By Paul W. Blair
Jazz in the Big Mango
from Jazz Notes 9/2 1997Copyright © 1997, Paul W. Blair
After nine years as a Jakarta resident, earning a fairly comfortable living as a free-lance copywriter, I can assure that most of the good jazz I've heard during that period has been the stuff I carried out here with me on tape and CD. The Indonesian archipelago is indeed rich in indigenous music: the traditional gamelan styles of various Javanese courts, kulintang played in North Sulawesi on massed xylophones of various sizes, lilting fado-influenced keroncong ensembles made up mostly of stringed instruments and much more.
This country's most popular roots music, though, is dangdut - vocals backed by electric bands with a strong South Asian and Middle Eastern flavor. Scorned by upwardly mobile Indonesians as hopelessly low-class, dangdut is what your Jakarta taxi driver will have been listening to on cassette when you get into his cab. He'll turn it off because he's certain no foreigner could possibly want to hear it. It's great stuff, though, comparable in some ways with reggae: wildly exciting and highly danceable but often with lyrics conveying strong moral messages, some slyly critical of national government policies. (If you catch a government-backed presentation of Indonesian culture abroad, you'll never hear dangdut, though. Apparently the Soeharto government feels it doesn't present the best possible image of the country. But do check out recordings by Rhoma Irama and Elvi Sukaesih sometime. Tower and Virgin stock them.)
Public performance of any music in Indonesia depends entirely upon lining up corporate funding because the government sets aside no money for such undertakings. Instead, in arranging artistic galas, it leans heavily on private-sector companies to pony up what's needed. In 1988, Ireng Maulana, a Jakarta guitarist and music booker, decided that Indonesia needed a world-class jazz festival. After just four months of planning, his volunteer committee managed to pull off a three-day outdoor event on six stages at an ocean-front park. Two dozen local groups plus musicians from eighteen other countries performed - and about 15,000 paying customers showed up. Support by foreign embassies was crucial; they flew in outstanding groups and underwrote their expenses.
Since then, there have been five other Jakarta International Jazz Festival ("Jak Jazz") events, one stretching over five days and another lasting a full week. American participants have included the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Terumasa Hino, Earl Klugh, and Mike Stern once each; Ernie Watts and David Valentin twice; and Lee Ritenour three times. Accordionist/singer Eddie Monteiro has also taken part in three Jak Jazz events, to great local acclaim. Boston guitarist Claudio Ragazzi has come out twice with inventive little bands of his own. Yet the hottest moments of each festival have invariably been provided by other foreign artists: Guus Janssen's septet from Holland, the British saxophone quartet Itchy Fingers, Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra from Denmark, Karen Krog from Norway, drummer Frederik Noren from Sweden, Japanese reedman Kazutoki Umezu, the Dutch gypsy quartet Basily, French pianist Antoine Herve, the witty and extremely musical Polish electric bassist Krzysztof Schieranski, Italian harmonica player Bruno DeFilippi, and a truly wonderful Canadian singer named Jeanette Lambert.
Sad to say, the obvious potential of this Jak Jazz idea (as an image-builder and tourist-draw) hasn't been realized. There's never been one word of promotion overseas - nor even advance announcement of dates - never a tie-in with an official festival airline or hotel, and no attempt to carry the festival to audiences in other Indonesian cities or to link Jak Jazz with general tourism promotion activities. The principal reason is that no festival can ever be planned in any detail before a source of funding for that particular year has been nailed down. What could and should long ago have become a regular fixture on the Asian arts calendar has instead turned into a desperate annual scramble for funds, with no holdover staff or long-range planning. Thus, the wheel must be invented anew each time. As a further consequence, foreign embassies eager to help don't have the lead time needed to arrange for appearances by overseas groups, so there's been increasingly greater prominence given to local pop-jazz bands and a general dilution of musical variety and quality.
Among the regular delights on Indonesian tv are all-night puppet shows every Saturday, the world's top badminton players and live start-to-finish coverage of international Grand Prix motorcycle racing - all attractions I'll miss desperately when I pack up and move back to the U.S. in September. And, of course, there's no more real jazz televised here than there is in the U.S. Still, local tv and print journalists have provided saturation coverage of visiting musicians during each Jak Jazz festival: lengthy on-camera interviews, detailed profiles in print, lavish photo spreads. Best of all, since Indonesian audiences have absolutely no preconceptions about what they're supposed to enjoy, they really do welcome all visiting musicians with incredible warmth. And because they have few notions about what constitutes hipness, they're just as likely to applaud in the middle of solo choruses as after them.
Arts American used to be quite active here. Among the jazz groups including Indonesian stops on their Asian tours during the 1980s were a Benny Golson sextet, a Billy Harper/Eddie Henderson quintet and one of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society aggregations. But now USIA has absolutely no budget for performance tours. They've even closed down their popular local library. Cultural organizations sponsored by other countries - the Goethe Institute, Erasmus Huis, the British Council, the French Cultural Center, and the Japan Foundation - bring in jazz artists occasionally.
Have I been slighting Indonesian musicians? There really aren't that many playing what I'd call jazz. Pianist Bubi Chen is one; trombonist Benny Likumahuwa (also a fine bassist) is another. But most young local musicians are enamored with electronic keyboard washes and effects-heavy guitar playing, with little interest in acoustic music (they term it "mainstream") these days.
Believe it or not, Jakarta actually had an official Blue Note for a few months back in 1995 - the only one in the world not in New York or Japan. How? A local businessman who knew nothing about either jazz or running a nightspot put up the money for the franchise and opened a beautifully appointed room somewhat larger than the original New York club, complete with a boutique selling Blue Note Jakarta wristwatches, shot glasses and umbrellas. Then, with assistance from New York, he booked artists he'd really never heard of, usually for weeks following their Japanese appearances. We had Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Lou Rawls, Tania Maria, Mike Stern, the New York Voices, and a bunch of other folks in rapid succession. Management treated local print journalists well, too - always sending out press kits and always serving free dinners at a special journalists' table right down front. In return, the club received generous print coverage, both previews and reviews. Yet the whole operation shut down after just seven months, having failed to establish any kind of local image.
