going through concepts,” he says. “I’m basically trying to [assist others in] breaking from the prison of thought.”

The 44-year-old fell in love with punk rock during his high school years in the early ’80s. The barrage of unofficial compilation albums being released locally at the time introduced the young Dethu to punk rock mainstays such as the Sex Pistols, The Saints, The Dead Boys and The Damned, among many others.

“It started with an accompanying feeling of being cool, but turned into something far more serious due to its ethos of resistance, fighting against the mainstream, denying conformity, being a liberal and an individual of sorts, being independent and learning to say ‘no,’” he says.

Punk, Dethu says, spoke to him because it was everything that Indonesian culture railed against. It was a rallying call of complete and utter independence.

“Punk was a complete contradiction of this culture that preaches submission toward the majority — meaning always saying ‘yes’ to keep the peace — consensus and communalism,” Dethu explains/ Indonesia’s culture of “gotong royong” (“mutual cooperation”), he adds, often leads to a tradition of followers being manipulated “like deaf goats.”

Mohammad Rino Akbar, who has dedicated more than 10 years of his life as the frontman of the Jakarta hard-core punk act Rage Generation Brothers, or RGB, is an old-school punk with no plans of shedding his rebellious skin. He originally listened to heavy metal, and remembers the moment punk rock grabbed him.

“I fell in love with punk through the Sex Pistols’ record ‘Kiss This,’ The Exploited’s ‘Troops of Tomorrow’ and the Ramones’ ‘Mondo Bizarro,’ ” he says of the albums that first grabbed his attention.

Rino, as he prefers to be called, studied the punk culture ferociously, and decided in 1996 that he wanted to form his own band, “which still exists today.”

“Punk was a culture. Whereas Metal was merely a genre,” he says. The 36-year old Rino’s financial survival depends on his independent ideals. He sells budget-friendly musical instruments and a variety of fashion items such as shoes, hoodies and shirts that his own independent clothing line produces. He also imports other branded music merchandise.

William Kusumadi, who is in his late 30s, is another dedicated punk fan who spent his youth as a fixture on the local punk scene. His resume includes everything from being a roadie, manager and promoter for punk bands from the ’90s, as well as acts that still exist today.

Like Dethu and Rino, Willy fell for punk through the Sex Pistols, and soon found himself obsessed with post-punk bands with darker imagery, like Joy Division and The Birthday Party.

“Punk spoke to me perhaps around my early high school years, after my grandfather died. I was kind of a rebel without a cause then,” Willy explains. To live off his passion, Willy began writing about music and movies for magazines, and served as a music producer for different radio stations.

Like many of the older generation of punks, however, Dethu, Rino and Willy soon grew disenchanted with how punk’s ideologies were misinterpreted by the new breed, whose understanding of punk rock ethics was as authoritarian and unbending as what it originally set out to fight against.

“When Green Day played a concert in Jakarta [in 1996], I was initially impressed that the punk rock styles local music fans had adopted — with their mohawks, pin-adorned shirts, nails everywhere and padlock necklaces — were possible in this country of rules,” Dethu says.

But his early enthusiasm quickly subsided after he learned how the underground punk rock scene operated. There was a deterioration of independent ideals that other punk subcultures all over the world also experienced.

“I began to see the peer pressure that was occurring in the scene by those self-billed authorities of what is and isn’t allowed in the punk rock and underground music world,” he says. “If it were merely younger kids trying to figure out their identity, that would have been acceptable. But punk rock here became something like an organized religion, where there were scholars who had the authority to declare an unquestionable fatwa and had absolute veto power.”

Dethu’s experiences were hands-on. As the manager of a commercially successful punk rock band, he and the band faced challenges and accusations of “selling out” from puritans. They would meet “punk rock police” who would act, according to Dethu, like the “Shariah police, trying to enforce some sort of regulations of what was acceptable or not in the scene.”

Dethu and the band scoffed at these rules. “Regulations? There is no such thing in punk rock. Aren’t we tired of being force-fed rules from the day we are born? Bound by the law, scolded by parents, dictated to at school, stared at by the police, banned from doing anything by religion, shackled to society’s norms? And now there are punk rock police?” Dethu says.

Rino speaks of punk rock “posers” without any vitriol, saying that every fan starts as one, but eventually develops his or her own punk character. “It’s up to us to get rid of that tag by trying to ‘upgrade’ our knowledge and understand punk’s roots. It’s about how far you are willing to evolve,” he says, adding that as long as “the hard-liners stay on their side, and me on mine, then that’s fine. Variety is better than passivity.”

For many, the local punk rock scene lost its credibility after it began trying to regulate one of its most controversial ideologies.

The concept was called “straight edge,” which was based on a song by hard-core punk band Minor Threat and became a strict set of guidelines for living one’s life.

Straight edgers refrain from drinking, smoking and using drugs. More than a few adherents also abstain from promiscuous sex, follow a strict vegan lifestyle, don’t drink caffeine and even stay away from prescription drugs.

“To do any of those things is a personal choice,” Dethu says. “But to follow it blindly is funny, because we are essentially a straight edge country already. In the States, being straight edged would mean going against the norms, but over here it is essentially being part of the mainstream; it’s a complete misunderstanding of the most basic punk rock ideals.”

And that might just be the difference between punks who eventually “grow up” and grow out of punk, and those who continue to carry the torch. One tries to outrun the rules by falling right back into them, while the other manages to take punk’s ethos to heart, without calling it anything more than limitless freedom.

Says Dethu, “I carry punk throughout my days. It’s how I escape the shackles and life and stay an independent being.”

*This article is written by Marcel Thee and was firstly published on Jakarta Globe, January 08, 2012. To read the original click here

5 thoughts on “Indonesia’s Punk, Just Not Young

  1. Hi Rudolf,

    I’m a journalist from the Jakarta Globe, currently doing a story on Indonesia’s punks and Pussy Riot. Was wondering if we could talk a thing or two about it. Do you have phone number/email address I can contact? Thank you.

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