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Jakarta Post

What politicians don't talk about when they talk about music

  • M. Taufiqurrahman

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, January 30, 2019   /   05:21 pm
What politicians don't talk about when they talk about music What does it mean to be a musician? Artists and members of House of Representative disagree over the answer. (Shutterstock/OSABEE)

If politicians have their way, even Bob Dylan would not stand a chance of making it big in Indonesia's music scene. A bill on music sponsored by the House of Representatives stipulates that musicians, both professionally trained and self-taught, must take a test of competence to measure their skills and only if they pass the test would they get a seal of approval from the government in the form of a certificate. Article 32 of the bill says that the competence test for musicians would focus on knowledge, skills and experience and would be carried out by a ministry. With his apparently mediocre skills in guitar playing and his cigarette-ravaged vocals, Dylan would have barely passed muster and rather than having a stellar career in music, he would likely have ended up busking for change in the city's busy streets.

What promoters of the bill -- scores of politicians at the House Commission XI, none of whom are musicians -- don't appear to understand is that most musicians, especially those active in the pop scene, are amateurs. One thing in common between Dylan, John Coltrane and Iwan Fals is that none of them finished formal education. All three left home to travel the world and found their true calling in music. None of them went to a conservatory, or studied harmony and rhythm before writing a magnum opus. The biggest genre in music today, hip hop, is basically music written and performed by people who had skills for neither singing nor playing any instruments and who rely on sampling techniques and rhyme delivery.

If anything, hip hop, jazz or rock and roll, the main staples of popular culture, thrive on individualism and rebellion against any rules and authority. Music in its finest form, be it the jazz opus Kind of Blue, grunge masterpiece Nevermind, or Koes Plus' seminal 1960s rock and roll record Dheg Dheg Plas, is an expression of individual spirit and any effort to bottle up the muse would certainly be doomed. Even if you don't buy this romantic view on art, imagine the scene of musicians going through an assembly line of interviews and skills tests, as if they are candidates for an office job.

This brings us to the second ludicrous proposal in the music bill. Article 5 makes it clear that in the creative process of writing music, musicians are barred from writing songs that could be deemed blasphemous or insulting to religious values. We know from history that great art has always been the product of a repudiation of established values and norms. We also know that established religions have been music's bête noire. The death of God and the reign of Satan have been favorite subjects in metal, a genre of music that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has been a fan of for years. What these politicians probably don't understand is that metal has been one of Indonesia's greater cultural exports and if the music bill is passed into law, some local metalheads would probably end up in jail or have to find a new line of work writing romantic love songs.

However, beyond the philosophical issues of musicians refusing to be bound by religion, there could be practical legal complication of having any authority decide which works of art could be deemed blasphemous. The imprisonment of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama should give us pause before applying a new regulation that would expand the definition of blasphemy. Some religious communities have declared all music to be forbidden and the presence of a draconian law that would put music to a blasphemy test would jeopardize artistic freedom in the country. Armed with this law, the Indonesian Ulema Council could soon play the role of an arbiter not only of piety but also of taste.

Another point of contention in the bill that has riled up musicians in the country was a stipulation that artists could face criminal charges if their songs are found to have promoted negative values from foreign cultures. More than any other art form, music has been the most malleable. This is one type of art that can work best only if it absorbs different elements from other cultures in the world. Jazz began with a mixing of influences from African, Latin American and Western European classical music traditions. The same goes with Indonesia's most celebrated musical genre, dangdut, which is an amalgamation of Middle Eastern, Indian and Malay music traditions. Indonesia's dangdut pioneer Rhoma Irama added to the mix elements from rock and roll to shape what we now commonly identify as an indigenous music of this country. In some of his songs Rhoma Irama may have railed against drugs and promiscuous sex, but his brand of dangdut owed much to a genre of music that thrives on sexual liberation and the permissive use of drugs.

Of course, these are issues that politicians at the House don't know much about. So what if they learn about music first before deciding to write any regulations to control it? Or at least they should first listen to the music of some of the good musicians. Maybe they should heed what Dylan himself said in the 1960s: "Don't criticize what you can't understand."