Tag Archive | ethnography

Lokananta: Sounds of Crisis and Recovery from Indonesia’s National Record Company


Entering from the front, Lokananta seems quiet. An art-deco façade gives way to a sleepy courtyard with a central fountain—the sound of splashing water mixes with stately gamelan music from a wall-mounted speaker—but there are signs of activity here in Indonesia’s oldest record company. Head right into the duplication room and you hear the hiss-snap of an old tape-splicing machine at work, plus occasional bursts of guitar as a worker in a blue collared shirt tests out punk cassettes. Across the low campus of pastel yellow buildings, an engineer in the company’s cavernous studio listens back to an upbeat shuffle from a recent session.

These sounds take on a special significance at Lokananta, because it is the nation’s state-owned record company—the “Sound of Indonesia”—which after a brush with bankruptcy in the early 2000s, is now making a tentative comeback driven largely by renewed interest in analog music technology. It makes for an interesting scene: tattooed indie rockers and young tape sellers partnering with a company that for decades was part of the authoritarian government’s Department of Information. Crisis and transition have a way of forging unusual partnerships, and Lokananta’s current business configuration is a product of economic crisis.

I learned of Lokananta’s winding path to recovery while doing ethnographic fieldwork in May 2015, when I visited the company, interviewed many of its employees, and met with some of the young musicians and entrepreneurs that are helping to keep it afloat. They helped me piece together this story of Lokananta’s long history and uncertain future, a story that reflects many of the larger social changes unfolding across Indonesia during the company’s sixty years of operation. From the ‘golden years’ to the ‘vacuum,’ crisis to recovery, I found that Lokananta continues to fulfill its mission of disseminating the sounds of the nation, but those sounds are different than before. More specifically, I argue that the fiscal crisis forced Lokananta to open itself to the new sounds and scenes that have emerged in contemporary Indonesia.

An Instrument that Plays Itself

Lokananta takes its name from a mythical gamelan ensemble that according to legend sounded without being struck (perhaps an echo of the long-running association between recorded sound and the supernatural?). When established in the city of Surakarta in 1956, Lokananta’s mandate from the Sukarno government was to establish a national culture through sound, and at the same time mitigate the influence of the international music then dominating the airwaves. In Lokananta’s early years, this meant manufacturing vinyl discs of recordings made throughout the archipelago, and then distributing those records back to the country’s radio stations for broadcasting. Soon enough listeners began asking to buy records themselves, and in 1959 the state-owned company began selling to the general public. Besides recordings of regional songs, or lagu daerah, much of the music bearing Lokananta’s seal was in the classical gamelan tradition of central Java and a style of sentimental song known as kroncong.

The company’s output during those golden years—basically the 60s-80s—is well documented in a discography compiled by ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky; I’m more interested in what has happened since then. By the 1990s, recorded music was neither mysterious nor scarce. Anyone with a tape deck could copy a cassette and pirated music was ubiquitous. Studios were downsizing and going digital, and Lokananta, with its large facility and staff, was struggling to remain viable even with government support. Then came the Asian Financial Crisis and the fall of the ‘New Order’ regime in 1998.

The Department of Information was liquidated during the political transition, meaning Lokananta lost all government funding. Most of the technical staff were shifted to the national radio broadcaster, RRI, while Lokananta shrank to a skeleton crew and for several years stopped almost all production. Employees who were there refer to this time as the “vacuum.” The piano was sold, microphones disappeared, and for a time the record storage shed was rented out for indoor soccer. Lokananta went silent.

With the loss of public support and the traditional music market in decline, Indonesia’s oldest record company needed new sources of revenue. Increasingly, that revenue has come from recording and duplicating albums by indie and underground artists, scenes that have actually blossomed in the aftermath of the repressive New Order regime.

Lokananta Riot

Just days before I arrived at Lokananta, a Balinese Rockabilly band called The Hydrant wrapped up a session there for their new album. The band’s very presence at the studio says a lot about Lokananta’s changing image in the Indonesian music world. When I later met with Adi, The Hydrant’s bass player, he told me that until this year he’d never heard of Lokananta. Even as a lover of vintage recordings, he had no idea that his country boasted an old wood-paneled studio that is reportedly modeled on the famous Abbey Road in London. When he heard about that room from a friend in Jogjakarta, Adi and his band realized it was the perfect place to record an album ‘live in the studio’ just like their idols from the 50s and 60s (some of those idols were even released on the Lokananta label). According to Adi, the studio manager at Lokananta told him that The Hydrant was the first “riot and roll band” to record there, so the album became “Lokananta Riot.”

