Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Politics of Dancing

This week, the inevitable anti-climax arrived like a condom full of ice cubes. After last week's media circus Smackdown at Pertamina Hospital, ex-president Suharto is recovering in leaps and bounds and will no doubt soon be skateboarding back to Jl. Cendana to start training for this summer's Olympics. We'll try again in another few months ay?

However, one cheering piece of news in this week's paper suggested that Mr S's children, never particularly held in great affection by your average Indonesian, could be liable for any monies to be paid in damages to the state, even if the old man buys the farm before any trial. I'll believe it when I see it though.

This week, I would like to move on to the country's present president. I was ambling catatonically around a shopping Plaza last week, like a Stepford wife after a heavy Bintang session, when something caught the corner of my eye in the music shop I was passing. Good Lord! It was a poster advertising SBY's album Rinduku Padamu (My Longing for You). Now admittedly this story is about six months old but I thought it might be quite fun, in a masochistic kind of a way, to buy Mr. Yudhoyono's disk and give it a spin for Metro Mad.

Normally, I'm a big fan of downloading the latest sounds from peer-to-peer file sharing sites such as Soulseek. However, I thought that just this once I would assuage my guilt over my copyright crimes and make a purchase. Mr. Yudhoyono's clearly a struggling artist trying to make ends meet by means of his musical talent and far be it from me to deny him the fruits of his aesthetic labors.

Alas, the attendant in the shop informed me that CD copies of Rinduku Padamu had all sold out. Clearly there is a musical renaissance under way around town. I managed a purchase a good old-fashioned cassette copy though and headed home, the better for to hear Mr President's honeyed harmonies. However, I soon realized that SBY, whilst having written all of the songs on the album, doesn't actually croon them himself. Various Indonesian singing stars have instead been drafted in to bring the President's compositions to life.

Strange as it may seem for a president or politician to be pursuing a parallel career in music, this is not a story without precedent. Only recently, rabble rousing Venezuelan populist Hugo Chávez released an album of traditional songs. And of course, rock fans the world over await with eager anticipation the release of UK premiere Gordon Brown's album of Alice Cooper covers (Shurely shome mishtake?)

In Indonesia itself, hardline general and East Timor independence whipping boy Wiranto also released an album a few years back. Presumably, this was to show a softer side of himself to counter the image of burning, looting, destruction and murder that colors many people's perceptions of him. As such there were no Death Metal anthems extolling the virtues of pagan ritual and carnage on his disk, only the usual treaty ballads so beloved in this country.

Which brings us neatly onto SBY's magnum opus. Our man stares moodily into the middle distance on the album cover, sensitively strumming at an acoustic guitar. Far from being some etiolated, whey faced, stick thin singer-songwriter though, SBY's essential heft puts one more in mind of that corpulent love walrus Barry White.

This is where all resemblances to any black musicians ends however. Just to digress for a second here, I've always found it slightly depressing that so much Western influenced Indonesian popular music seems to eschew the primal influences of black popular culture and the loci of rhythmic and sexual danger that surrounds it. Instead we get the limpest, soppiest ballads for the girls and the whitest, most constipated and pedestrian forms of ‘alternative’ rock for the boys. For those of a supposedly more sophisticated bent, the cheesiest, most mindlessly supermarket-esque forms of jazz on the planet seem to predominate. Perhaps this country’s Western influenced popular music should try and draw more on the fantastic indigenous, traditional musics of Indonesia and indeed there is better stuff out there that does do this.

SBY's album though certainly suffers from soporific ballad syndrome (musically analogous to irritable bowel syndrome). After about 2.5 seconds of the title track, I knew that I was in for an LP every bit as mediocre as the man's presidency. "La la la, plonk plonk plonk, bit of a twang, yeah yeah yeah."

Apparently SBY has gone on record as saying that it takes him between one and two and a half hours to write a song and that he once composed a track on a long haul flight after leaving an economics forum in Sydney. Phew! Rock 'n' roll! You know you're on the edge, you know you're partying with SBY at the controls. Whatever next? Dick Cheney sings Britney Spears at the Republican convention? Actually that's not such an unlikely scenario; I'd better keep quiet lest some GOP strategist sees this. I mean we’ve already had eight years of Bill “Sax Appeal” Clinton and his professed love for the music of Kenny bloody G.

Government approved pop music, it's an idea that sets the pulse racing isn't it? The Sun Is Shining, The Power of God, A Song under the Moonlight: all these great titles can be yours if you purchase a copy of SBY's breakout debut album. Rinduku Padamu is the sound of interest rates dropping half a percentage point. Rock on. Don't give up the day job Mr President....er... actually, on second thoughts.....