How do you judge a reissue of a very rare band’s very rare album and avoid the temptation to give it an automatic thumbs-up just because it’s rare? Hans Pokora, who is an enthusiast when it comes to international psychedelic music, gave a positive account of the original 1973 Vol. 1 LP in his 2003 book 4001 Record Collector Dreams, and as a result, there are people who have been looking forward to this CD re-release with curiosity and anticipation. But the reception has been mixed. Anyone expecting an innovative Indonesia-hippie fusion is bound to feel a pang of disappointment once they realise that Arista Birawa Group was happy to imitate the sound of contemporary Anglo-American bands without adding anything new except non-English lyrics. I’m guessing that they substituted indigenous instruments for overseas instruments in a few places, but the substitution doesn’t change the sound.
The tabla-like beat on “Didunia Yang Lain”, for example, is possibly being played on a gendang, but the track is still easily recognisable as the kind of music that started coming out in the western world after musicians began visiting India in the 1960s, and started listening to Ravi Shankar records and raga.
Then again, so what? If three men loved Anglo-American music, and wanted to hear it in their own language, then why shouldn’t they make a record? It’s still slightly surprising to have it released here, though, because most of the re-issues of 1970s Indonesian music are recordings are dangut or other pop forms that combined indigenous music with modern rock. In other words, they’re albums that people can listen to and say, “Ah, yes, that’s very Indonesian, so it is,” rather than, “The music is familiar but what language are they singing in?”
That’s because Indonesia during the ‘70s was a place where artists were encouraged to work in genres that were characteristically their own. This was an expression of patriotism similar to the one that saw West African musicians creating new, native hybrid music after independence in the ‘50s. In the case of Indonesia, the nation became independent in 1945 and the push for pro-native content came from the government of President Sukarno, who led the country until a military coup ousted him in the late 1960s. It was the ‘70s that saw the rise of dangdut, with Rhoma Irama’s hit “Begadang” coming out only two years after Vol. 1. Nonetheless, there was still a market for more straightforwardly foreign pop music, and we can assume that Ariesta Birawa Group was part of that market.
The disadvantage to the band is that its music will end up being compared with that of its overseas contemporaries rather than considered as part of a pioneering movement in its own right. Being a pioneer is risky at the time, but in hindsight you come out of it looking brave and good. Aligning yourself with an existing movement means that you have a lot to live up to before you even begin. Compared to the foreigners, Ariesta Birawa Group sounds moderately-paced, good-humoured, and more conservative than, say, the Beatles. “Terimalah Cintaku” builds on the kind of ‘50s rock that gave the world “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, but the “Oh yeah!” sounds cheerily unfervent next to the other band’s thrilled, “Oooh!”
The lyrics to the one English-language song, “Will Never Die”, tell the story of a young man from the countryside trying to earn the money he needs in order, “one day / ... To live together” with his darling; presumably he means to marry her. They watch the sunset on the beach and it’s all so adorable, in a sweetly dirge-like kind of way, that the lead singer goes falsetto with wistfulness.
“Will Never Die” features a pretty flute that turns up more extensively in “Senyumlah Sayang” and also “Kr. Bunga Nusa Indah”, in which it is used to emphasise the low bomp-a-dom of a slow bossa nova backing and the voice of the lead singer. And who is this lead singer? Is it Afro-man, Golden Ruffles, or the Hat? The notes are mute on this point and every other point as well; which is to say, there are no notes; and so we’re left with an interesting guessing game. My vote goes to the Hat, solely because he’s sitting higher than the other two on the cover, although it’s possible that he’s just showing off his trousers, which are pinstriped, pale blue, and altogether spiffy.
There’s some 1970s melodrama from the guitar on “Minggu Pagi” and a nifty baroquish cat-wail from an organ in “Masa Depanmu”. Vol. 1 is not the fully satisfying experience that it might have been, but it’s enough to leave a smile on your face while it’s playing, even if it quickly evaporates from your mind afterwards. The news media can sometimes make Indonesia look like a sea of anonymous fundamentalists planning to strap bombs to their chests and commit suicide around tourists, but when you’re with Ariesta Birawa Group it’s all peace, paisley, and devoted lovers holding hands and celebrating “the song we make every day.” In the end it’s that, more than the rareness of it, which makes Vol. 1, Indonesia really worth a look.