Friday, September 28, 2012

The Dylan of Djakarta: Iwan Fals

Iwan Fals

I share some music by a singer songwriter from Indonesia tonight.  The singer is named Iwan Fals, a child of the 70’s and one of that large country’s biggest pop stars.  A founder and lead vocal of several pop groups dating back to the early 70’s, Iwan is an accomplished guitarist and charismatic singer.   His break-out hit came in 1981and told the story of a poorly paid school teacher who is expected to deliver quality education for future leaders and the elite.  It hit a chord across the country and shot the handsome young man to the stars.  He was courted as a protest singer and heartthrob all at once.  Something akin to an Indonesian Bruce Springsteen wearing his heart on his sleeve and calling out for the working man.

He spent some time in jail for his lyrics which questioned the dictatorship of President Suharto and the country’s non-existent democrasi. One of the offending tunes related the story of a street hooker who was married to a man going by the name of Soeharyo (Suharto). Iwan looked beyond Indonesia for material as well finding inspiration in Africa and a tune called Ethiopia.

Though he has played in a number of styles his preferred and most powerful work is what is termed ‘country’ in Indonesia and which is essentially him alone with a guitar.  Sometimes acoustic, sometimes not.

I picked this collection up in a dusty store in Dili, Timor Leste in August.  It was the sales girl’s choice. And it is good stuff. Iwan Fals, is about the closest thing you’re going to get to a SE Asian Dylan. His singing is full of emotion, and his troubadoring harp playing and guitar strumming, sharp. 

I thank my old friend and colleague Romy for translating the tracklist for tonight’s selection.

            Track Listing:
            01 - Dongeng Sebelum Tidur (A Bedtime Story)
02 – Frustasi (Frustration)
03 - Belum Ada Judul (There is no title)
04 – Imitasi (Imitation)
05 - Ya Atau Tidak (Yes or No)
06 - Satu Satu (Step by Step)  
07 - Besar Dan Kecil (Big and Small)
08 - Coretan Dinding (Writing on the Wall)
09 - Kisah Sepeda Motor (The Motorbike Story)
10 - Joni Kesiangan
11 – Potret (Portrait)
12 - Mereka Ada Dijalan (They are on the Street)
13 - Mencetak Sawah (Creating the Paddy Field)
14 - Aku Disini (I am Here)
15 - Lagu Cinta (Love Song)
16 - Menunggu Ditimbang Malah Muntah (Waiting to be considered, but vomiting) 17 – Ikrar (Promise)
18 - Panggilan Dari Gunung (The call from the Mountain)
19 - Di Mata Air Tidak Ada Air Mata (There are no tears in the fountain)
20 - Kisah Sepeda Motorku (The Story About my Motorbike)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sweet, no matter how you define it: Ivan Joe 'Boogaloo' Jones

Boogaloo is a term with several meanings.  Officially, they say, it refers to a type of dance music born in Spanish Harlem in the 1960s. In some parts of Canada, a boogaloo is a beat up rust-bucket of a car as in, ‘where did you get that boogaloo?’ Other frightened types, say the word is the best way to describe African Americans, or anything they consider dodgy.

Ivan Joe Jones, was a R&B, blues guitarist whose music lived in the shifting sands that demarcate jazz from funk. Jones, is quite a common name and so is Joe. And in music there were quite a few other players with similar names. Especially, the jazz drummer, Philly Joe Jones.  Ivan, was not so famous but just in case one day he became so, he wanted everyone to understand that he was not be confused with the other guy. So he inserted the title ‘Boogaloo’ into his name.  Ivan is what the musical authorities call a journeyman. His music was solid but ‘not outstanding’. He played with many jazz and R&B greats and made a whole series of great records in the 60’s and 70’s.  

Ivan Joe 'Boogaloo' Jones

Now, for me, the term ‘boogaloo’ has always meant fast or quick.  And clearly that is what Ivan brings to the definition, because he playing is often like quicksilver. Running up and down the neck of his guitar with single note annunciation second to none.  Listen to the fierce but absolutely joyous playing on You've Got It Bad, Girl to see what I’m talking about. Stunning stuff. It this is merely solid playing then even George Benson has to be considered a journeyman too.