This trend of young bands recording live at Lokananta got its start in 2012, when Indonesian R&B singer Glenn Fredly and the indie pop group White Shoes and the Couples Company both completed projects there. For these artists, recording in the company’s vintage studio served to emphasize their connection with Indonesia’s national music history, and also to draw attention to Lokananta’s important role in that history. In fact, the album that White Shoes recorded, Menyanyikan Lagu2 Daerah, was entirely based on the style of regional folk songs (lagu daerah) that Lokananta distributed in its early years.

But the big name acts that are drawn to Lokananta’s studio don’t necessarily manufacture their albums there, even though Lokananta was originally and primarily a record factory, not a studio. The 7” vinyl records of Menyanyikan Lagu2 Daerah, for example, had to be pressed overseas because Lokananta’s record fabricating machines—the country’s first—were sold for scrap metal in the 1980s. Cassette production, however, has not stopped, even if it is down from the days when the company could pump out tens of thousands of tapes a month. In those days, neighborhood kids would fly kites with the discarded magnetic tape. And like the recording end of business, Lokananta’s duplication services are now reaching a whole new clientele.

Rather than churn out playful kroncong tapes, today Lokananta acts as more of a boutique producer, specializing in small runs of indie releases by bands with names like Deluded, Homicide, and Working Class Symphony. These bands are not drawn to Lokananta so much by its history and legacy, but for very practical reasons that again can be traced back to the company’s near collapse in the early 2000s.

Many of the new cassettes produced at Lokananta pass through the hands of two local entrepreneurs: Rochmad Indrianto and Tamtomo Widhiandono. Indtrianto, who goes by Anto, is only 25. Over the whir of tape duplicators, he explained to me that unless you want them copied one by one on a home tape deck, Lokanata is the only place to do a short run of cassettes—as few as 20-50 copies. The quality is good, and because Lokananta is right there in Surakarta, the turnaround is fast and the prices low. When Anto and Tamtomo started working with Lokananta in 2014, the company’s only output was re-releases of old recordings. The two young entrepreneurs, and the cassette revival they were part of, could not have come at a better time. That year they placed several duplication orders for their label and online store Alpha Omega Merchandise, and also helped to organize a Record Store Day event at Lokananta with vendors, speakers, and live performances in the studio:

Record Store Day

Once word got around the local scene, more tape orders started coming in. Lokananta was not easy to work with directly—it had no online order form or Instagram account—so Anto and Tamtomo became the middlemen. They told me that this year they are handling at least eight to ten orders a month. Thanks to that business, for the first time ever Lokananta now generates more than half of its revenue from tape duplication services. This turn of events feels appropriate in a way: the very independent music scene that both contributed to and benefited from the end of the New Order regime is now helping to prop up an institution left stranded by that government’s collapse.

Main Building

The Sound of Indonesia

Many people and projects have claimed to capture the sound of a nation. No doubt Lokananta comes up as short as the rest. Yet, I’m struck by the way this one state-owned recording company and its meandering story do reflect so much of the tumult of Indonesia’s last sixty years. Lokananta has always been what the moment called for: a pressing plant for regional folk records, a studio for mass-produced gamelan recordings, an archive, and an indie cassette workshop. In each adaptation you can hear the political, cultural, and technological changes at work. You can sense the shifts in government censorship, which limited the import and reproduction of foreign sounds, and the sounds of critique and dissent that followed. You can see the shift from vinyl—which most Indonesians could only access via radio broadcasts—to the cassette, the medium that finally made recorded music readily available to the general public. And since Lokananta’s crisis at the turn of the millennium, you can hear the sounds of an industry in transition: a growing and uncensored independent music scene, and a renewed search for a national identity in the sounds and technologies of the past.

The ‘Sound of Indonesia’ that Lokananta offers in its current output must be understood as part of the institution’s response to crisis—brought on by both a changing music market and the sudden loss of government support. In this state, Lokananta’s sound cannot be curated by producers or culture ministers; it is dictated by necessity, and in that struggle to survive the company has had to open itself up in new ways. Looking through old photos in Lokananta’s archive, I saw a lot of official state pageantry and choreographed presentations—administrators in suits and workers with ID badges. Right now, however, Lokananta is a place where someone can walk in off the street with a home-recorded cassette and get it duplicated, where an up-and-coming band can book a recording session, where an avant-garde composer can put on a noise concert, or where a few motivated entrepreneurs can find a willing partner. It is a place of nostalgia but also experimentation and DIY networking—all of which are now publicly visible on the company’s facebook page.

