Midcentury communists, always such wet blankets about pop music. In the 1960s, Indonesia’s communist party, the PKI, was the biggest in South Asia, surpassing even Vietnam’s. Along with religious conservatives, they opposed the importing of western pop, arguing that its spreading success in the market left little room for the promotion of indigenous styles of music. The exploding Malaysian “Pop Yeh-Yeh” scene to the north also caused friction and was criticized by the same as a social threat that needed to be countered. Panic ensued when local teenage bands started imitating Elvis and Bill Haley. Watching their children abducted by the trappings of crass white carnival singers was too much for the middle-class to bear. President Sukarno’s government passed laws outlawing rock music and its fashion in 1964, a move that didn’t go over well with the entertainment industries in Jakarta and Medan who wanted to market movies, music, and rock lifestyle to kids. From their view, nationalist Sukarno, and the communists with which he sympathized, were standing in the way of increased western corporate investment. Many know of the Koes Bersaudara incident (“bersaudara” is a gender-neutral word akin to “siblings”) where they were briefly jailed for singing “I Saw Her Standing There” at a private party. It was nothing next to what followed.
On the night of Sept. 30, 1965, several right-wing Army generals were murdered by a clique of the PKI, in a terribly planned coup, or a coup designed to be terrible. Those responsible were quickly arrested. President Sukarno tried to restore calm but he was sidelined by an opportunistic general named Suharto. In retaliation for seven dead military personnel, Suharto would oversee the killing of a million unarmed innocent people by the Indonesian Army (with U.S. equipment and training), aided by vigilante mobs with machetes who openly modeled themselves on nazi death squads. In addition to these mass killings, tens of thousands of women suffered imprisonment and sexual violence. Many were members of Gerwani, a forward-thinking feminist political organization that advocated for gender and class equality, land rights for the poor, and an end to patriarchal polygamy. Although it was more broadly politicide, the Army concocted a special gendered narrative–spread widely via radio stations and newspapers–about these “communist witch whores” castrating the captured generals and dumping them alive down a well, called the “crocodile pit”, or Lubang Baya. Autopsies showed otherwise. This misogynistic propaganda poisoned the population against Gerwani and socially ostracized their extended kin. Many who survived the mass killing then spent decades in prison for their political beliefs.
By 1967, as the killing wound down, the murderers’ teenagers wanted to dance. Suharto sought to solidify his power by unifying all of the islands under one fascio-colonialist ideology called “Pancasila”, which seems like a sort of transatlantic corporate welfare state for rubber and rare mineral industries. It also involved establishing one national language from all the archipelago’s dialects. Suharto invested heavily in broadcasting and recording infrastructure, and western media technologies spread like a savior and a plague across the land. Television was still cost prohibitive for most, but transistor radios were common. Cassettes arrived in Indonesia by the early 70s, and, like in India, they had a liberating impact on music consumption and distribution. Bootleg record plants existed in the 60s, but vinyl pressing was cumbersome and static compared to cassette re-production, which could be done on the fly, with minimal workers and portable equipment. As a result, the 70s-80s saw an explosion in bootleg cassette entrepreneurship across South Asia (for the 80s Indian market, the study Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India cites a 4:1 ratio for bootleg to corporate/”legit”, and they admit that’s likely lowballing it).
This list is heavily biased towards our favorites. We are skipping Dara Puspita since they are well covered elsewhere, and we can’t afford their records. See the books Dance of Life, Banal Beats/Muted Histories, and Sonic Modernities in the Malay World for scholarly info on this scene. Dance is older and a bit more dismissive of pop culture in that way that 80s Marxist boomer scholars could be. But it is still indispensable and was the sole English language work on this topic for decades, also covering Thailand and the Philippines. While these books don’t specifically discuss the singers below, they are great for getting a feel for the social politics of the region and for textual lyric meaning.
Thanks to Sofiane Saidi at Groovyrecord for his awesome curation of Indo/Malay music. His great 2020 reissue of Yanti Bersaudara’s rare first album, released in conjunction with La Munai, is a must-have.
