The death of Kemang’s musical identity

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Where the vibrancy once was on Lower Kemang

Walking through parts of Kemang today feels like walking through desolation. Gone are the vibrant lights that used to light up the area around Jl. Kemang I and Kemang Raya’s intersection, gone also are the masses of people wasting away their nights eating and drinking the night away while their parked cars cause massive traffic. The crowds and the subsequent traffic jams were initially an annoyance for this longtime Kemang resident, but looking back now, I kind of miss it all.

But whenever I am talking about Kemang to someone, I can never talk about it without remembering what a great place it used to be to discover, watch and play music.

I have been living in the same house in Kemang Utara for about 21 years now, since my family moved here to a bigger house to accommodate the birth of my sister, and I have watched this area grow and change drastically. When I was a kid, there used to be a huge skatepark in what was once the Kemang FoodFest area. In my teens, that area was turned into FoodFest, where I’d usually spend time browsing through pirated DVDs, and occasionally eat. Also in my teens, the Aksara store was a place nice enough to check out books and local records (and buy them too of course), before it became a quirky knick-knack store with very little books or records left.

What really made me love Kemang was its vibrant musical identity. Especially for the indie scene, Kemang used to have many places for bands to play and events to happen, and I felt blessed just to live in an area where so much interesting music was being showcased. If a music-loving newcomer were to pass by the lower Kemang area, they would have not known the fun they would have if they had been there a few years earlier.

Not so much as 2 to 4 years ago, the lower Kemang area in and around Aksara and La Codefin (which now houses part of Lotte Supermarket and Happy Puppy Karaoke) used to be teeming with venues. There used to be this small place called Saffron, situated in a small building jutting up out of nowhere at where the Laser Tag place once was. Nearby, those into jazz can enjoy a chill atmosphere at what was probably the best jazz bar in Jakarta, The Red and White (its building now sits literally in ruin).

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The (former) Red and White Club

Go through the dark, back trail (or the front way next the main road) leading up to Aksara and one would have found its neighbor Ecobar 365: a small venue where indie gigs are usually held, which always attracts the liveliest and most raucous of crowds. Take a longer walk to the area behind La Codefin and you’ll find the hipster haven of Treehouse, where interesting DJ gigs happen, sometimes on its parking lot as well.

That one small area of Lower Kemang alone offered hope for indie artists to share their music with the public, and the gigs were not too shabby either. The gig I remember most at Saffron was a debut gig by Efek Rumah Kaca reincarnation Pandai Besi in 2013. It was tiny, but the open air made the music much more enjoyable. It once hosted a Cassette Store Day event that year as well.

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Pandai Besi @ Saffron, 2013
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Where Saffron used to stand

Meanwhile, Ecobar was host to a number of rockin’ gigs, such as the monthly Thursday Noise events and it even hosted internationals, such as American psychedelic duo The Garden and Malaysia’s Killer Calculateur in 2015 (which during their set, I thought they were blown the fuck away by the opening band, Vague).

Members of the Kemang public have given me varying answers to what they think happened to these places. One warung keeper nearby La Codefin, whose been in the area for years, tells me it’s probably because the land owners didn’t want the noise and rowdiness anymore. Another person hanging out at the warung told me that it was a simply a matter of going broke for these venues, because (unless you’re running an established brand), “places that offer live music usually don’t really last long in Kemang”.

He may be right. Saffron and The Red and White did not even last 3 years, while TreeHouse lasted about 6. EcoBar lasted around 8 years but has simply “evolved” into something else. In a district of Jakarta that reportedly charges astronomical rates of rent. Not to mention that most of the land these venues once sat is apparently owned by the Indonesian military. Could the desolate state of lower Kemang be the result of a self-righteous moral cleansing by the uptight, elderly people of the military who are fed up with the noise? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

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“This land belongs to the TNI-AD”

But even if it wasn’t, what’s true now is that lower Kemang is an even quieter place than it was two years ago. The land that used to be occupied by these hangout places and venues now sit bored, fading and overgrown behind aluminum sheet fences, their buildings bulldozed from existence. Peering into these fences gives a slight feeling of sadness: what used to be such a lively place is now literally dark and lifeless.

