Djauhar Zaharsjah Fachruddin Roesli (Sept 10, 1951 – Dec 11, 2004), aka Harry Roesli was born in Bandung, West Java. Roesli was raised in a privileged family, being the fourth son to parents of a father who was an army major general and his mother being a doctor. In middle school, Roesli was taught the basis of gamelan music using metallophones played by mallets and a set of hand drums called kendhang used to register a beat. As a teenager he was exposed to music by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant, resourced from Hidayat record store on Jalan Sumatra, pirate radio, and from reading Aktuil magazine (Irfani, 2020). He later expanded his listening to encompass avant garde composers such as John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhasuen and mixed in poetry to avant garde compositions (wiki).
Roesli’s early compositional works were a blend of psychedelic rock music, blues, funk, jazz, Sudanese gamelan and avant garde played with bands that mirrored Roesli’s personalities. He called himself a “janus-headed” man who upheld positive social Indonesian identity, plus Christian moral citizenry which included opening his home to street kids. He also was a radical who rejected authoritative regimes (LaMunai, 2019). Roesli lived in Indonesia during the fascist Suharto regime where free thinking ideals and protest music was mostly censored by the Suharto government’s New Order policies that were enforced to maintain political order, keep economic gains and constrict peoples’ participation in Indonesia’s political process.
New Order policies infiltrated the arts by promoting beliefs for Indonesians to become participants in the future of the country which supported artists to use satire and mock politicians who were corrupt, had operations tied to drug abuse, crime, poverty, population illiteracy plus idolisation of famous figures, based on New Order standards. Roesli’s musical experimental and antithetical performances often divulged opposition to dominant state ideals to keep order and enforce hegemonic rules to include what Indonesians should like, how they think and behave. Roesli became infamous through musical parody, combining rock operas and lyrical satire, targeting Suharto and his predecessors. Roesli confronted Suharto’s nationalistic ideology, New Order patriot songs and verses, and called out Suharto’s lead government for maintaining instituionalized oppression, murder of communists, continued poverty for poor people, assault on free speech and persisting moral decay (Tyson, 2011).
Roesli started his first band, Batu Karang in high school. After graduating from high school, Roesli studied electrical engineering at the Bandung Institute of Technology. While attending university he started a band for fun in 1971 called Harry Roesli and His Gang with friends and band members, Hari Pochang, Indra Rivai, Albert Warnein, Janto Soedjono and Dadang Latiev. At this time, Roesli was also musically influenced by Remy Sylado who was popular in younger Indonesian culture. Sylado was a prominent author, actor and musician who promoted his own California hippie philosophy as well as freedom from Suharto standards. Harry Roesli and His Gang released their first protest album inspired by Bob Dylan, Philosophy Gang in 1973. The album is an enticing blend of blues, funk and jazz bossanova with proggy variations as heard in, “Don’t Talk About Freedom” and “Peacock Dog,” featured on the album (Irfani, 2020).
Harry and His Gang played at a music festival in Ragunan, Pasar Minggu, Jakarta August 1973. Their performance appealed to music critics and they received a review in the national Kompas (Compass) newspaper praising Roesli’s vocals for “Peacock Dog” and “Nyamuk Malaria.” In 1975 Harry and His Gang broke through to Indonesia stardom adapting an East Javanese legend, Ken Arok to an operatic “shock rock gamelan” performance, inspired by Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and the work of Orexas. Orexas is an acronym for the Free Sex Organisation led by Remy Sylado. Harry and His Gang’s first show was held at the Badung’s Gedung Merdeka (Independence Building). They continued performing for several months at various large sold out venues in Bandung and Jakarta, playing to sometimes 800+ people. Ken Arok was an opera of protest satire where musical pitch and tone were composed to make listeners feel on edge, much like their response to the everyday environment which was saturated by government corruption. Dancers, wayang puppets, and clowns interacted with the audiences along with draped long curtains and stage lights beaming into audiences’ eyes to intensify a shared mania between musicians, performers and audiences, mirroring living in the New Order environment (Tyson, 2011).