The hook heavy catalog of Nina and Silvy Pattie is rivaled by few. They brought a beach party vibe that screamed Indo-teen modernity, with phrasing that was heavy on harmony and light on vibrato. They started soon after the genocide, with the Mutiara 7″ EP Rajuanku which has shades of Lilis Surjani. Several 10″ releases followed, along with appearances on Remaco’s pop samplers. Of the early EPs, Menanti Surat Balasan is the best, containing country twanger “Semoga Djadi Kenangan”, sad harpsichordfest “Kusesalkan Di Kau Pergi”, and Dutch hit “Ik Hield Van Jou”, where their nasally tones in the chorus remind of Mina. The 1969 album Soul is their masterpiece, with Sjafei Glimboh’s steller arrangements, Pantja Nada’s manic fuzz, and the Patties’ staccato voices soaring and hammering over horn accents and tight backbeats. The “Hippy” album with wah-wah guitar-god Enteng Tanamal is also good, containing “Pesta Ku”, “Rulie Ku”, and “Aku Lupa”. A 1971 self-titled album with The Comets has a great “Mande Mande” (with Be-My-Baby drumming) and the Jakarta-Valley-PTA jammer “Senjum Bahagia”. Their 4 Nada output is not quite as good, recycling western melodies instead of originals. Two exceptions are “Aku Muak Padamu” (“I Am Sick of You”; melody of “Honky Tonk Women”) and a fuzzy raver called “Pesta Meriah”, both from 1970’s Nusa Ina. Also great are two Warna Warni English-language cuts from the year prior, “What Am I Suppose” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, the latter shifting perspective to 3rd person. The latest album of theirs I’ve heard is from 1975, again with Pantja Nada, this time bringing the synth for “Bila Hatiku Rindu” and “Relakan”.
Inneke Kusumawati could be psychy and spacey, with a pulsating vibrato on her sustains similar to Malaysian singer Helen Velu. Her best work came out on the short-lived Malaysian label Canary, which had an artist roster heavy in girl singers. Her second album Pengen Kenal, recorded with Jopie Item’s The Galaxies, is her best record, a non-stop shimmering soundscape of voice, reverb, fuzz, flute, and organ; check out “Tak Berguna”, “Kau Dusta” (whose vocal intro quotes “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), and the countrified space ballad “Menangis Lagi”. Side-closer “Rudjak Rudjak” lays down a psychedelic helicoptery drum outro that is somewhat ominous given Indonesia’s 1970s militancy. The album’s predecessor Naik Kuda, done with Eka Sapta supporting, also has many great moments, like “Meidi Addiku” and “Djaket Tua.” The latest record of hers I’ve seen is from 1973 where she is singing Koes songs with them backing, called Top Hits. It stands out due to some phenomenal vocal double-tracking, a technique Kusumawati seldom used (Pengen Kenal is all single-tracked voice, with the exception of one song). She also did one keroncong record with Benjamin S. and two LPs with Oma Irama, as well as a 10” EP on Mutiara that I have not heard. She seems to disappear from the music scene around the mid 70s, at least in Aktuil journal coverage. Like Vivi Sumanti and others on this list, I think she also worked in film or television.
Like many Indonesian women singers, Kasim dabbled in a variety of sounds, from Minang to jukebox dance songs. She started in the late 50s, as a singer in a relative’s touring band. The earliest record of hers I’ve seen is from 1966 on the Irama label, backed by the Arsianti Orchestra, who, on standard “Lazuardi”, merge a West-Coast Byrdsy jangle with South Asian sounds. Her best pop records were done with May Sumarna and The Steps: Suara Minang and Elly Kasim di Hong Kong, both from around ‘69. From Suara, “Ayam Den Lapeh” is great, a Minang standard recorded multiple times in her career. Most Indonesian solo women single-tracked their voices or added echo or reverb for depth. Vocal double-tracking, as employed by U.S./U.K. Girl Groups, was rare. But several songs on Elly Kasim di Hong Kong use it to great effect, particularly “Tam Oi”, with its synchronized twin vocals and horn blasts mimicking traffic sounds. Starting in the mid 70s, she shifted away from the pop music scene and focused her time on Minangkabau cultural programs with her partner.
Ernie Djohan released many covers of western hits–“San Francisco”, “Let’s Pretend”, “To Sir With Love”–with phrasing and arrangements that didn’t deviate much from the western versions. Her best records were original melodies recorded with Indonesian lyrics, most on Remaco and Canary. The 10″ EP Semau Guè is a standout, backed by Electrika and issued sometime in the late 60s. Two other exceptional Canary releases were her duet album with Ban Oslein and Aku Sudah Dewasa, where she is supported by psychy outfit The Galaxies, who’d just backed Inneke Kusumawati on Canary’s Pengen Kenal. Its title track is a great example of how international pop songs would sometimes start with a known pop-song hook before switching to a different melody altogether, in this case swiping the intro of “Honky Tonk Women” (another example is the “Hold On, I’m Coming” guitar riff in the fade-out to Pattie Bersaudara’s “Siapa Ikut”). Dewasa also contains cool double-tracking and country reverb. A funky jam from the same record called “Commercial” is also excellent.
