Simon Says #19: Bella Union’s Indonesian Adventure
After showing his fancy linen in public, our columnist expands his horizons searching for new musical talent for Bella Union, leading to some enlightening cultural exchanges…
Running Bella Union for 21 years, I’ve been fortunate to have travelled far and wide in search of exciting new music. Following our successes globally with Jambinai from Seoul in South Korea, we have tried to expand our horizons beyond just going to the same annual festivals and instead delve into territories where the awareness is minimal.
Through a connection with Indonesian festival promoter Teguh Wicaksono, I was invited to do a keynote speech at Archipelago Festival in Jakarta and to also spend a week visiting local musicians, promoters and venues, and absorbing as much of the culture as possible. It is from my hotel in Jakarta on the eve of my keynote speech and DJ set that I write these words.
Having flown straight out of snowy Helsinki – where I was at another festival last week – to Doha in Qatar and then on to the heavy humidity of Jakarta, my delicate constitution was about to be tested. The red-haired, pale-skinned of us don’t tend to fare too well in extreme climates, but I have a positive mindset and as I arrived at the conveyor belt at Jakarta airport to collect my bags, despite 15 hours of travel, I felt ready for action.
‘At Bella Union, we’ve tried to expand our horizons beyond the same annual festivals and instead delve into new territories’
When the bags started to appear, my heart sunk as I could see a super-large see-through plastic bag wrapped around my suitcase, encasing the full contents, including a velvet dinner suit (I had been invited to the Music Awards Gala in Finland and black tie was compulsory!) and a huge padded parka. On closer inspection, it seemed like the zips had broken and now all the contents were on view for the passengers’ entertainment. Quite why anyone would bring a velvet suit and a parka to Indonesia was a question I could easily understand being muttered at that moment.
After this unexpected jolt to my confidence, I went through to meet Nadhira and Banted, two of my lovely hosts from the fine folks at British Council who were sponsoring my trip. The hour-or-so drive to the hotel was an early introduction to many of the problems that beset life in Indonesia, one of which is the traffic and transport. I am not a gamer, but I am a good driver and I can say without hesitation I’d never drive here! Thousands of bikes swarm around the cars and weave in and out with seemingly no care or attention.
On main roads, when bikes approach from a side road, they don’t wait until there’s a gap to exit, they just drive straight into the main road without slowing down. One upside is that at all the traffic lights in the city, a lone vulnerable violinist can be seen standing in the middle of the road serenading the massed ranks of revving motorbikes in front of him. A beautiful moment of balance to the chaos.
After a day of meetings, I was taken to Synchronize Festival, which is solely for Indonesian artists. About six stages were spread neatly around the site and each stage catered for a different style of music. Due to the laws governing alcohol, there is very little access to beer here and when there is, it is very expensive – but most festivals are instead sponsored by cigarette companies. Smoking is still big business here in Indonesia and consequently, almost everyone smokes. I saw some good bands and particularly loved Southern Beach Terror, a surf-punk band at times akin to The Cramps.
‘I heard their stories and they asked about mine. Great bonds were forged.’
The following two days were spent in Bandung, which has a rich underground music scene of metal and punk that’s been growing since the mid 80s. We met musicians and writers who, under the ATAP banner, are writing books chronicling every band from Bandung, starting as far back as any documentation exists. It’s incredible to think no writing exists here for any music before this period. ATAP also promote local music on their website and are a true collective of musicians and fans, who want to preserve the musical history of Bandung and ensure the progress of its new artists.
Following that, we went to Keep Keep, a brilliant vinyl store and restaurant where we were to meet “a couple of local folks from the music scene”. By the end of a special night sitting with over 30 people from the Bandung scene, I realised that my old band were hugely important here and that my debut solo record – which hasn’t been available anywhere since 1997, physically or digitally – is highly regarded in Indonesia. Instead of sitting at a long table just talking to the person on your left and right, a microphone was passed around so everyone could introduce themselves and this developed into several hours of in-depth exchanges, where I heard their stories and they asked about mine. Great bonds were forged.
In a country of nearly 300 million, it would be strange not to find some extraordinary music here. I now have even greater reason to buy that new suitcase. I have more CDs to pack than you can imagine and when I get home, I will begin listening.
Simon Raymonde is currently in Lost Horizons and was the bassist and keyboard player in Cocteau Twins. He founded the independent record label Bella Union