The Guide to Getting Into the Vast and Diverse Sounds of Indonesian Indie Music

From pop to experimental, Indonesia’s underground scene offers something for everyone.

24 June 2021, 8:13am

Indonesia is mind-blowingly diverse. After all, it’s home to more than 1,300 ethnic groups. This is reflected in various parts of the culture, from food to music. For the indecisive, choosing the soundtrack for a Saturday night out in Jakarta pre-pandemic was a nightmare, in the best way possible. 

Felt like moshing in a sweaty punk gig? You could. Dancing to some techno and paying for overpriced gin at a club? There were plenty to choose from. Or perhaps you just wanted to chill to some acoustic vibes at the nearest coffee shop? Chances are, you would find one while walking down the street in a matter of minutes. For the undecided, there were music festivals that showcased what the Indonesian indie scene had to offer—it has come a long way. 

The independent music scene in Indonesia—more commonly referred to as “the underground” when it started—took shape in the early to mid-90s, with acts such as PAS Band, Puppen, and Pure Saturday among the first to find success after recording their own music. At the same time, MTV Indonesia helped introduce alternative music to a wider audience of young Indonesians. Britpop, in particular, was huge, and influenced many local acts. To this day, bands still cover songs by Oasis or Radiohead. 

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In the early to mid-2000s, the heavy metal band Seringai, retro pop group Naif, and neon-laden synth-lovers The Upstairs became the kings of “pensi,” short for “pentas seni” or art performances, which are public music festivals thrown by high school students. These acts went on to headline some of the biggest music festivals in the country. Local box office hits such as Janji Joni and Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? also featured songs from acts such as The Adams, White Shoes & The Couples Company, and Anda, turning them into indie anthems and karaoke classics. Sometimes, while eating street food, you can hear buskers perform their songs late at night. 

Venues with strong DIY spirit, like Jakarta’s Rossi Musik and Cafe Mondo; Bandung’s Spasial; and Malang’s Houtenhand consistently gave young artists a chance to perform, giving birth to a new generation of Indonesian musicians who are not afraid to push the boundaries. Now Indonesian acts are going international, with avant-garde duo Senyawa and dance music hybriders Gabber Modus Operandi set to play at the Primavera Sound music festival in 2022. 

Much like the nation’s diverse cultures, the spectrum of Indonesian indie artists swings wide. Tigapagi’s brand of chamber folk often uses the scale of traditional Sundanese music, while soloist Romantic Echoes borrows from 60s psychedelic pop à la The Beatles. While Indonesia is not lacking when it comes to thoughtful love songs, as displayed by Putra Timur’s nostalgic “Merengkuh Mesra,” many are also not afraid to use their art as a platform to voice their political views and challenge the status quo. On the cover of his album 9051, rapper Rand Slam uses a powerful photograph of himself being handled by police during a protest.

Indie music continues to thrive in Indonesia, with small record labels, gig organizers, collectives, and tight-knit communities keeping it alive. It’s impossible to pin down what the Indonesian sound is, as most artists seem to bring their own flavor, unafraid to do things their way. From retro pop to avant-garde, let this guide walk you through the vast and diverse world of Indonesian indie music. 

So you want to get into… retro pop Indonesian indie music?

First on the list is “Masa Remadja” by White Shoes & The Couples Company, an infectious retro pop number that borrows equally from Baroque music as it does from 80s Indonesian “pop kreatif” classics such as Fariz RM. Featuring bamboo flutes and strings, the song’s playful nature will get you tappin’ and boppin’ in no time.

Featuring actress Dian Sastrowardoyo, “Serenata Jiwa Lara” is Diskoria’s funky disco number that is adventurous in terms of arrangement and chord progressions, but guaranteed to make you boogie and sing along on first listen. It’s truly a banger.

For 27-year-old Vira Talisa, her love for the classics such as The Beach Boys results in songs like “Walking Back Home,” a sweet, stripped pop track that would sound like it came straight from the 1960s, if it weren’t for the more modern production.

This playlist ends with Romantic Echoes’ “Yang Tercinta,'' an infectious psychedelic pop song with verses that are just as catchy as the chorus. The double-tracked and harmonized vocals make you feel like you’re floating.

Listen to this when you’re…
on a picnic date on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

You’ll dig this if you like:
of Montreal, Mac DeMarco, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Weyes Blood, Brian Wilson, Julia Holter, Antony and the Johnsons, The High Llamas

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Playlist: “Masa Remadja” - White Shoes & The Couples Company / “Jikalau” - Naif / “Teman Sejati” - Mocca / “Serenata Jiwa Lara” - Diskoria, Dian Sastrowardoyo / “Dan Bila” - Mondo Gascaro / “Ingin Dekatmu” - Indische Party / “Ode Buat Kota” - Bangkutaman / “Timur” - The Adams / “Walking Back Home” - Vira Talisa / “Yang Tercinta” - Romantic Echoes, Bilal Indrajaya, Noh Salleh

So you want to get into… electric guitar-based Indonesian indie music

Shoegaze-y alternative music was popular in Indonesia in the 90s, and it’s still popular in Indonesia today. Whether it’s the stage dive-inducing energetic fuzzy pop acts such as Barefood and Collapse, or the more mellow, atmospheric sounds of Seaside and Sunlotus—the genre feels genuine and youthful. There’s also Grrrl Gang, who were set to play live at SXSW last year, before the event was cancelled due to COVID-19. The trio was instead featured on SXSW Online 2021, performing their songs including “Honey, Baby.”