Wirdaningsih was the sister of another famous Indonesian girl singer named Irni Yusnita, who recorded some great sides with The Commandos for Singapore-based Panda and other regional labels. There isn’t much info out there on Wirdaningsih; I went through Museum Indonesia Music’s digital archive of the journal Aktuil from 1968-78 and saw maybe one or two nondescript mentions, and zero pics. Her warm tone and lower register were uncommon in this scene, perhaps most closely aligned with peers Norma and Sandra Sanger, or the Malay singer Yetty Jalil. The greatest recording I’ve heard is a song called “Adaik Bachinto”, where she is backed by a fuzzed-out band called El Dorado. I have never seen nor heard any of her LPs.
Norma and Sandra Sanger
I think Norma and Sandra (pictured) were siblings but I’m not sure. They never recorded jointly that I can tell. Norma was older and likely more square by Indonesian teen pop standards. The best record I have of hers is a 7″ EP done with The Steps that has a great version of “We Could Learn Together” that sounds like a long lost drag classic. It also has a song that uses a popular Luigi Tenco melody, also recorded by Wilma Goich. The earliest records of Sandra seem to date from the late 60s. Her must-hear vocal performance is the soaring “Haus” (“Thirsty”), recorded with The Steps and included on an album shared with Marini and issued on PopSound, Semula Di Singapura, around 1970. In it, her deep bone-shaking sustains soar between fuzz blasts, swirling organ, and surf-psych drumming. She continued recording with Marini and The Steps on and off into the mid 70s, including several disco records.
Ervinna came from Surabaya and was maybe the most prolific artist on this list, making tons of records in several languages. She covered hit songs from both East and West, in styles that incorporated pop, keroncong, gospel, reggae, disco, and mandopop. Most of her releases came out on the Singapore-based label White Cloud, home of Judy Teng and other greats. Her first volume of Top Hits from 1976 with The Stylers is solid straight through, with seminal versions of “It Never Rains in Southern California”, “You’re So Vain”, “I’d Love You to Want Me”, “Witch Queen of New Orleans”, “I Started a Joke”, and Stylers’ song “Mrs. Seelo”. Until the end of the decade, she was paired with a variety of different bands, including The Dusk, The Glass Onion, and Charlie & His Boys. Other wonderful covers on these latter albums include “Jolene”, “Daddy Cool”, “Band on the Run”, “Sundown”, “One of These Nights”, and “Silly Love Songs”.
Marini started off with several 7″ EPs on the Irama label, one featuring a cover of Ricky Nelson’s “G(x)psy Woman”. After that, she released several stellar collaborations with Sandra Sanger and The Steps. The first, Semula Di Singapura, features her standout jammer “Buka Pintu”. The second, called simply Sandra and Marini, has many great covers, including “A Simple Song”, “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”, and “Uptight”. But it’s definitely Marini’s smoking version of “Rubberneckin'” that steals the show. In the mid/late 70s, she continued working with The Steps on several disco records, all called Pop Disco/Disko. The one on EMI Malaysia from 1978 has a song that uses the melody of “Lady Bump”, while another on Irama Tara borrows Abba’s “Dancing Queen” tune for the song “Ratu Disco”. Oddly, given their massive popularity, Abba songs were seldom covered in Asia.
Mariana was a huge Indonesian superstar in the 1980s. Her first two Pop Remaja albums came out at the tail end of the 70s and both have some wonderful synth and double-tracked vocals, with mad swinging jams like “Mari Bergoyang”, the lead track on Pop Remaja Vol. 1, on Yukawi from 1977. Several of her slow songs on these albums are also remarkable, with the tempo and piano accents of one reminding me a little of “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones. She moved more into dance pop in the 1980s.
H. Nur Asiah Jamil
One traditional 20th century genre important to Indonesia’s large Muslim community was called Qasidah. It combined choir with Islamic poetry. In the 1960s, this genre evolved into Qasidah Modern, which replaced classic poetry with modern lyrics reflecting more contemporary concerns. H. Nur Asiah Jamil was one of the most important artists working in Qasidah Modern throughout the 1960s and 70s. She recorded hundreds of songs with her all-women choir. Our favorite is the haunting “Demi Masa”, which can be found on several of her 70s releases on the Musica and Life labels.