Sweetback is an album from the mid-1970s . It has all the lush life of that era--soaring saxes, loungey flutes and strings, ample (but unexpected) covers of big hits (Jamaica Farewell)­—as well as, of course, Ivan Joe’s finger’s boogalooing each song forward. Plump, sweet and funky! Perfect for any occasion.

            Track Listing:
            01 Confusion
02 Trouble In Mind
03 Sweetback
04 Have You Ever Been Mellow
05 Jamaica Farewell
06 You've Got It Bad, Girl

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wondering: Cambodian garage rock

Ferns growing out of the walls of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Here is a piece I wrote when I was in Cambodia many years ago when the War on Terror was just a newborn. 

Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder

Tonight I’m in Phnom Penh and can’t sleep. I seem to always wake up at this time, when the day is still dark and the only sound is that of lazy thoughts shuffling inside my head. On the other side of the hotel window a boat bangs softly against the jetty.

It is windy and the monsoon is nearly at an end. I was told Cambodia is a land of dusty sunsets but I find the county resplendent with green paddy and the gurgle of the pale brown Mekong in flood. I expected, too, to meet a morose and sullen people. But the Cambodians are warm and can’t repress their smiles.

Throughout the town small but smart restaurants cater to the foreigners that work for the NGOs and UN agencies that finance and prop up the social welfare system of struggling countries like Cambodia. Banners pronouncing tourism as a ‘tool to build cooperation’ droop in the thick air. The tourists are back. Backpackers from Australia, packs of Japanese and most ominously, ugly aging men on the prowl for sex with young Khmer girls and boys. Cambodia is challenging Thailand as the premier destination for sex tourism. Such are the hairline cracks of a poor country’s development.

Faces of S-21 inmates before they were killed

There is another macabre little industry in Phnom Penh centred around the horrific torture chamber known as Tuel Sleng or S-21. Tucked deep inside a residential neighbourhood the former high school transformed by the Khmer Rouge into a laboratory of evil, S-21 is a ‘must see’ for any visitor to Cambodia.  Along with the temples of Angkor part of the grand tour.  Moto drivers call out to you, ‘Tuel Sleng. Look at Khmer Rouge jail’. You can buy T-shirts with disgusting recreations of faces behind bars on the backs.  They also sell bags and skirts made of bright Khmer silk right next to building B where Pol Pot’s most important enemies were kept in tiny wooden cages before being cut open like animals and fed to the demon, Angkar, ‘the Organization’. 

I certainly remember the name Pol Pot but his crimes were still unknown outside of Democratic Kampuchea in those years, 1975-1979. It’s an old story now, how this country was transformed, almost over night, into a giant slave camp. Cities were evacuated and left empty and the population forcibly moved from province to province to reshape the face of the land. Canals were gouged out of the earth. Dams glued together. Millions of paddy fields planted. All done without the help of machinery, with only bare hands and fingernails. Machines were deemed impure and imperialist. Money was abolished as was religion, privacy and even talking. Democratic Kampuchea was a massive experiment in applied paranoia. The people were starved and then themselves became fodder: sustenance for Angkar. Hundreds of thousands, even more than one million, perished. There is not a family here that doesn’t harbour the loss of a sibling, parent, child or spouse.

Why didn’t we hear of this when it was happening, I wonder?

I recall an exhibit at S-21. Instructions painted on a signboard to those under torture. Among the many protocols is the command not to ‘yell out or make any sound when you are beaten with electric wire’.

The single most important factor in the success of Pol Pot’s revolution, according to most scholars, was the carpet-bombing by American B-52s between 1970-1975.  By the time Phnom Penh fell the people of Cambodia were massively traumatized from years of dodging falling explosives that wiped out their villages, families and animals.

