Arlo Hennings: Indonesian Jazz

By Bill Dalton

Arlo Hennings has been an aficionado of Indonesian jazz and other styles of indigenous music since 2011. The curator of Indojazzia website, Facebook page and record label, Arlo has more than 45 years in the music business in Indonesia and abroad. He has helped many Indonesian musicians and continues to do so with their music business needs. He was the first foreigner to manage an Indonesian progressive jazz fusion band and was also the music business coordinator for the New York based Moonjune records, which has released 20 Indonesian progressive jazz CDs. Arlo also publishes his own music videos and collaborative works with Indonesian musicians. His career memoir Guitarlo has been translated from its original English into Indonesian. Arlo currently lives with his Indonesian wife in Pandaan, East Java.


How long has Western-style jazz been a part of the modern Indonesian music scene?

Big Band Swing arrived in Batavia as early as the 1920s. In the ‘50s, Bubi Chen (1938–2012), a pianist widely recognized as the ‘Godfather’ of Indonesian jazz, spent two years in the USA studying jazz piano under the tutelage of Teddy Wilson, sometimes accompanist for Billie Holiday. During the ‘50s and ‘60s classical music was considered high class and jazz “low class;” to be caught playing it invited scorn. President Sukarno in the mid-sixties even declared a ‘war against the Beatles’ and other western influenced music which was considered ‘subversive.’ However, despite an unwelcome start Indonesian jazz has survived, albeit for a niche audience, and has even given the world a jazz piano prodigy from Bali, Joey Alexander.


What was your first encounter with Indonesian jazz?

Working with an Indonesian organizer, Franki Fraden in Ubud at a venue called the Ubud Concert Series. After meeting jazz players like Koko Horsoe and Erik Sondhy, I moved on with Pak Raden in 2012 to be involved with his IMEX (Indonesian Music Expo) in Nusa Dua where I met the owner of MoonJune records Leonardo Pavkovic. It was through Leonardo I was introduced to a group of Jakarta jazz progressives, Dwiki Dharmawan, Tohpati, Dewa Budjana (Bali), Agam Hamzah, Riza Arshad, Tesla Manaf, and “I Know You Well Miss Clara” (IKYWMC). In 2016, I released my first Indonesian jazz CD with Balinese keyboard player Erik Sondhy.


What’s the story behind the Indojazzia website?

The Indojazzia website and its components were joint ventures between the late Terry Collins and I. We were partners in all sorts of mischief from blogs about Indonesian music to our own Indonesian record label. Terry did the writing and I handled the business. Terry and I visited the first Indonesian record label museum in Solo, Lokananta only to find their archives were plundered during the reformasi, leaving a vast historical record collection lost. This experience gave us the idea of publishing A History of Jazz in Indonesia, which has been a major project for a number of years. The book is a study of jazz in Indonesia, past, present and future. I owe it to Terry’s legacy to do something with it. Afterhours Books Indonesia and the British publishing house Equinox have indicated an interest in it.


Do different ethnic groups in Indonesia play different kinds of jazz?

Ethno jazz emerged around 1989. Bubi Chen, credited with adding an Indonesian flavor to jazz music, led the way. Following Chen, groups like Krakatau, a world music/pop/jazz fusion jazz group toured 60 countries in the 90s. More followed but with less success. Today, to a limited degree, you can hear original jazz fusion with various ethnic influences. From Sundanese and Samarinda, to jazzed-up gamelan and Avant-Garde, small groups of Indonesian musicians continue to break out of the mainstream to explore ethno fusion.


What music have you published?

I’ve published my own music videos as well as collaborative works with Indonesian musicians. I’m releasing Eric Sondhy’s second CD The Gift of Love. My new CD Jawa Warrior is a fusion/90s tribute album consisting of ambient progressive jazz and Indonesian influenced soundscapes that was released on December 19th, 2018.


Where can one listen to jazz nowadays?

With access to the Internet and the growth in Indonesia’s economy over the past 30 years, ‘jazz cafes’ come and go but new start-ups like the Motion Blue in Jakarta and the Ryoshi in Denpasar survive. In terms of jazz festivals, there are approximately 30 of varying sizes. Many of them feature (and I have been to all of them) all genres of music, not just jazz. (It’s also important to note that Indonesians call anything “Jazz” that they think is cool.) The most noteworthy – depending on your taste – is the Jakarta Jazz Festival, which has recently suffered a financial restructuring.


Where can a talented young musician study jazz?

Universities and private music schools offer jazz programs staffed by professional musicians, many of whom were mentored by venerable ‘seniors.’ However, they do not offer any kind of music business curriculum like American schools require.


How difficult is it for a competent musician to make a living

Local jazz musicians have few outlets other than occasional gigs at a wedding or corporate function where people can buy their recordings. However, our social media offers a portal for the many musicians seeking international exposure as well as jazz aficionados abroad newly aware of the astonishing creativity to be discovered here. But jazz is a niche market and a tough sell. Many jazz celebrities come from wealth. They don’t have to worry about earning a living!


How big is the jazz scene on Bali?

In Bali, there are approximately 50 venues that pay a fee to support a jazz community of approximately 40 professional level musicians. The jazz scene in Bali is subject to seasonal tourist traffic. It’s a difficult scene for a newbie to break into. Most play western covers.


Is music piracy as serious a problem in Indonesia as it is in the U.S.?

Piracy is worse in Indonesia where it has finally reached the 100% piracy level. With the lack of an enforced copyright law you can see the results. Musicians make money by playing live or for commercial sponsors. CDs are a promotional item. A tourist at the bar may like the band and buy their CD. CD sales make up a small part of the Indonesian creative economy. It was not like that 10 years ago. Another part of a musician’s income is publishing royalties, which is another problem beyond the scope of this interview.


Where can one learn more about Indonesian jazz?

Several online sites offer jazz information, such as and Indojazzia Facebook is still live and remains the only foreigner-based online portal for Indonesian music happenings.


Where can you be contacted?


Instagram: ArloHennings

Twitter: @guitarlo



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