Crowds were always tiny, perhaps because management never took out a single media ad and never even got around to putting up a sign outside. They said it was necessary to keep a low profile, "for political reasons." An intriguing statement, you say? It turns out that virtually every event or public action here has a definite political dimension. It happens that another Jakarta club called Jamz debuted at about the same time as the Blue Note. Jamz was a pet project of an immensely wealthy and influential local businessman who partners one of President Soeharto's sons in several powerful Indonesian corporations. Jamz is small and somewhat less than plush. Yet from the very day it opened, it's looked, felt and even smelled like a great New York club. And upstairs are Indonesia's premiere audio and video recording studios. Theoretically, a visiting group could play three sets, then leave at the end of the evening with both a CD and a rough-cut video of its night's work.
In the past three years, Jamz has featured Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval, and the Brecker Brothers. But since the owner's tastes run heavily to Bob James and Tom Scott, that kind of music's the more usual fare. Recently, he's been booking electro-funk almost exclusively. He advertises Jamz heavily on the leading national tv station (which he happens to own) and continues to lure crowds of cellphone-toting young adults nightly.
Other promoters are active sporadically. One (an American living here) booked the full Tito Puente band for a fairly successful tour of three Southeast Asian nations. Another (son of Jakarta's police chief) brought in Pat Metheny's group once and a Gary Burton/Eddie Daniels quartet once, apparently taking a financial bath with each. Meanwhile, local hotels book Filipino bands for months-long stretches. These groups tend to feature three female vocalists each, with pre-programmed musical back-up stored in a computer console. All do Elvis tributes, along with crowd-pleasers like "My Way," "Feelings," and (all Indonesia's favorite song) "The Green Green Grass of Home."
Down Beat is available in Jakarta, along with magazines like Keyboard and Guitar World. The Jakarta Post, Indonesia's leading English-language daily, frequently runs jazz features picked up off the wires (with Ken Franckling's byline seen most often) and they've published nearly eight of my music-related pieces in recent years
But let me tell you about Mr. Lodhy Surya, surely this nation's most daring and diligent jazz entrepreneur. In 1990, Lodhy signed licensing agreements with the Fantasy and Alligator organizations, allowing him to issue their releases on cassette in Indonesia. Using CDs as masters, he carefully reprints cover art and liner notes, then brings out a dozen new tapes per month on his Legend label. His catalog now includes over 300 cassettes of the best things from Prestige, Riverside, Pablo, Landmark, Debut, and Contemporary, each selling for about $4.00. Lodhy makes only about 400 tapes of each new release at a time, then orders another batch of 400 if his first run sells out. Unfortunately, in this nation of 200 million souls, only about a dozen shops stock his Legend line, so sales figures are anything but dramatic. Still, Lodhy keeps plugging away, hoping to build an audience over the long haul.
And hey, good luck locating what you want at Duta Suara in Jakarta, by all odds Indonesia's best-stocked music shop. For one thing, artists are arranged alphabetically by first names. That's why you'll find John Coltrane, John Davidson, John Lennon, and Johnny Cash all grouped together - in the jazz bin, mind you. Among the artists listed on the dividers in those bins, incidentally, are Count Bassie, Art Biakey, Garry Mulligan and Dicky Hyman. The presence of CDs by the likes of Charlie Haden or David Murray merely indicates that they were ordered by mistake several years ago.
Wouldn't it be great, everyone says, if a circuit of jazz clubs could somehow be established in the Southeast Asia region, with some kind of coordination among them? After all, if European or North American groups could arrange sequential bookings at congenial venues in Jakarta, Surabaya, Bali, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong, then tours throughout the area would be economically viable. Well, don't hold your breath. Although Hard Rocks, Planet Hollywoods, and Fashion Cafes are opening everywhere, no business tycoon in any of these booming cities wants to invest in anything as déclassé as a jazz room. Besides, there'd be no money in it.
Every so often, though, a minor jazz miracle occurs hereabouts - and a Dutch pianist named Rene Von Helsdingen has just pulled one off. He and his Indonesian-born wife Luluk Purwanto (a marvelous jazz violinist you may have been lucky enough to hear at North Sea) live in Amsterdam for six months each year. In 1995, Rene bought a used Mercedes bus from some municipal transport company, gutted it completely, installed a fold-out stage plus an elaborate computerized audio/video/stage lighting system and loaded up enough folding chairs to seat 150 listeners. Then he and Luluk set off with a Dutch bassist and drummer on a tour through eight European countries. They performed in village squares, university halls, and the occasional jazz club, booking their dates a couple of weeks in advance as they motored along. Last year, Rene somehow fast-talked a shipping company into carrying his Jazzbus to Australia at no charge for several months of touring and performing there. And now he's done it again. The Jazzbus has just been off-loaded from another freighter in the Jakarta harbor, ready to begin a series of one-nighters in such Indonesian hotspots as Sukabumi, Boyolali, Wonosobo, and Probolinggo. The fact that Indonesia is made up of nearly 14,000 islands doesn't seem to faze Rene. He's a real sparkplug who's able to make things happen.
Despite such heroic efforts, I'm not expecting to see any substantial growth of interest in jazz here during the next couple of decades. Yes, I'd strongly urge any artist, journalist, or adventure traveler to visit Indonesia - and to stay for at least two or three months, if possible. Lots of wonderful experiences await you here. But don't forget to bring the music you love best with you.