Magazine article Artforum International

Blame That Tune

Magazine article Artforum International

Blame That Tune

Article excerpt

THE DESIRE TO HOLD ONE'S HEAD HIGH, to determine one's own future: This is the reason so many regimes throughout the twentieth century rose and fell. But to hold one's head high while crisply dressed all in white and wearing a black velveteen pillbox hat? This was Indonesia's fate alone. When Kusno Sosrodihardjo, known simply as Sukarno, became the first president of Indonesia in 1945, he wanted all to see that the legacy of Dutch colonization and a brief spell under Japanese rule had done little to dampen his--and, by extension, his freshly christened nation's--sartorial flair. "I say, let us hold our heads high bearing this cap as a symbol of Free Indonesia," Sukarno explained to a biographer in the mid-1960s. He hoped that his neat, proper suits and trademark pitji (as his headgear was officially known) would become symbols of modern progress for his largely poor, newly uplifted countrymen. This was a selfless, magnanimous kind of vanity. He wanted to swagger on the proletariat's behalf. "This I transmit to my people," he continued. "They need it."

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That the clean, prim Sukarno was so deeply aware of the power of symbolism perhaps explains his fierce paranoia Toward Western influences, no matter how jejune. Hula-hoops, comic books, novels about cowboys, and magazines depicting busty, immodest American girls: All of these seemingly innocuous items were branded instruments of neocolonialism and repurposed as bonfire kindling at one point or another. But Sukarno's greatest scorn was reserved for rock 'n' roll, that terrible ngak ngik ngok sound from abroad. He made it a priority to stamp out this supposed menace and its vanguard, the Beatles. In August 1965, on the twentieth anniversary of Indonesian freedom, Sukarno devoted a portion of his address to encouraging his citizenry to "wage a campaign against Beatle music" and its associated fashions. Sukarno's fears were valid, insofar as "Beatlism" seized the imagination of Indonesian youths, who had little interest in state approved forms of entertainment like classical music--another Western import, ironically--or shadow puppetry. They wanted what they could not have: rock 'n' roll, albeit their own version of it. These subterranean passions spawned a number of Beatles-loving, Sukarno-baiting rock bands. Once scarce in Indonesia and abroad, records by two of these groups, Koes Bersaudara and Dara Puspita, are now available via a recent set of reissues from Sublime Frequencies--offering an opportunity to appreciate a nearly lost chapter in the history of pop music, as well as to consider the radically different meanings of rock 'n' roll in its various global manifestations.

To its fiercest (and often its oldest) detractors in the US and Europe, rock 'n' roll represented a heathenish Communistic conspiracy. But in the messier global context, it was inevitable that some of those reacting against the Beatles would themselves represent the revolutionary order. What was merely countercultural in the West was potentially counterrevolutionary elsewhere. In the case of Sukarno and Indonesia, a new nation shrugging off centuries of rule from abroad, music from abroad threatened burgeoning, native forms of cultural patriotism. Rock's hormone-loosening harmonies and shrieking, hysterical underage fans represented a serious affront to the increasingly unstable regime. "A form of mental disease" is how Sukarno described it, and its symptoms were everywhere, fancy, nonutilitarian leather shoes were confiscated. Barbers were prohibited from giving "Beatles" haircuts. Teenage boys with rebelliously long manes had their locks shorn in the streets.

In prosecuting what he believed to be a global culture war, Sukarno made a classic tactical mistake: He turned his worst enemies, Koes Bersaudara (translation: Koes Siblings), into martyrs. As the most famous band of its kind, Koes Bersaudara were for all intents and purposes the Beatles of Indonesia. …

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