The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, September 25, 2006



If you’re seeking jazz in Surabaya there’s no need to scour dim and dingy back streets for smoke-choked cellars. Just take an evening wander down Jalan Pemuda, the East Java capital’s main drag, and you’ll soon hear the music you crave.

For the Garden Palace Hotel features jazz bands at its sidewalk café where the smells and sounds of the city roll over the low hedge between patrons and pedestrians. If you’re on the outside you can enjoy the music without feeling compelled to buy drinks, though space is cramped and pavements potholed.

If you’re inside you can sit down and relax under canvas – that’s if you can shut out the din from the police sirens, honking autos and malfunctioning car security alarms. The hotel’s response to the cacophony of klaxons is to crank up the sound system to a point where it’s equal to the shock waves of a bunker-busting bomb.

Cool? Well, that’s questionable, despite the mist jets. Unwinding? Maybe, if you’re immune to the stress factor that usually accompanies crowds and noise.

If you think jazz is best played in a closed and cosy cavern during the early hours where the atmospherics enhance the music, then maybe this is not for finicky you. Nonetheless it’s currently the best on offer and the organisers deserve heartfelt applause for getting this far.

For jazz isn’t the most popular music form in Indonesia’s second biggest city where Top 40, Golden Oldies, Dangdut – even Reggae - rule. It’s the timeworn standards that pull the crowds of all ages, and where tin-ear crooners in the audience think they can do a better job than the performers.

It used to be different, according to Latief Darmawan who coordinates Surabaya’s C Two Six Jazz Club. The title sounds like a memorable riff but is just the street number of the gentleman’s suburban home.

“In the 1970s and 80s jazz was alive and doing well in East Java,” he said. “Interest waned after many popular performers went to Jakarta in search of more work and money.

“However things are now slowly picking up. We have about 500 enthusiastic members. About half are students and maybe 20 per cent women. Jazz seems to be seen as men’s music.

“We’re doing our best to popularise jazz. Unfortunately it has an image of being elite and expensive – which isn’t the case. By playing so close to passers-by in the city we’re getting good promotion. They can hear, they can like – and then love.”

Latief, who lectures at a hospitality industry training college, was one of the driving forces in this year’s Jazz in the City Festival, the first major promotion for some time. Apart from the hotel he got backing from a local radio station and a cigarette company.

Hotel staff said the three-night event this month (Sept), and which attracted ten bands competing for an Rp 5 million (US $550) first prize, was popular with patrons and may become a regular annual feature.

The winner was Jazz Friend, four young blokes who play in other bands but stitched together their group to bid for the big prize. Big? Well, by Surabaya standards any local band is lucky to collect Rp 600,000 (US $66) for a taxing gig in a toffee-nose hotel, so getting eight times that amount was well worth the effort.

They won the contest with a program of fusion, which seems to be the favored form. Fusion, also known as jazz rock, started in the 1960s as a reaction to rock along the lines of: If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.

For the hard-wired traditionalists it’s base stuff because there’s much repetition and minimal improvisation. However as a music bridge for those who find jazz too intellectual, it’s a reasonable compromise.

Of course many claim there’s nothing cerebral about jazz; it’s all about feeling. Which is why the form arouses so much passionate debate.

Of the four men, Anmad Salis Sauhar Firdaus (guitar), Sonny Sunarno (keyboard), Alkautsar Firdransyah (bass) and Yusak Mahu Nugroho (drums) only the first makes some sort of living from music. The others all have side jobs.

“I can earn about Rp 1 million in a month playing two nights a week, but pick up more than that in tips,” said Firdaus. “I don’t just play jazz. I have to do everything and keep moving around.

“I like jazz because of the freedom. You can play from the heart and the soul. I’d like to see it combined with traditional Indonesian music on the gamelan. That’s been done in Bali, though not here.”

Sadly Jazz Friend has no female singer and no saxophonist. To a Western ear the lack of a wind instrument tends to make the music feel unbalanced. The sax is rare in Surabayan jazz – or any band - so the audience seems indifferent to the absence.

Said Sonny: “Jazz requires dedication and skill. That’s often rare in music. With jazz you can be dynamic and free. You’re not closed off from other influences. It’s universal music. We want to be better appreciated by audiences.”

Did they have any problems playing a music form that’s often described as ‘the purest exponent of American democracy, celebrating individualism and compromise, independence and cooperation’?

“Sure, I’m a nationalistic Indonesian,” said Latief. “But music is global. It cuts through the boundaries. Like soccer.”

(First pubished in The Sunday Post, 24 September 2006)

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