Assessment: 25 years of musical activism
The history of music, although constantly rewritten, is inseparable from that of social movements. From groundbreaking symphonies to punk rock, folk to political hip-hop, most genres feature artists who have created work to condemn injustice and inspire change. In Indonesia, Bali-based rock band Navicula have spent the past 25 years tackling some of the country’s biggest social and environmental ills – corruption, human rights abuses, religious extremism, pollution, deforestation – through powerful, gritty and anthemic tracks.
It was this quarter-century milestone that inspired development expert and longtime band fan Ewa Wojkowska to produce and host A Soundtrack of Resistance, a podcast series exploring 12 Navicula songs and the stories why and how they were made. With the band, she collaborated with other members of the music industry, researchers, writers, and colleagues on the project. The first episode was released in mid-2021, and a few months later, A Soundtrack of Resistance hit number one on the Apple Podcast charts for music interviews in Singapore and Indonesia.
As the series’ tagline says, it’s “a social history of Indonesia through the songs of Navicula, the best band you’ve probably never heard of”. If you’re one of those who haven’t heard of Navicula yet, comparisons could be drawn to America’s Rage Against the Machine, or in terms of lyrical content, Australia’s Midnight Oil. Navicula’s style is influenced by ’90s alternative rock, particularly founding bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, while also incorporating indigenous influences and psychedelic rock. Many of Navicula’s songs feature the elements of an anthem: a simple yet powerful chorus, a steady beat, and lyrics that unite those who sing loudly – an integral part of the band’s live performances.
Navicula follows in the footsteps of Iwan Fals, a singer-songwriter who, as Rebekah Moore writes, helped define the rock musician’s role as a social activist in Indonesia. Vocalist and guitarist Gede Robi states in episode 1: “As artists, I think we have the ability to challenge the status quo. For me and my band Navicula, we love music and care about social and environmental issues. We believe that every generation has its own revolution — I think social and environmental issues are the crucial issue of our generation.
Ewa talks with Robi and fellow band members – guitarist Dadang Pranoto, bassist Krishnanda Adipurba and drummer Palel Atmoko – about their activism on and off stage, as well as the people behind the movements they support: prominent activists, academics and development leaders. This is what makes the podcast a first in Indonesia: socially responsible musicians sharing a microphone with those who have also dedicated much of their lives to improving Indonesia, albeit using different methods.
Each podcast episode focuses on a particular Navicula song. Episode 4 explores Aku Bukan Mesin (I Am Not a Machine), which the band recorded in response to the terrorist attacks that rocked Bali and Jakarta in the early 2000s. It’s an angry, frustrated track, with a propelling guitar hook and instrumental sections erratic. Robi told Ewa that the lyrics were “just the pure reaction as a human being, as a Balinese”. He was “thinking about people who lost (sic) their heart, lost (sic) their entity as a human to do such a cruel and unimaginable action. It just destroys everything. The effect of destruction affects everyone. Ewa is also joined by Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, considered by many to be a “rock star” in his field. She examines the role religion played in the bombings, what drives people to turn to violent extremism, and whether it continues to be a threat in Indonesia.
Episode 6 Features Mafia Hukum (The Legal Mafia), one of the band’s most popular songs, which has become the anthem of the Indonesian anti-corruption movement. The episode features a cast of heavyweights from the civil society and development space: Scott Guggenheim, international development expert and former World Bank Senior Social Scientist for East Asia and the Pacific ; award-winning documentary filmmaker Dandhy Laksono; the former deputy commissioner of the Indonesian Commission for the Eradication of Corruption, Saut Situmorang; and Sely Martini of Indonesia Corruption Watch.
Reach new audiences
Many of the topics at the heart of Navicula’s songs are also covered by the Indonesia-based nonprofit Kopernik, which Ewa co-founded in 2010. A research and development organization, Kopernik works with a variety of partners, including musicians and artists, to find solutions to social and environmental challenges across the archipelago and beyond. Recognizing that music is a means of reaching a wider audience and a key part of social movements, Kopernik has worked with Navicula for the past six years on various initiatives, the most significant of which is a campaign to reduce plastic consumption in Disposable. This collaboration resulted in the feature documentary Plastic Pulau (Plastic Island), which was picked up by Netflix in June this year. Alongside Tiza Mafira and Prigi Arisandi, the film follows Robi as he investigates Indonesia’s plastic pollution crisis and what can be done to combat it.
The Plastic Pulau campaign features in episode 7 of the podcast, which dives into the song Saat Semua Semakin Cepat, Bali Berani Berhenti (As everything gets faster and faster, Bali dares to stop). Released in 2016, the sweet acoustic folk ballad is the band’s love letter to Nyepi, the annual Balinese Hindu ‘Day of Silence’, and an ode to the island’s bravery in continuing to celebrate its customs in the face of globalization. During the episode, Ewa and Robi point out that Nyepi isn’t the only example of Bali’s bravery turning the tide. In 2019, the province became the first in Indonesia to adopt regulations banning the use of certain single-use items, including plastic bags, polystyrene and plastic straws in restaurants, cafes, shops and restaurants. markets, and inspired other places in Indonesia to follow Bali. Example.
Navicula may not yet be widely known outside of Indonesia, but the band’s music is reaching overseas listeners, even though most of their lyrics are in Indonesian. The group’s first major international exposure was with the song Metropolis (Episode 2), which denounces overdevelopment and pollution in Jakarta. The song released the RØDE Rocks! International Band Competition in 2012. Their prize was a session at the legendary Record Plant recording studios in Los Angeles with the band’s “dream producer”, Alain Johannes, to record his album Love Bomb. A spectator of Metropolis video, which Navicula submitted to the contest, commented, “I don’t understand what you’re singing, but I feel this song. I love it. Awesome voice, awesome grunge sound’.
Just as a foreign listener who did not understand a word of Indonesian could connect with Metropolis, those who have never heard the band’s music will find something to do in the podcast. For those unfamiliar with the world’s fourth most populous nation, each episode is an accessible introduction to a particular period of contemporary Indonesian history, recorded by the band that has been at the forefront of Indonesian music activism. for much of his career. As Robi says in Episode 4, “As an artist, capturing a moment is really important.” I see Navicula as a journalist using music as a medium, so it’s very important to capture the original feeling of what we feel at the time, like a historian writing a diary through music.
Ewa Wojkowska and Gede Robi, A Resistance Soundtrack, Podcast Series
Julia Winterflood ([email protected]) is a freelance writer, editor and translator living in Indonesia since 2014.