Young musicians in Jakarta and around the world are exploring a unique musical form that takes them back to their computer game- playing childhood. Jemise Anning reports.
The manic sound of a 1980s video game arcade can be heard. Electronic, muffled bass lines and tinny melodies busily weave their way around plastic Star Wars figurines and other paraphernalia to the unsuspecting ears of toy collectors and enthusiasts. It is a Saturday afternoon at Senayan’s indoor tennis stadium during Jakarta’s 4th annual Toyfair and the sound of nostalgia is buzzing from the front, echoing in the hall. A crowd of about 50 has gathered to watch a computer gamer nonchalantly play his Nintendo Game Boy. His head bobs.
It sounds like Mario and Luigi are throwing a house party and all their little pixilated friends are invited.
Chiptunes, as the music is called, is created using old computer game consoles from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s discarded by kids moving on to more powerful gadgetry. Now with a new lease on life, the near-obsolete consoles used by chiptune composers include the Commodore 64, Atari 800, Speak n’ Spell and the Game Boy itself. Chiptunes, or 8-bit music, is a relatively new phenomenon gaining speed around the world over the last five years or so. Chiptunes in Indonesia is even newer.
Under the aliases of Curahmelodiamandiri and Guttersnipe are the pioneers of the small, but rapidly growing Indonesian chiptunes scene. The two, along with JW86, are responsible for establishing Pesta Mikro, an annual event where chiptune artists come together to perform.
The first Pesta Mikro – and the first event of its kind in Southeast Asia – was held in July last year in South Jakarta at Curahmelodiamadiri’s family business, Rossi Musik. Curahmelodiamandiri, Guttersnipe and JW86 were in a punk band together called Tatooin Twist – named after the Star Wars planet – when they stumbled upon the global chiptunes community while fossicking on the Internet. “As a band, we were exploring new and different ways to make music,” says Curahmelodiamandiri, “and eventually we found chiptunes through the Internet. “We were exploring a scene that hadn’t been discovered by Indonesia yet and we started to share the information that we found.” The Internet plays a big role in the scene, allowing artists to swap information on circuit bending and to share audio files.
In Curahmelodiamandiri’s office, computer consoles and cables clutter the desk. A Nintendo is hooked up to a television set and a keyboard.
Most of the gear the two use now is the same they used as kids. Wrapping your head around how the music is created using a Game Boy or one of his bigger brothers takes time. Computer and music lingo compete for brain space, muddle together and furrow the brow. The learning curve is steep. Similar to playing a Game Boy, you create music by using a particular game cartridge. Composers in Jakarta generally use one of two different types of cartridges – a Nanoloop or a Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) cartridge. They have two different platforms to program loops and sequences.
Nanoloop cartridges are from Germany and the LSDJ cartridges are from Sweden. Curahmelodiamandiri says that cartridges do not just get handed out to whoever can pay, but rather Nanoloop and LSDJ pick and choose whom they send them to.
The first artist to receive a cartridge in Indonesia was JW86 in 2006. Guttersnipe is a chiptunes DJ. He downloads old-school chiptune audio files from the Internet and mixes them using DJ equipment. Curahmelodiamandiri picks up a Commodore 64, which he recently purchased off ebay. “This is like the masterpiece or something,” he says.
He says getting old-school computer game hardware is becoming increasingly difficult with chiptunes’ growing popularity around the world.
Nevertheless, chiptunes, says Curahmelodiamandiri, is still an alternative music form. And chiptunes in Indonesia is still at the introductory phase – people are still getting to know what the relatively new music medium is all about. “The chiptunes community in Indonesia is very strong,” says Guttersnipe. “Right now because the community is just starting out there are very strong friendship ties and the sharing of information.” Currently, there are about 30 Indonesian chiptune artists. The chiptune scenes abroad in countries such as Japan and Germany, says Curahmelodiamandiri, are more developed. “In Indonesia, there is an economic hindrance to developing the musical form. In developed countries, it is much easier to get information out,” he says. Being the pioneers of the chiptunes music scene in Indonesia, they say, it would be easy for them to play the fame game. But they are not interested in that. Rather, they are interested in sharing the art form and getting people motivated. “We have a problem in Indonesia, people tend to be passive rather than active. We want to be the motivators for change.” Curahmelodiamandiri believes Indonesians have lost their identity, and the two see chiptunes as a vehicle to help people find their identity and to reach their potential. Today, you don’t have to be a batik artist or a farmer to retain an Indonesian identity, says Curahmelodiamandiri, although those professions are fine, too. The old definition of nationalism has shifted. “Nationalism today is not about showing respect to the flag, but rather it is about finding your true identity and the value that you bring as an individual.
“Music gives people a sense of identity.”
Guttersnipe wants people abroad to be aware of Indonesia. “People don’t know where Indonesia is and what it is about.” When the two and JW86 started experimenting with chiptunes they weren’t thinking that it would become a subculture, it just happened that way. At Nanonine (10-9 + 9), a clothing store in Tebet, South Jakarta, a young tight-jean-wearing crowd squeeze around a table strewn with game consoles, sound equipment, a keyboard and tangled cables. Fake spectacles dot the faces of some in the pack. Three-D grid paper has been stuck up on the walls, where the hip youngsters have drawn robots and scrawled their MySpace addresses. A young man wearing a T-shirt reading “Computer Engineering” wanders with a clipboard, surveying the crowd. There is little movement around the table. The crowd is absorbed. The music pulses with its buzzes, beeps and beats. For more information: