Sometimes you have a good idea that seems too crazy to work. Thankfully, if you can manage to throw it into the ether (or in this case, the internet) and not strangle it to death it might just take on a life of its own. When the thought came to me one freezing June night to make a clip for Darling James’ song “Indonesian Cigarette” in Indonesia with a local filmmaker I thankfully didn’t think about it too hard.
In hindsight it could have simply been a subconscious desire to get closer to the equator during a nasty Melbourne winter. The song in question was a long unwieldy track which was unlikely to be a single and had no release date planned. But it just felt like too much of a fun project not to follow up. So I threw the idea into the ether (internet) and thankfully didn’t try too hard to make it work.
After the obligatory Facebook call-out (“Does anyone have a recommendation for a good chiropractor on the north side/a really good filmmaker in Jakarta who’d like to work on a low-budget clip for a pop band?”) I set about trawling through Youtube for Indonesian bands I liked, the idea being that I may also like their videos and whoever made their videos might consider working with me. It took all of fifteen minutes to find a group that grabbed my attention.
This as it turns out was very lucky given the fact that the immense number of artists and bands in Indonesia reflects the country’s massive population (around 250 million – the fourth largest in the world). The band I found were called Indische Party, named after an important early political movement that inspired future groups to push successfully for Indonesian independence from the Dutch. Indische Party (the band) trade in early 60’s English beat music filtered through the rich garage and surf rock that emerged out of Indonesia during the same period. Indonesian music flourished during the 60’s with groups such Dara Puspita and Tielman Brothers still finding favour with in-the-know music lovers in Jakarta, Melbourne and London alike.
After a few Facebook messages and emails it became apparent that the director of Indische Party’s numerous and highly stylised film clips was actually their Jagger-esque frontman Japra. Japra showed immediate interest and enthusiasm for the project and by late July we had a treatment and budget in place. My only concern was just how easily the whole thing had come together (yeah, I’m really good at worrying). My habit was to grapple with ideas and projects and force them into place. This particular one seemed to benefit from me not meddling too much. Since we still had to thread the needle between my work commitments, Indische Party’s schedule (they were heading to London to record at Abbey Road after winning a competition run by the shoe company Converse) and the healing of a foot injury Japra had obtained from a motorbike accident I thought it best to continue my approach of detached optimism and just see if it all worked out. If so great, if not, at least I tried.
By the time it occurred to me that I’d never travelled internationally on my own I was looking down at the immense expanse of Jakarta in the early evening of a humid night in mid-September. I checked into a hotel in Tebet, an area in south Jakarta far from the tourist hot-spots but a vibrant and well established neighbourhood that was currently favoured by families and young people wanting to avoid the high rent of ‘happening’ areas such as Kemang. The following evening Japra, whose home was only a block away, arrived for our first in-person meeting and within minutes was excitedly showing me the footage he’d already shot for the opening sequence of the clip. Japra looked every bit the 60’s frontman from his film clips, with a mop of dark hair sitting atop a lanky frame, a tasselled suede jacket completing the ‘Stones in America’ look. His enthusiasm for whatever project was at hand, his love of music and his work ethic were immediately apparent and continued to impress me throughout my stay.
Heading off for dinner I spent the first of many nights balanced on the back of Japra’s motorbike, tearing through the thick night air and weaving amongst the kind of traffic common to densely populated Southeast Asian cities. That first evening I met Hendrick, the assistant camera operator. A charismatic guy in his early 20’s, Hendrick’s inquisitive eyes sat just below the rim of perpetually reversed cap which only exaggerated his resemblance to a young Will Smith.
After meeting up at a pub inexplicably themed around the London suburb of Camden we headed for the more ‘local’ experience of congregating under several billboards at a public square near the Jakarta Institute of Arts. Here I met an endlessly shifting group of friends and acquaintances loosely based around the near-by uni and the resulting film, music and photography scenes. These included Bobby, a drummer and actor who would join us for several jams and social events as my stay progressed. Fuelled by a sweet watery red wine purchased with ambiguous legality from one of the dozens of local street-side cigarette vendors that pop up every evening Japra and Hendrick impromptuly initiated my first shoot for the clip right then and there.
The filming for the “Indonesian Cigarette” video took place over two more full day and night shoots which saw us traverse all around central Jakarta, on inner city trains and buses, in the beautiful Sentul pine forest south of the city and at an indie-rock club in the previously mentioned Kemang area. Throughout the process the calm, focused and ever-professional manner of cinematographer Ami and camera operator Hendrick captured the events guided by Japra’s intuitive and free-flowing direction. I was also quite taken with Jacob, a dapperly dressed and talented singer who acted as driver and production assistant and who’s constant humour and gentle goading provided much needed light relief during the long shooting days.
Although I had no expectations or plans regarding how I would spend my days off in Jakarta, Japra and the guys planned a host of activities including visiting friend’s restaurants, an ‘end of recording party’ for another local band, a press junket for a film release and a day at Japra’s work (he shoots and edits content for a popular Indonesian music website). I also spent some valuable time chatting with a young music scene aficionado named David, who collects and sells records from Indonesia’s rich musical past and acts as a mentor and producer for Indische Party’s recordings (he accompanied them to Abbey Road).
Indonesia’s vibrant music scene and large population allows a huge variety of genres to flourish in ways the envy of a country the size of Australia. Leaving aside traditional Indonesian music (I did travel to Yogyakarta in central Java to hear some Gamelan – an ancient tuned percussion ensemble) genres that I noted had a massive following included jazz and fusion music, metal, punk, ambient and electronic music (which has many collaborative links with Australia) and modern English-style indie rock. No doubt there are countless others I’m yet to encounter.
One of our closest neighbours is brimming with creative talent and I would encourage more Australians to explore the possibility of collaboration with Indonesian artists. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to meet and work with such a skilled and enthusiastic group of guys and it came about, at least from my end, because I managed to get out of the way and let it happen.
This article was written before the U.S. President Donald Trump initiated an executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S. for ninety days. Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said that the Australian government supports this move. While Indonesia was not included in this list it is the most populous Muslim majority country in the world and is one of Australia’s closest neighbours. It was suggested above that collaboration between Australian and Indonesian musicians and artists should be encouraged. More than having obvious artistic benefits this is also a powerful form of protest – ignoring the deepening xenophobia encouraged by the political right by forming lasting and important relationships with people we are told to be suspicious of.
Darling James launches his new EP, Theory of Mind, at the Gasometer Hotel in Melbourne on Thursday, February 10th. To buy tickets, head here.