As I wander through the road leading from Kem Chiks to McDonalds, the main changes I saw were mainly the new premium eating and fashion establishments popping up.

A new steakhouse has opened on the very corner connecting Bangka and Kemang Raya, and most of its customers, at a glance from outside, are mostly old people. There’s a new Patbingsoo place opening up at a space near Al-Azhar Kemang that was once used as an art gallery. There’s a premium-looking place, looks like a bar or restaurant, opening on Jl.Kemang I’s small corner hook adjacent to FaveHotel and Amaris Hotel. Ecobar 365 has evolved into a lounge which explicitly caters to the upper middle to higher class, with no music in earshot. While all these new additions have different concepts, to me, they’re all the same. They don’t cater to a wider public as much as music or art may have. Not that the places before catered wholly to the general young per se, but compared to high-end stores and restaurants, music is a lot more welcoming.

Heck La Codefin used to hold music events too! Back when it was an open-air minimall-esque place, it used to hold occasional gigs, usually major indie radio or cigarette sponsored sessions, in their atrium or front outdoor area. Now a large part of that building is taken up by a one massive furniture store, who at one point in 2016 publically advertised on their marquee a discount promo that celebrated the birthday of Donald Trump (I wish I was making this up).

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La Codefin building

Now I’m not saying that the newer, affluent stores opening in Kemang are entirely a bad thing. Any business opening in Kemang deserves the luck they need in making themselves sustainable and successful. Speaking through my ego as an artist and a fan of live music, it is merely the previous identity that I miss and because gentrification is a thing that is killing cultural districts around the world, I’m saddened that it has eaten up the area that was once so musically vibrant.

Of course, the music hasn’t really completely died, mainly for those who enjoy dance floors. Lobbyn, PARC19, FJ on 7 and Lost and Found are still there (with the last 3 places located in the same Lower Kemang are only seconds away), and they all sometimes hold interesting DJ gigs (or small live sets if we’re lucky).

Its no wonder that the indie scene is suffering because Jakarta itself is going through a severe shortage of music venues. There seems to be a cultural shift away from music towards something more materialistic and consumptive. New spaces that have popped up anywhere in Jakarta recently are either stores or eateries: almost no new music venues anymore. Venues generally can’t keep up their businesses when they’re not selling drinks at gigs, except if they manage to become a successful restaurant during the day, which isn’t the case for many. Venues need to cover the rent, and in Kemang, it isn’t possible if they don’t rake in enough.

That’s one of the reasons why my favourite music venue, Café Mondo, was forced to move from their Upper Kemang location by the Kemang Selatan intersection and resettle in the unforgivingly traffic-jammed Fatmawati area, above Rossi Musik. The former Kemang site now sits literally empty, with nobody taking up the space yet. Every time I go by that place, I couldn’t help but feel emotional because of the amazing gigs that happened and the memories I had in specific corners of the Kemang Mondo. But at least this venue, now named Mondo By the Rooftop, still exists (and still keeps it realer than any other venue in the city).

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Cafe Mondo in Kemang, 2014

From the top of my head, the only venue in Kemang that still holds that same musical spirit is the Borneo Beer House, where the venue Tokove was once in on Jl. Kemang Selatan, although I have my fears that they too might suffer the same fate. To an extent, the Basement Café right below Arion Belhotel also holds this spirit as it occasionally hosts indie rock gigs (and once hosted fucking Deafheaven!)

Borneo Beer House, particularly, has become kind of a last refuge for indie acts to perform in Kemang, be them indie rock acts, electronic or DJs. I performed there back in February as Logic Lost, and from what I have felt, it may not be the best venue, but it might be the best we have right now, right here.

Back in October 2014, I remember holding one of my first gigs at Café Mondo, and I discovered that two other huge events were taking place on the same day, in the nearby venues of Ecobar and the Basement Café. I was worried that nobody would show up for my gig because I was going up against a one-off performance by legendary Indonesian psychedelic band Shark Move at the Basement and an indie band that had bigger cred up at Ecobar.

