On an otherwise ordinary Thursday night, Made J, owner of the Balinese punk venue Gimme Shelter, arrived at his bar to find the street inexplicably jammed with hundreds of punks and so many cars and scooters he couldn’t even find a park.
“It was insane!” he recalls. “As soon as I turned in there’s some kid laid out on the road (laughs). And I’m like, hold on a second, what the fuck?”
The nature of the crowd wasn’t surprising; it was the sheer volume of people. As far he knew, he’d booked a handful of Indonesian bands to play his bar—like he does three to four times a week. In a nation of 260 million people, 18,000 islands and literally thousands of world-class punk bands, however, small oversights can be magnified into something much bigger. Unbeknownst to Made, he had accidentally booked one of the biggest underground political punk acts in the history of Indonesia to play his bar.
“Man, I didn’t know! I literally got told about the gig at (Bali’s other punk venue) Twice Bar on Monday, like, ‘yo, man I’ve got this band coming over can they play?’ I’m like, ‘okay’, and that was it. That was the only thing I got!” he laughs, incredulously.
Marjinal, who hail from the seething Indonesian megatropolis Jakarta, are among the originators of the genre in this country, their career beginning in the late nineties during the popular uprising that saw the infamously murderous and corrupt military dictator, President Suharto, thrown from power. Comprised of unapologetic tattered “street punks,” Marjinal have run punk communes for homeless Indonesians, taught street kids how to busk for a living, and travelled the length of the archipelago playing fire and brimstone shows spanning the full gamut of social and political issues—from human rights abuses to urban poverty, rural poverty, corruption, resource theft, and equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people. Their gigs are not for the faint of heart.
“Four tables broken, chairs smashed to pieces, one of the toilet doors came off its swing, I was like, ‘shit man,’” says Made of the gig, which pulled in a paltry USD$500 over the bar—a little less than a dollar for each person who attended the gig (the bar’s capacity is 500).
The money would barely cover the repairs and the amount required to pay off the local Banjar—a uniquely Balinese religious council who provide security for clubs, pubs and events—who were pissed they were not alerted to the mass of people en route to the gig.
“I spoke to the boys who organised it, like, ‘dudes, you gotta tell me before it’s gonna happen. I gotta call up the Banjar tomorrow and fucken apologise and give ‘em more money.’”
“I said, ‘look man, we gotta keep this shit going, if this shit happens again, we’re gonna have problems with the Banjar’. And if you have problems with the Banjar your place is finished, you’re done. They said they were really sorry and didn’t mean it to be like that,” says Made.
In a country mired in poverty, running a punk, rock and blues venue can be a largely thankless task, at least in the financial sense. But while profits are a necessity, Made’s clearly not in it for the money.
“If you’re gonna create a scene you need to have a place to play,” he says matter-of-factly.
“It’s fucken difficult…but at the same time, it was a fucken good gig. The kids had a good time and one day those kids are gonna have a job and they’re gonna come buy a beer,” he says.
Gimme Shelter, which opened last August, is the latest in a string of barely profitable punk venues in Bali. The first, and most famous, is Twice Bar, a Balinese punk rock institution that survived 17 years of business before shutting down recently following a string of police raids and government harassment.
In a country still suffering a hangover from the 1965 genocide that saw up to a million students, socialists and left-leaning party supporters of the then President Sukarno slaughtered (with help from the American, English and Australian governments), being a dissident remains dangerous.
The owner of Twice Bar, Jerinx, is also the frontman of one of the biggest punk bands in Asia, Superman Is Dead, as well as a staunch environmentalist, anti-corruption campaigner and protector of Bali’s cultural and spiritual traditions.
In 2016 he used his considerable public profile to promote the Tolak Reklamasi movement, a remarkable grassroots political campaign in Bali that united Banjars across the island and brought thousands of Balinese to the streets in opposition of plans by corrupt government officials and businessmen to develop a sacred mangrove estuary near Benoa Harbour. Something the authorities didn’t take kindly to.
“There’s a lot of government people involved in it and he’s a big voice for it, a really big voice for it, so people were really trying to fuck with him,” explains Made.
But you can’t kill an idea. Twice Bar has since reopened in a different location along with another affiliated bar in Kuta, Rumble House. I attended the opening of the second bar where Made was playing a gig in solidarity with the venues.
“I told Adi and Jerinx that I wanted to play the opening of Twice Bar so that people knew there weren’t any bad feelings, that there wasn’t any competition. If I played there everyone knows I’m cool with it, which I am because Twice Bar was everyone’s home before,” he says.
Made is not a punk musician and says he’s “not political.” His background is in blues, where he’s forged a reputation throughout Europe, Australia and America, and he’s been signed to one record label or another since the age of 16. Raised in Australia by an English mother and Balinese father, he can’t help but be a bit an outsider, though he very much understands the importance of short, fast, loud music, and the catharsis it provides to a people pincered by poverty and political corruption.
“Here you’ve got kids and they’ve got fucken nothin’ and when you’ve got nothin’ and you back someone against the wall what are they gonna do? People get fucken angry, they get sick of that shit,” he says. “Life’s a bit more difficult here for your standard person and when you have a difficult life, music is a good release for it.”
This is one logical explanation for the remarkable aptitude so many Indonesians have for musicianship. As Made explains, “Music in Indonesia is like football in Brazil. Everyone can play.”
“When they say they can’t, you hand them a guitar and they can play three or four songs. When they say they can, they play like fucken Van Halen!” he laughs.
Paradoxically, just as much of the music that comes out of the punk and hardcore scenes are less concerned with politics, anger and inequality, as much as providing messages of positive reinforcement to the youth.
“The music we are into has a message. It’s not about us getting fucked up. It’s about being positive, being straight edge (no drugs or alcohol), looking after your family and friends, keeping creative and stuff,” explains Denny, a member of Strikes, one of the regulars at Gimme Shelter along with the other punk venues.
From Medan originally, a poverty-stricken “ghetto” of two million in North Sumatra, Denny is motivated by the struggle in Indonesia but says it is just as important to find a way to deal with that anger.
“I love Indonesia but I don’t love my government. They just don’t give back the things that they have to give. They are not transparent about the taxes and things like that,” he says.
“If you have problems and you have your anger inside you, you get anger more and more, and it will eat you, you know?
“Through the music, through skate, through surfing, through art, through taking photos, it’s kind of like meditation you know? Otherwise you will get crazy—just like your dog if you don’t take it for a walk,” he says.
Strikes have supported Australian metal-core giants Parkway Drive and will open for New York punk legends Agnostic Front at Gimme Shelter in May. While honoured to get a gig alongside their idols, Denny is critical of the one-way nature of collaboration between many international artists and their Indonesian counterparts.
“Since I was a kid, since colonisation, we have been so Westernised,” he says.
“They (record labels, brands, sponsors) want to look cool by sending an artist to Bali to play, but if they come here why don’t they collaborate properly? Why don’t they promote our artists over there? Why doesn’t it go both ways, like, a proper collaboration—to help the Indo artists get more recognition?” he says.
It’s not for lack of talent. In a nation of 260 million people, where punk and metal stand alone as the youth music and culture of choice, an abundance of world-class talent is an inevitability. The only things stopping them getting their message out are geopolitics and, perhaps more tellingly, the apathy of Western artists and record labels.
“As an Indonesian, we can’t travel a lot because of the currency,” says Denny.
“And not just the currency, the visas—if you wanna leave the country you gotta go through a fucken lot,” adds Made.