The opening act of Ken Arok featured a demented clown explaining to audiences in technical terms how the show will unfold. After the clown followed a friendly bum rush to the stage, of dancers and musicians, followed by Roesli who was conducting. The stage was unlit and dark with eerie music intertwined with coins jingling and intersecting with picking of guitar strings and pleasant ringing of Chinese bells. Giant fabric curtains were suddenly released from the ceiling and dangled above audiences’ heads invading their personal space bubble. High pitch reverberations suddenly were amplified out of the venue’s 4,000 watt sound system which fused Sudanese instruments, wayang golek (wooden puppet theater), godang (drum and dance) with modern rock, blues and cabaret. Typical instruments including guitar, bass, keyboards and drums were played with Sudanese instruments synthesizing traditional sounds and expanding the musical ear stock of Indonesian audiences. Roesli described Ken Arok as contemporary wayang, electronic gondang or electric ludruk (Javanese folk theater). His objective was to overwhelm the audience into submission, to enforce a collective self consciousness and ensure no distractions or sense of security. Roesli’s ultimate goal was to receive no applause from audiences but his goal was never achieved (Tyson, 2011).
Harry and His Gang released Ken Arok on cassette by P.T Eterna in 1977. It has since been reissued by LaMunai (2018) on LP limited to 333 pressings, remastered at Carvery Cuts, London. His album Titik Api (1976) has also been reissued by LaMunai/Groovyrecord (2019). The reissue of Titik Api is a double LP gatefold release with information about Roesli, rare pictures of the Harry and His Gang performances and pressed on quality thick vinyl. Titik Api is a dynamic recording that displays Roesli’s diverse compositions combining gamelan with guitars, organs, early synthesizers with Western tempered scales of funk, folk, rock, blues, prog, jazz, avant garde and psychedelic compositions.
The opening song “Sekar Jepun” is a traditional gamelan piece or kreasi baru, that is played at all parties. The piece is played in Balinese kebyar style and composed in Jaraaga/North Bali but later identified as a South Bali composition (LaMunai, 2019). Heavy western drums, guitar, bass, choral chanting and early synthesizer drives traditional gamelan instrumentation that exhumes listeners with pentatonic scales and ostinato power, giving listeners’ ears delight from the full range of uniquely arranged sounds. Titik Api is a true masterpiece.
Roesli lost interest in engineering between 1970-1975 and decided to study music composition at Institut Kesenian Jakarta. He was then awarded a scholarship to continue his studies in Holland. There is also another story: Roesli became involved with a student political group participating in events asking for the resignation of Suharto. All the students who were in the political group, including Roesli were imprisoned. A Dutch member of Amnesty International was the person who awarded Roesli with a scholarship to study percussion in Rotterdam until 1978, to escape the Suharto’s regimes’ punishment (LaMunai, 2019).
After completing his studies in Rotterdam in 1981, Roesli came back to Indonesia and organized a musical association named the Bandung Creative Arts Center (Depot Kreasi Seni Bandung) DKSB, now Rumah Musik Harry Roesli (RMHR). DKSB was run out of his studio on Jalan Supratman (Tyson, 2011). His association enticed talented Indonesian musicians to gather, socialize, collaborate and perform at DKSB. Roesli continued to perform electronic rock operas, teach, record, perform, compose music and vocalise political reform until the end of his life. Captivating large audiences with his sometimes a circus of 250 performers, musicians, dancers providing a provocative, overwhelming audible and visual show of the senses.
His studio was also a refuge for young musicians and artists who were houseless, struggling with substance abuse and sex work violence, and DKSB was also known as a shelter. Roesli often provided meals and therapeutic assistance to underprivileged youth who were struggling with poverty and the intersectional stressors attached. Roesli passed away at the age of 53, his demise increased by multiple comorbidities. Before his passing he experienced a ‘lucid interval’ awaking and pleading with his family; jangan matikan lampu di meja kerja saya (don’t turn off the lamp on my work desk). His family continues to run RMHR and advocate to support houseless youth of Bandung (Tyson, 2011).
Irfani, F (2020). Keeping the Light of ‘Si Bengal’ Harry Roesli and DKSB at the Indonesian Jagat Creative. VICE Indonesia. https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=id&u=https://www.vice.com/id_id/article/k7emjv/sejarah-musisi-legendaris-harry-roesli-dan-depot-kreasi-seni-bandung-dksb&prev=search
Liner notes Harry Roesli Tiki Api reissue LaMunai/Groovyrecord 2019
Tyson, Adam. D (2011). Titik Api: Harry Roesli, Music, Politics in Bandung, Indonesia. https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/54533/INDO_91_0_1302899078_1_34.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Written by Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour).