Bali’s Rock Activists By Ines Wynn


The young and the restless have always found causes to agitate for, protest against or get behind. It is part of the rebelliousness of their age and in many cases they take it far into their middle years or even beyond. The voice of the young is loud, sometimes strident, and certainly noticeable. When they raise their voices in support of some cause that also reverberates with the rest of society, their pleas are heard and endorsed. They take advantage of their ability to reach a broad audience and broadcast their pet peeves or pet causes far and wide.?

Popular rock bands in particular have a unique chance to share the causes they embrace through their music. Traditionally, rock music was born out of social protest, a rebellion against the staid and stagnant social norms of the times. In the 1950’s and 60’s protest songs started to be aired, mostly about social injustices. The counterculture of the 1960s, inflamed by events like the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King and the mire of the Vietnam War, engendered a revolution of conscience which was fervently embraced and echoed by young musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Beatles and the underground rock music scene. They were famously creating the sociopolitical and countercultural lyrics of the era. Over time the protest causes and reasons multiplied and covered an ever increasing spectrum of issues, from social, political to environmental concerns and human rights abuses. With the development of popular music in the form of pop, rap and blues, more themes found their way onto the ether and into the hearts of listeners.?

Since then, the efforts at highlighting the holes in the canvas of injustices and government shortcomings have not flagged. In contemporary times, the accent has shifted somewhat to include broader causes such as environmental degradation. In Bali several local rock bands have taken up the vanguard in calling attention to, broadcast and protest various issues that affect Bali and Indonesia. Rock bands like Navicula, Superman is Dead (SID), Bullhead, Geekssmile and others want to be known as eco-defenders. These groups are serious about their causes and use all the effective means in their arsenal to get the message across to their fan base, striving to bring about meaningful change. Rock bands with a cause are not content to just sing about it, they have jumped knee-deep into action. They join or lead protests, organize community based activities and perform charity concerts to benefit a certain cause.?

Navicula is a popular Bali rock group whose members, called the Green Grunge Gentlemen, care very deeply about the environment and Indonesia’s native animals whose habitat is being destroyed by commercial interests. They were one of the first groups in the country to draw attention to environmental issues. Gede Robi, Navicula’s founder and lead singer, started the band in 1996 with a group of likeminded friends with the sole purpose of using music as a medium to advance the activist causes he felt deeply about. Robi has been actively involved in social and environmental activism since his university days when he first got interested in ecotourism – at that time it was still just a buzzword without concrete meaning in Bali. Since he loved both music and environmental activism equally, it was not such a stretch to combine the two. The band still contains the original members. Robi was inspired and motivated by Brazilian rock group Sepultura whose Roots album highlighted the plight of the Amazon tribes. This taught him about the power of music in awakening interest in social-environmental causes. Other inspirations came from witnessing the tremendous impact generated by well known musicians like Joni Mitchell who inspired the forming of Greenpeace and John Lennon who protested the Vietnam War in late 1970’s America.

Since a very young age Robi has been interested and personally involved in many current issues like deforestation, reclamation, corruption, etc. He came from a family of farmers, worked as a volunteer for IDEP and became very attracted by the concept of permaculture. He started his own company Akarumput.com, which is based on social entrepreneurship values and concerned with all things environmental in order to create a platform for his many ideas and agricultural projects and to give due billing to others in the community who hooked into the need for protecting Bali’s environment. Robi was looking for an effective way to broadcast his message about conservation of Bali’s natural environment and he started making video blogs of the many ailments he saw in Bali, the holes in the canvas, as he labels it. The video blogs were used to publicize his concerns on crowdfunding website Kickstarter and to finance his various projects.

“As a musician you can say things that public figures are not allowed to say,” says Robi. “You have the artistic freedom to speak up.” His band shot to fame thanks to his drive and enthusiasm to bring good music with a message and he became more widely known on many fronts. His environmental message was noted by international organizations such as Greenpeace who aided his local efforts. Though the project was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, it was Greenpeace who teamed up with Navicula and provided the dirt bikes used in the band’s famous environmental campaign for the preservation of forests and orangutans in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Navicula is amplifying their environmental message by close association and cooperative ventures with other well known NGOs like Wahli Indonesia and Sawit (palm oil) Watch. The latter is especially active in unearthing corruption in the palm oil industry. “We had to wait until the 2007 UN Climate Change Conference held in Nusa Dua,” says Robi, “for the real start of awareness in Bali of the green revolution that had already swept the rest of the civilized world.? Since then interest in global warming has been growing.”

Robi and other activist musicians are masters of online networking, not only to diffuse their music but also to attract a broad audience to their various causes.? This comes to the notice of national and international NGOs and joint projects are often the result. They’re also savvy about using crowdfunding, collaboration and what they call mapping to disseminate their message. Mapping is a very powerful tool that involves a web of interconnectivity across a framework linking various people, entities, organizations and any source which can be tapped in the pursuit of getting the message across. In Navicula’s case, mapping is built on a reliable network of university-days friends, the band’s fans, other music bands and any associations they can form with people in diverse corners of society and government.? This can include government, politicians, NGO acquaintances, friends in media and elsewhere.

To Robi the combination of idealism, creativity and entrepreneurship is a potent base for creating a sustainable project that involves people, nature and the safeguarding of the future. “Everybody has a voice and environmental problems are everyone’s issue“says Robi. “Government, NGO’s and the public must get involved and work together to think and act about our precious environmental heritage.” Music can make environmental issues cool and have them resonate with a large public, especially the young. The majority of Navicula’s fan base is found in the 15-25 year-old age group, a prime crowd to be receptive to the threat and dangers of environmental degradation. Thanks to genuine efforts by rock groups like Navicula, Bali’s youth is becoming increasingly aware of the local environmental issues.

In Navicula’s footsteps

Well known punk band Superman is Dead (SID) is also a very vocal defender of all things green. SID was formed in Kuta in 1995 by a trio of funky musicians who shared a love for the music of Green Day and NOFX. After self-releasing a number of albums they signed with Sony-BMG Indonesia in 2003, making them the first Balinese band to sign with a major label. They shot to local and international fame very quickly and in 2009 they were on an American tour, playing concerts in 16 cities. Midway through their upswing, they started to highlight social and environmental issues in their lyrics. The band packs a great deal of punch; surprisingly there are only 3 members in the group but their impact and influence is far reaching. They care, not just about what is happening in Bali but also about nation-wide issues, even international issues pertaining to human rights. One of their best loved songs, Lady Rose is a caution about the nefarious influence of Indonesian TV programs on children. Their latest album Sunset di Tanah Anarki is an indictment of the treatment of the Munir murder case. Together with other bands they are the music faces behind the Tolak Reklamasi Benoa Bay, the movement that rejects the reclamation and commercial development of Benoa Bay.
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The driving force behind these political and environmental issues is I Gede Ari Astina otherwise known as JRX (Jerinx), the drummer of the band. Says JRX: “In making music, we are trying to be as honest as we can. I guess we respond to our social environment. Coming from an underground music and punk rock scene, to us that’s integrity. And we are lucky enough to have a chance to make some changes. It feels stupid to act like a party animal when your house is on fire. Though we have songs about strippers, drugs and alcohol, we just don’t make it into our main issue because we have way more urgent and relevant issues to spread. Bali’s future is far more important than sex, drugs and rock n roll. We only have one Bali. When it’s ruined, that’s it. After the Bali bombing, we were trying our best to spread the message that religion had nothing to do with it. True religions don’t kill. And we are friends with all religions. ‘Unity in diversity’ is still one of our main mottos.”

JRX recently met with president Jokowi to request revocation of the Benoa Reclamation project. “I always have mixed feelings towards politicians.” says JRX, “But sometimes you have no choice left and the only option you have is to stay positive. My feeling about the meeting is good. I spent like 5 minutes to explain the whole reclamation project. At the end he personally asked me to send him more data. (And also asked me to let him know when my band is playing around Jakarta.) Data has been sent, now we all have to push and remind him to revoke Benoa Bay reclamation. As long as Jokowi still doesn’t show any sign that he is pro Benoa Bay reclamation, there is still hope.”

JRX is involved in many activities and owns fashion label Rumble Clothing (RMBL – www.xrmblx.co), a sub-and counterculture hangout called Twice Bar in Poppies Lane and the Lady Rose Tattoo Shop. Rumble has official shops in Bali, Jogja and soon in Bandung. RMBL has a 4-year old program called Eco Defender that was set up to donate a percentage of the sale of RMBL products to pro environmental NGO WALHI in Bali and Jogja. “From each product we donate from Rp.2000 to Rp.4000 to WALHI to support their agenda.” says JRX “We also make donations to help or support pro environmental events in Bali. Our goal is to make activism cool again and for kids not only to look good but also think and DO good towards humanity and mother earth. In the age of information like now, ignorance is not bliss but a choice. And to me, ignorant kids are never cool.”

The Bali underground indie music scene features many punk groups and indie bands. The indie groups are riding a wave of popularity since the indie scene has become cool and hip, no longer associated with the lot of unknown café singers or wannabe musicians. Since 2001 a 4 piece punk rock group called Geekssmile, aka Denpasar’s Kontrakultura Mercenaries, is famous for its explosive stage antics and their socio- political themed songs. They draw their inspirations from campus climate movements and post-reform era issues which have a significant impact on their lyrics. Their songs reverberate with an explosion of anger and turmoil directed at the political machine couched in a mixture of rap, heavy metal and hardcore. Their favorite subjects are issues which they consider immoral like neo-liberalism, religion’s holy wars, terrorism and global warming.

Geekssmile’s debut album Jurnal Perang Indonesia (Indonesia’s War Journal) aptly introduced their political concerns and is available as a free download from their website. Their latest album, Upeti Untuk Macan Asia (Tribute to Tigers of Asia), is a witness that they are also riling against environmental profanities, and was introduced with the enigmatic slogan “We are selling our souls for rock n ‘roll with full responsibility”. They also sell them for charity, as 50% of their album sales are earmarked to support the Fender Music Foundation whose program “GiveMusicToLife” provides musical instruments to educational programs and schools.

The power of music is uncontestable: it can inspire, uplift and motivate.

The rejection of the Benoa Bay development project seems to be a magnet for many rock groups in Bali. Punk metal bands Scared of Bums and Bullhead, and acoustic folk & pop band Nosstress stand on the beachheads of the protest movement.? Bullhead is a punk rock band from Karangasem, East Bali. They are involved in social, humanitarian, animal welfare, and environmental issues. Even though they have recorded and released 5 albums they claim they spend more time on social and environmental activities than doing their music shows. It doesn’t mean the band is less popular, they say, but like Navicula, Bullhead was primarily formed as a band with a cause, rather than just a music band. They believe the idealism in their lives cannot only be applied to music but should be directed to causes for the greater good. Last year they released 2 hard-hitting singles: A Paradise of the Dogs, a tribute and lament about the fate of dogs in our society and Anarchy Evolution, to protest the Bali Tolak Reklamasi Teluk Benoa. The band is very active in propagating this movement via social media, electronic media and newspapers, as well as in each of their performances. They try to exhort people, regardless of age, to participate in the fight for their causes. In particular, they feel that young people should be more critical and feel partially responsible for safeguarding the natural beauty of Bali.

Nosstress, like their name implies, is a more laid-back trio of acoustic musicians whose creative mix of blues, folk and pop music lends itself well to a gentle remonstration of their concerns about environmental and health issues such as smoking among the young. Also standing on the barricades of environmental issues is Lolot Band, an alternative rock group made up of 4 musicians whose genre is a gentle mix of pop, dangdut and soft rock. Their lyrics portray anxiety about societal and environmental issues and their good looks ensure a steady devotional fan base that will, hopefully, understand and act upon the subliminal messages. ?

One thing all these musicians have in common is their passion, their hope and belief they can make a difference. Spreading their message among their fans is an ingenious way to get young people swayed to caring about what’s happening in their immediate environment. After all, it is the young who will need to carry the torch forward.

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