Kites above the clouds, smoke above the crowds

There is a festival every day in Indonesia, I’ve often heard remarked. (When in India I heard the same.) I’ve certainly been to a few during my time here. Two were entirely unlike anything I’ve seen in Oz: the Sanur Village Festival traditional kite competition, and SoundrenAline, a major contemporary music festival funded entirely by Indonesia’s biggest tobacco company.

In Swooning for Sanur I expressed my enchantment with Bali’s traditional kites, particularly the Bebean, the enormous open-mouthed fish. Though the blue sky studded with hundreds of Bebean at the kite competition was jaw-droppingly spectacular, it was the Janggan that filled me with awe and a thousand questions. Janggan have the ornately carved and decorated wooden head of a dragon or garuda (blessed before launch), white tapered wings and an arced tail. Attached to this is a cloth comprising a unique pattern of black, red and white (and rarely yellow too). The cloth usually unfurls to around 100 metres, like a giant billowing paint stroke across a canvas of blue sky. This video claims the longest Janggan was 240 metres.

The day before the traditional kite competition Mertasari Beach was a carnival of hyper-coloured creatures: octopus and dragonflies, horses and tigers, a badling of bright yellow rubber duckies and the majestic Singapore Merlion. The wind wasn’t strong enough for a pair of porcupine fish; one only managing semi-inflation while the other blobbed about a few metres off the ground. The crowd of spectators was small, but they were out in full force the following day.

IMG_6045Our timing was impeccable. We dismounted our bikes and padded along the sandy path to Pantai Mertasari the moment a flock of Janggan soared into the blue. I was stunned by their synchronised splendour. A commentator’s adenoidal burr prattled above the clashing cymbals of the gamelan, and despite my sunnies the glare made me squint. What strange land is this? Thousands of young men and boys were shrouded in near-full face coverings, udeng (traditional headwear) and long-sleeved shirts, with matching sarongs swaddling their jeans. Almost all were in black, or dark variations of the theme. The sartorial result was somewhat sinister and slightly unsettling, as though they were dressed for battle. Which they were – a battle transpiring in the sky.

IMG_6118IMG_6119But unlike the fighter kites of Central Asia and India, the Janggan and Bebean do not attack. The victorious team is the one which works together the most harmoniously, whose kite is launched and lands most fluidly. And thus traditional kite flying in Bali is not about conquest, but developing the interpersonal skills crucial for existing peacefully and productively in Balinese society. It takes about two months to build a Janggan, and teams cook together and eat together throughout the process. Teams ‘lend’ their master craftsmen to others when technical expertise is lacking. The time-honoured tradition (it began in Bali in the early 1900s) of building and flying sacred kites is to foster communal spirit and sustain cultural conventions (male-dominated ones, it must be noted. Women don’t make or fly traditional kites.)

IMG_6156I did not discover all of this on the day – I was preoccupied with dodging flight lines and frantically snapping photos – but from a documentary directed by Erick Est, an up-and-coming Indonesian filmmaker. Janggan: Harvesting Wind‘s protagonist is a young Dutch-Indonesian woman; captivated by black and white photographs in a family album she travels from Amsterdam to Bali to explore their origins, interviewing master kite makers, religious elders and young flyers. Reminisces a wizened man with a gummy grin, “Tethered to a tree they could fly for three days. Fly above the clouds.” But naturally building and flying kites is not just about bonding and social cohesion. The childlike glint in this old man’s eyes gives the game away as he spins the story of Rare Angon.


Rare Angon is one of the incarnations of Shiva, but he is exclusive to Balinese Hinduism. Rare in Basa Bali means ‘boy’ or ‘child’, while ‘Angon’ describes the intoxicating joy of being involved in a beautiful activity. Rare Angon personifies the pure happiness of a child lost in a moment of bliss. But one day Rare Angon was chased by a garuda so he hid at the bottom of a very deep well. The tail of the Janggan symbolises the length of the well – Rare Angon’s saving grace.


Flying Fish – Bebean

In Janggan: Harvesting Wind – much like the bemusing denouement of Herzog’s 1977 documentary La Soufriè about the eruption of a volcano that never occurs – on the big day of the competition there’s not enough wind for the kites to launch. We now know this is not the Janggan’s primary purpose, however, despite the protagonist’s frequent expression of “kasian, kasian sekali”. That’s a shame, a real shame. “Tidak apa apa,” is always the reply. “Mungkin tahun depan.” It doesn’t matter. Maybe next year.


I first glimpsed a poster for SoundrenAline around a month before the event, and was baffled by the name at the top of the bill: Wolfmother. Although monumental in their time, the fervour their debut LP generated a decade ago has undeniably faded. There was something peculiar about the poster’s design, too; a candied cityscape of musical instruments interspersed with palm trees, it smacked of sterile advertising. Because of course it was – it was all there in SoundrenAline’s capital A. I’d seen it on slick white billboards in Bandung promoting club nights, always with the same black banner at the bottom. PERINGATAN: MEROKOK MEMBUNUHMU. Smoking kills. It seems no major music event in Indonesia is possible sans cigarette sponsorship, but naturally the same applies to major Australian festivals and alcohol. The difference is, in SoundrenAline’s case, cigarette sponsorship (and the lack of drinking culture/sufficient income to purchase alcohol) resulted in possibly the world’s politest festival crowd.