Listen to this when you’re… in your room rocking out with an air guitar.

You’ll dig this if you like: My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Best Coast, Snail Mail, Title Fight, Teenage Fanclub

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Playlist: “Honey, Baby” - Grrrl Gang / “Milkbox” - Barefood / “False Alarm” - Heals / “Sukar” - Swellow / “Comma” - Whitenoir / “Given” - Collapse / “Racau” - Skandal / “Lost in Cairo” - The Wellington / “Giggle and Blush” - Seaside / “Picturesque” - Sunlotus

So you want to get into… melancholic acoustic folk Indonesian indie music?

Folk music was popular in Indonesia in the 70s and 80s. However, with the emergence of new technologies and pop music, this faded away. In the early to mid-2010s, the genre was revitalized thanks to acts like Payung Teduh, which blended folk, jazz, and keroncong (a kind of slow, crooning folk music), as showcased in the song “Untuk Perempuan Yang Sedang Di Pelukan.” 

Then there’s Tigapagi, a group that uses chamber pop and traditional Sundanese pentatonic scales to create their brand of cinematic folk. But some prefer their folk music simple. For that, turn to Silampukau, an act that relies on acoustic guitars and storytelling-style vocals to sing about their hometown of Surabaya.

Listen to this when you’re… chilling by the window (or on top of a hill), contemplating life.

You’ll dig this if you like:
The Tallest Man On Earth, Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, Father John Misty, Adrianne Lenker, Neil Young, Mount Eerie

Playlist:
“Untuk Perempuan Yang Sedang Di Pelukan” - Payung Teduh / “Tidur Bersama” - Tigapagi, Danilla Riyadi / “Langgam Suminem” - Mr. Sonjaya / “Pulang” - Float / “Malam Jatuh Di Surabaya” - Silampukau / “Wajah Cerita” - Ben Sihombing / “Sejauh Mata Memandang” - Danilla, Rara Sekar, Sandrayati Fay, Daramuda / “Lagu Hidup” - Sisir Tanah

So you want to get into… R&B-infused pop Indonesian indie music?

For the past few years, R&B has been making a comeback in Indonesia, especially among millennials who frequented urban festivals such as We The Fest, which catered to this style of music. Now, many new artists choose to dedicate themselves to playing feel-good R&B.

Produced by Petra Sihombing, Coldiac’s “No Make Up” was nominated in Indonesia’s AMI Awards, while “To The Bone” by Pamungkas is a viral hit, topping local Spotify charts and getting plenty of traction from YouTube music reactors. 

Listen to this when you’re... in your car, driving home after a long day.

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You’ll dig this if you like: Chet Faker, Jorja Smith, Kali Uchis, Marcus Marr

Playlist: “No Make Up” - Coldiac, NYK / “Independent” - Svmmerdose / “Rehat” - Kunto Aji / “Satu Rasa” - Teza Sumendra / “Apa?” - Petra Sihombing / “Bersamamu Bahagia” - Midnight Quickie, Osvaldorio / “Against Time” - Eva Celia / “To the Bone” - Pamungkas

So you want to get into… experimental Indonesian indie music?

Senyawa has always been about exploring new possibilities, even beyond music. On their album, Alkisah, the duo produces sounds that are tribal and industrial at the same time, telling stories of how power always leads to destruction and doom. Wanting to break this cycle of power through decentralization, Senyawa released their album through 44 different labels around the world at almost the same time.

All the songs on this playlist embody a similarly bold spirit, Raja Kirik’s “Tanah Prahara” is an amalgamation of traditional instruments and power electronics; BAPAK.’s “Jon Devoight” is an angsty progressive punk anthem; and “Garatuba,” by Rollfast, is a journey of moody psychedelic guitars.

Listen to this when you’re... in the mood for something bold and different. 

You’ll dig this if you like: Sunn O))), Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Swans, The Mars Volta, Boris, Earthless, Venetian Snares, Death Grips

Playlist: “Gaib” - Senyawa / “Semeton 10 Ton” - Gabber Modus Operandi / “Tanah Prahara” - Raja Kirik / “Jon Devoight” - BAPAK. / “Empati Tamako” - The Trees and The Wild / “Gerimis” - Prabumi / “Garatuba” - Rollfast / “Ambigu” - Mahamboro / “Kondor Terjaga” - Morgue Vanguard, Still

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Tagged:

Culture, Asia, indonesia, Indie Music, Guide to Getting Into

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