Ira Puspita released two albums in the early 70s, only one of which is pop. Both were recorded with Marjono & His Boys backing. Dendang Si Dendang came out on PopSound around 1971 and contains several highlights: “1000th Ku Nantikan”, later recorded by Mahani Mohd; a smoking cover of the Carla Thomas song “He’s Beating Your Time”; and her best track, a sauntering slice of vocal huskiness called “Kuingin Kaupun Datang”. The tone of her voice on the latter song reminds me a lot of an Italian singer named Brenda Bis.
Titiek Sandhora started off doing solo records for Mutiara around 1968 but moved over into duets with fellow singing star, and later spouse, Munchin. Of those I have heard, her solo albums are far better than the Munchin collaborations, with “Mimpi Diraju” (using Birkin-Gainsbourgh’s “Je t’aime… moi non plus” melody”) and “Djangan Pilih-Pilih” being the two standouts, along with a song that steals “Hey Jude” melody. There is also a great country track on her Sayonara album, a superb song called “Djangan Kau Ulangi”.
There were several exceptional vocal trios in the Indonesian Pop scene–Sitompul Sisters, Trio Visca–but none of them sounded as trippy and layered as the Yantis. Their records are very hard to find at a reasonable price. Thankfully, Groovyrecord and LaMunai reissued their wonderful first album in 2020, which originally came out on Polydor in the early 1970s and is one of the finest releases of that decade. They were active until the mid 70s, sometimes appearing as guest vocalists with folk outfit Bimbo. One of my favorite tracks of theirs is on one of these albums from around 1975, a beautiful minor key ballad called “Balada Orang Minta Minta”, which features a prominent mellotron throughout.
Andrianie recorded often with D’Strangers backing, with most releases on Diamond and Remaco. The best that I’ve heard is an album called Belajar, which is also the name of the excellent title song and features impressive double-tracked vocals, cool tempo changes, and surprising turns. Beladjar Sepeda is also good, particularly her duet with Jessy Robot on Side 1, a track called “Kedjam”.
Lily Junaedhy & Lanny Sukowati
Two separate singers I am combining because their collaborative album, Dua Gadis Remadja with Discotique backing, is a twangy Indonesian truck stop classic, with arrangement and production that mimics super warm 1970s Nashville country. It was issued on the Bali label. Both of these artists had solo careers, with Lanny being one half of the teen duo Lanny Sisters, whose Bertamasja LP contained the hit “Pagi-Pagi”. Sukowati’s solo records are hard to find. Junaedhy recorded one solo album on Canary called Pergi Tanpa Kata and several other collaborations with singer/actor Vivi Sumanti, only one of which I have heard, Adikku Baladhar Menjanji on Canary Records.
Grace Simon became an Indonesian pop music sensation in 1976, after she won a popular song competition, which landed her on the front cover of Aktuil. I have only heard one of her albums, called Bing and released that same year. It contains one of her best songs, the fantastic synthy track “Hanya Semalam”. She continued recording into the 1980s, releasing a lot of LPs on the Life label, primarily ballads.
Jim and Karen broadcast on FreeformPortland as Center For Cassette Studies bi-weekly Saturday mornings from 8-10am PST.
Sources for Intro and Recommended Reading:
Barendregt, Bart A., et al. Popular Music in Southeast Asia: Banal Beats, Muted Histories. Amsterdam University Press, 2017.
Barendregt, Bart A., and Philip Yampolsky. Sonic Modernities in the Malay World: a History of Popular Music, Social Distinction and Novel Lifestyles. Edited by Bart A. Barendregt, Brill, 2014.
Griswold, Deirdre. Indonesia: the Bloodbath That Was. World View Publishers, 1975.
Kolimon, Mery, et al. Forbidden Memories: Women’s Experiences of 1965 in Eastern Indonesia. Edited by Mery Kolimon et al., Translated by Jennifer Lindsay, Monash University Publishing, 2015.
Lockard, Craig A. Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
Manuel, Peter. Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Marching, Soe Tjen, et al. The End of Silence: Accounts of the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia. Amsterdam University Press, 2017.
Wieringa, Saskia, and Nursyahbani Katjasungkana. Propaganda and the Genocide in Indonesia: Imagined Evil. Routledge, 2019.