I used to work in Iraq. One night the Kurds went wild and fired their machine guns into the air. We lived in tents against the side of a hill. We ate under a thatch and open sided cabana. For several minutes I felt the terror of having no control over my well being. Shells from the celebrating Kurds’ guns rained down from the sky thwacking into the earth and cracking into rocks. I ran for cover but why, I don’t know. There was nowhere to hide. How was a canvas tent to protect me from a hot piece of iron falling from the sky?

And how was a Cambodian peasant to protect himself from a massive cluster bomb falling from an unseen American warplane? And not just once but night after night, week after week? When the Khmer Rouge came to town they didn’t have to ‘recruit’. The people swarmed to anyone who claimed they could stop the bombing.

Daylight is breaking over the city.  I can hear street children laughing now and the sky is white. It’s going to rain some more today.

I wonder.

In the 1970s an American President doggedly pursued the ‘national interest’ and filled the air with airplanes and bombs and mighty words about the need to stop communism from sweeping across the world.  More quickly than Presidents Johnson, Nixon or Ford could have imagined and certainly more inelegantly then the American people were led to believe, communism and the horror that the planes and bombs were to supposed to eliminate, ran the Americans out of town. And tore apart the people and society they were supposed to save.

A year ago another American President began massive bombing against another weak and troubled Asian country. “We’re going to get him dead or alive” the world was told. And something else too. “This time we’re not going to let the Afghan people down. We’ll change the leadership, establish the rule of law and stick around to rebuild the country.”   One year on the Taliban are gone but still active on the periphery. Osama is neither confirmed dead nor alive, apparently relegated to the ‘too hard basket’.  The rule of law remains a fantasy in Afghanistan and donor fatigue has already set in. Of the billions pledged to rebuild Afghanistan to ensure that terrorism has no room to hide, much has not been delivered. The Afghans, it appears have once again been sold a line by their ‘saviours’.

President Bush is once more in dogged pursuit of American interests. Come hell or high water, right or wrong, support or not, we are told he must “change the leadership in Iraq, establish the rule of law and get the UN to pay the billions needed to rebuild the country”.

Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder.

What sort of new horror is going to arise from the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq, similar to that arose here in Cambodia? Will Americans wake up and see the links between their crusades against communism and their wars against terrorism and the misery and hatred that follow in their wake?

The Dog today highlights a brighter side of Cambodia, the 1960s rock and roll scene. Inspired by the good side of America, these garage gemstones sparkle and shine like Burmese rubies in a warm rain. 

      Track Listing:
01 Jeas Cyclo (Ride Cyclo)

02 Chnam Oun Dop Pram Muy (I'm 16)
03 Tngai Neas Kyom Yam Sra (Today I Drink Wine)
04 Sou Slarp Kroam Kombut Srey (Rather Die)
05 Srolanh Srey Touch (I Love Petite Woman)
06 Rom Jongvak Twist (Dance Twist)
07 Knyom Mum Sok Jet Te (I'm Unsatisfied)
08 Rom Suel Suel (Dance Soul Soul!)
09 Jam 10 Kai Thiet (Wait 10 More Months)
10 Jah Bomg Ju Aim (Old Sour and Sweet)
11 Mack Pi Noak (Where From?)
12 Phneit Oum Mean Evey (What Your Eye Has?)
13 Yuvajon Kouge Jet (Broken Heart Man).mp3
14 Jol Dondeung Kone Key (Going to Get Engaged)
15 Kerh Songsa Kyoum That (Have You Seen My Boyfriend?)
16 Chnang Jas Bal Chgn-ainj (Old Pot, Tasty Rice)
17 Kone Oksok Nas Pa (We're Very Bored, Dad)
18 Kom Kung Twer Evey (Don't Be Mad)
19 Penh  Jet Thai Bong Mouy (I Like Only You)
20 Sralanh Srey Chnas (I Love Mean Girl)
21 Komlos Teng Bey (Three Gentlemen)
22 Retrey Yung Joup Knea (The Night We Met)