As I already had a weekend catching up with friends in Ubud scheduled I had no intention of attending SoundrenAline, all the way down in Bali’s southern peninsula, until I was swayed by a Jakartan friend who read the line-up aloud from her phone in Ubud on the Friday, completely amazed by its quality. It was as though all her favourite Indonesian bands were on the one bill. I promised I’d join her on the Sunday. Fellow AVID Beau was keen to go too. As I was frantically freshening up after the 40-minute Go-Jek back from Ubud before jumping on another to head south, Beau messaged me: “Okay, I just arrived. So many people. And no bule. Is this Bali?” The photo he attached triggered that old familiar feeling of pre-festival, er, adrenaline.

I wandered wide-eyed past the coruscating columns lining the entrance to Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, and then dozens of bootleg t-shirt stalls, almost all of them peddling Slank merch; shirts, flags, posters, even pillows. It was like a Slank market, with snack stalls between the stickers and coffee mugs. Slank are, according to their website, Indonesia’s “biggest rock and roll band”. They’ve been around since the early eighties and there are still armies of Slankers (the official name for fans) across the nation. They headlined Jokowi’s massive concert on the eve of his election, and they were the Indonesian headliner of SoundrenAline, the penultimate act before Wolfmother. I was excited to see them.

Doc Martened, sunburned and sweat-drenched Big Day Out memories bubbled in my mind as I strode right up to the ticket counter. They were 75,000 rupiah – $7.50 – less than what I’d pay for a beer at an Australian music fest. Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park lies atop a limestone plateau, from which towering slabs of escarpment have been cut. Sclerotic shrubs and trees protrude from the slabs like brittle bristles. Illuminated blue, pink, purple and gold, the alluvial cliffs seemed to glow from within. The dramatic and faintly eerie backdrop amplified the unshakeable feeling of being inside a giant Sampoerna advertisement – which we were.

IMG_6210IMG_6223PT HM Sampoerna is one of Indonesia’s biggest tobacco companies, producing the national addiction, kretek (clove cigarettes). Since 2005 Phillip Morris has owned 97.5%, and for 2014-2015 it reported net revenue of IDR 43.74 trillion, about AUD 4.37 billion. Its most popular brand is Sampoerna ‘A’ Mild, and at SoundrenAline the ‘A’ logogram was everywhere, in the ‘A’ Mild old English style and the capital sans serif style from GoAheadPeople.


The Refreshment Zone was green and white – Sampoerna ‘A’ Mild Menthol – and within its narrow corridor lined with white PVC cushions and ice cream cabinets you could even get a haircut. So very Indonesian.

GoAheadPeople, owned entirely by Sampoerna, is the barefaced marketing front for Sampoerna-funded festivals, concerts, club nights and the Go Ahead Challenge: Change the Ordinary, a major photography/art/music/fashion competition sending winners abroad to international art events. This is not stealth advertising, but the creation of a brandscape. At all major Indonesian music festivals and events, tobacco companies are not inert logos – their brands are created experientially.

There is zero difference between this and Cooper’s Dark Ale annually sponsoring an Aussie band’s national tour: “Live Australian music belongs in Australian pubs alongside Australian-owned beers,” they brazenly claim. In 2006, as the Official Backstage Beer of the Big Day Out, Tooheys Extra Dry branded 3 million cans with the album artwork of Aussie acts on that year’s bill. There’s the Jim Beam Homegrown Festival in NZ, Smirnoff just signed a 26-festival deal with Live Nation Entertainment… in the West major music events and alcohol sponsorship are inextricable.

B9pzDq3CUAA1ea_IMG_6197Over 80,000 attended SoundrenAline, but there were no droves of drunk and shirtless howlers, no chance of spew splattering on your shins, no shallow lake of plastic cups and empty tinnies lapping at your toes. Stratocumuli of cigarette smoke absorbed the limestone illuminations as thousands bopped gently beneath, stepping politely out of the way if one needed to pass. Bintang was available, but barely anyone was buying (Beau quipped that if someone was hunting bule all they needed to do was look at the bars).

After her set at this year’s Splendour in the Grass, rapper Azealia Banks tweeted “You guys are terrible crowds to play for. You’re violent and belligerent and I simply … will not put my safety at risk.” The SoundrenAline security guards had nothing to do. I saw a few bopping along to the brilliant horn-heavy ska reggae of Shaggy Dog from Yogya (my new fav band!), and while the A Stage was near capacity with Slankers pressed in close and brandishing flags atop shoulders, I reckon the likelihood of a bit of biffo was as slim as their frontman Bimbim.

IMG_6262IMG_6268Eager to beat the crowd we left halfway through Slank’s set. The sea of serried motorbikes stretched deep into the inky night, but when the music stopped I had no doubt it would drift away serenely, like smoke. Sailing home on the back of the Go-Jek I thought with fond admiration about my dear friend Okky Ade Chandra. A talented singer-songwriter, Okky fears for independent gigs in his home city of Bandung, so over the Independence Day weekend he and a bunch of mates held a small camping festival sans cigarette sponsorship. Whether it was sans cigarette smoke is another matter.



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