But how many people showed up was not the point.

Having three great gigs happening at three venues not far from each other in Kemang. What I’d give to have that choice today.

(All pics taken by me)

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The triumph of the stained heart: how Indonesia’s warped idea of religion forgets the values that religion was built on

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The recent sentencing of a popular Chinese Christian gubernatorial candidate for Jakarta to two years in Indonesian prison was met with almost no surprise by most of Jakarta’s residents. In the recent years, religious and racial intolerance against the Chinese in Indonesia has been spreading at a disappointingly rapid rate.

The old, predominantly Muslim political forces behind the election itself have resorted to using childish and cheap moves by attacking the race and religion of middle-class-favourite candidate Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, and taking advantage of that sentiment effectively to the gullible religious Indonesians. The unfortunate aftermath of the April 19 elections saw Ahok not only lose, but be sentenced to two years of jail over an alleged blasphemy charge over his quotation of a controversial and often-misinterpreted passage from the Al-Quran which states that it is wrong to elect a non-Muslim leader. In the lead up to, during and after the elections, new sentiment against the Chinese race, which Basuki is part of, took to its tensest levels since the riots of 1998, visible both in the streets and in the obvious battlefield of the internet. An era of Muslim dominance has sprung up to the point that many of Indonesia’s citizens seem to forget their cultural roots in favor of an Islamic identity.

Religious fundamentalism is a weapon that is too valuable to be given up by Indonesia’s political elite, as their existence relies on the use and upholding of its ancient, religiously-charged legal and social system. It is like the AK-47: an incredibly powerful weapon that is cheap, deadly and easy to distribute, effective to bring one to their knees and then later having those knees shot, robbing one of the freedom and ability to move, grow and exercise their humanity.

While it may not be the only reason, it is an unfortunately major force that caused the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election to end up how it was and the vicious aftermath of religious and racial hate that followed. There is no indication from the election’s victor, Anies Baswedan, to quell this kind of mindset to stop it from breeding into the future, as it is the force that helped drive away votes for Ahok.

The usage of Islam as a political weapon has discredited the country’s politicians and crooked legal system in the eyes of many even further. In the heat of this discourse, it is easy to forget a religion’s true roots.

In essence, the bare principles of any religion teaches only acceptance, forgiveness, brotherhood and tolerance. The factors of hatred slipped inside are a result of powerful men in history amending the rules of religion to benefit their political agendas, to go to war or to seize power. In the heat of scaremongering, the principles have simply become forgotten.

Even if a religion does teach one to hate in the first place, why do many humans lack the ability (or will) to simply not follow those teachings? It does not cross their minds that it is possible to hold on to a religion while not putting into practice the aspects which contradict the initial principles.

Many have chosen to not do so because many hold on to their pride. Men, especially, have benefitted from the centuries of patriarchy and having the nerve to amend history and distort religion to their own selfish liking, because they know that religion is seen as something that can never be challenged.

Throughout history, the need for kings and generals to engage in war with their neighbours has served as a sign of their frailty. The cultural need for a man to dominate over their women or minorities shows the insecurity and slight fear against an equal and tolerant society, where everyone is accepted as they are. By inserting this idea into religion, and accepting it, it justifies and maintains the man’s dominance over society at all costs: a power that men rarely ever want to give up.

This fact is not lost on Indonesia. Instead of being more welcoming, many of Indonesia’s religious whether they be young or old, rich or poor, academic or non-academic have shown more visible intolerance. In a way, this is an example of social devolution: a step backwards from the proper use of the innovative human brain in favor of utilizing the reckless impulses of the heart. Devolution occurs only if the basic principles that make religion are ignored in favor of everything that goes against it.

This is regrettable for a country which has been described by its foreign allies as a beacon of tolerance.

Tolerance in Indonesia, especially in Jakarta, is now up to those who have come to their senses to exercise a religion’s bare principles to maintain, even if the government does not want to assist.