By Rebekah E. Moore, PhD (Ethnomusicologist)
Ten years ago, in a dark, humid cassette shop in southwest Bali, I asked my friend and the shop’s owner to recommend anything rock, original, and endemic to this new island home. Among the three cassettes he handed me was Navicula’sAlkemis. I listened to that cassette continually for weeks. At the time, without having developed the capacity to make sense of the words, I recognized an alternative referential system these artists and I shared. I sensed in the songs a common sonic backdrop of youth, burned deep into our memories by the angst-ridden moments of our teenage years. In those years, when all we wanted was to feel both different and accompanied—to distinguish ourselves from the hair band proclivities of our siblings and pay homage to their predecessors in punk and heavy metal, grunge bestowed upon us a new musical way of being. These boys, I thought, grew up on Seattle Sound, just like me.
And so it was that three years later I found myself commencing dissertation research on rock in Bali, and Navicula’s firsthand account confirmed that they counted many of my favorite grunge bands among their strongest influences. A few months later, I accompanied Navicula across Java for the album release tour for Salto. I moshed alongside grunge fans across the island’s city centers, who laid bare the deep roots of this genre’s history here, which I, under the weight of my ethnocentric baggage, had taken to stop over there, at my American shores. I felt a deep affinity with these students of music history who shared my passion for Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. It was like coming home, 10,000 kilometers away from the home of my birth.
Like Navicula, many of the scene’s senior bands— Besok Bubar, Che Cupumanik, Alien Sick, and the like—have doled out original tunes over the years that allude to America’s grunge gods, as well as reference, ponder, and critique the immediate environments of their Indonesian city homes. Yet a nagging worry that most young fans preferred to worship grunge gods across the seas rather than those in their very midst haunted me for years. I often wondered: Will fans ever celebrate homegrown talent over foreign imports and embody the genre as an expressive culture that is as much theirs as it is mine?
Perhaps my concerns were misguided by my erroneous assumption that one cannot simultaneously adore the global and covet the local. But they were proven immaterial last Sunday, when I attended the “Tribute to Navicula Night” hosted by grunge fans in East Jakarta. More than a dozen bands paid homage to the very band that inspired my return to Indonesia and yearning to know more about rock in this diverse and perplexing country. As each band took to the stage and included in its three-song set at least one Navicula cover painstakingly rehearsed—though performed with the crutch of transcribed lyrics recited from a handphone—I was reminded of the collapse of geographic and temporal distance that often occurs in music performance. My confidence that the local is no more colonized by the consumption of global musical objects than such so-called foreign goods remain experientially distanced grew ten-fold. In a down-at-heel bar on the outskirts of the country’s megacity, rising grunge gods reveled in the music of a band that has proven time and again what rock music in Indonesia offers to the world. And by making a surprise appearance at the gig, Navicula’s frontman, Robi, bore witness to the next generation’s creative potential.
Midway through the night’s rundown, two young women in long skirts and unassuming jilbab took to the stage, accompanied by a third with curly, shoulder-length hair and dressed in t-shirt and jeans and a sole male player, lost in the shadows of the poorly lit drum kit placed upstage. This was Fleur. Frontwoman Ayu proudly brandished her long-necked guitar, growled into the microphone, and immediately disarmed the nonplussed audience with her performative ease and onstage banter. In seconds, she let us all know, unequivocally, that she and her bandmates belonged in this oft hypermasculine space. Fleur’s performance was technically flawed, as all are in our youth. But the promise of a trio of young women charging into young men’s stomping grounds signal the next great evolutionary shift in grunge: one in which men and women will play equal parts in cultivating their craft and resurrecting the past—one in which the young and green rub will elbows—and take selfies—with their crusty Indonesian idols, all while accumulating admirers of their own.
In Fleur, I see a torch, of sorts, passed and gallantly carried into the future of grunge and for women in Indonesia’s music scenes. In Robi’s uncharacteristically humble demeanor and slight discomfort during this spirited celebration of the band he began to build more than 18 years ago, I see the pride of a big brother and an easing of trepidation about whether or not his globetrotting and aesthetic explorations led him too far from his grunge roots to still garner admiration from the genre’s biggest fans. Navicula were, and remain, a benchmark for budding musicians, male and female, who dream of tracing their footsteps around the globe.