Tape Order

Lokananta’s new director has plans to convert the main building into a museum and is already applying for national cultural heritage status. There is also talk of restoring and updating the studio equipment—no word on any new vinyl pressing machines. But whatever it becomes in the future, the present is clearly a special moment in Lokananta’s history. And while many of the company’s employees may consider this to be a rough patch in that history, when I see the words “The Sound of Indonesia” emblazoned on their uniforms, I can’t help but think that they are living up to that motto in ways that their predecessors in the New Order period would have never imagined. They are producing records and finding community partners that previously might have never made it through the company’s pastel-yellow entryway. The political transition, fiscal crisis, and recovery forced that change, and luckily for Lokananta, Indonesia’s burgeoning independent music scene has embraced it.

Ian Coss is a graduate student in Ethnomusicology at Boston University, where his work is focused on the uses of radio and recording technologies. Ian has released several albums of original music that draw on everything from gamelan to dub, and continues to perform around New England. He has also worked as a freelance radio producer for Afropop Worldwide and The World. Follow all his projects at iancoss.com.

All images are used with permission by the author.

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Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles: The Music of the Skatepark

Sound and Sport2Welcome back to our summer series on “Sound and Sport.”  In today’s post, Josh Ottum discusses the sonorous sounds and unique rhythms of the sport of skateboarding. For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Tara Betts‘s “Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali.” For May’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.”  Next month’s grand finale will feature a doubleheader on Brasil, with a post by Kariann Goldschmitt on the promotional sounds of FIFA 2014 and a podcast by Andrea Medrado entitled “The Sounds of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City.” We’ll close with another take on the Olympics, excerpted from David Hendy‘s recent Noise broadcasts for BBC Radio 4 on the politics of boos at the games. For now, get out your board, strap on your helmet, and prepare to jam. —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

Seven layers of screen-printed, sugar pine maple whack the concrete. Aluminum axles pivot on rubber bushings as they slide across steel coping. Circular, molded polyurethane encases lubricated bearings that spin in midair before slamming onto birch. Vocal cords are strained as exclamations are made in response to a maneuver. These are the unmistakeable sounds of the skatepark. As skaters ride through the park, a unique sonic tapestry emerges revealing a constantly shifting array of timbre, pitch, and rhythm. This sliding aural space is similar to the compositional flow between rehearsed maneuvers and improvisatory actions, connecting skaters in the skatepark to musicians improvising in a jam session.

Just as the results of a musical performance depend on acoustics of the venue and the idiosyncrasies of the instrument, the skater is beholden to a similarly complex signal chain. The aural atmosphere of the skatepark relies on the number of other players, as well as their chosen instruments, and unique approach to playing. While surveying the sonic and social dynamics of four skateparks in Ohio and California for this study, the line between performer and listener was often unclear. Skaters are consistently sliding between roles as passive observers and active participants, watching and being watched, making sound and listening to the sounds of others. And, just as an improvising musician aims to develop her own unique voice, the skater intertwines sonic and visual elements into a unique stylistic signature all her own. In this study I will look at the skatepark as a site for skaters to express themselves much in the same way that a musician plays an instrument at a jam session. I will explore the board and terrain, the importance of style, and the culture of the park itself. To begin, I will contextualize the ways in which the skateboard has been constructed as a sonic instrument.

The Instruments

As a skater lands an ollie in the Vans Skatepark in Orange, California, the sound of hard polyurethane wheels slamming against a hollow birch ramp emanates throughout the warehouse, entangling with distinctive sounds made by other participants. The listener is made acutely aware of each skater’s instrument and stylistic approach to performance. What differentiates the rider on a board in the skatepark from a guitarist playing in a rock club? Just as the materials of the electric guitar and its signal chain inform the sonic nature of the instrument, the skateboard and its engaged terrain sound out unique and identifiable characteristics of each device. I spoke with a skater at Flipside Skateboard Shop in Athens, Ohio about the specifics of wheel construction and his own personal preferences:

2 flipside wheel chart

Abrasion test chart, Flipside Skateboard Shop, Athens, Ohio

Just like the layered wood of an electric guitar body, boards are made through a multistep manufacturing process that involves layering thin plies of wood. Maple is most commonly used with the relative flexibility of the deck determining qualities of audible resonance as a skater ollies or railslides. And trucks, which function as axles, can be heard grinding along a surface such as pool coping, a painted curb, or a handrail.

In order for these materials to make sound they must be controlled by a rider and engage with some kind of terrain. The combination of what materials are chosen and how they are used result in a rider’s unique approach. In the skatepark, skaters swathe themselves in clothing, pads, and helmets while riding devices wrapped in visual signposts of self-expression that sound out the priorities of the particular rider.

Sonic Style

Following Henri Lefebvre, Iain Borden speaks of the skateboard as a “lived component of the body, its actions and its self-image in relation to the terrain” (28). Similarly, from my time spent at skateparks in Ohio and California, I have noted the malleability of terrain as a domain to express one’s own unique style. Skaters use their devices as instruments, playing the park, repeating phrases, overlapping with sounds emitted from their peers. All the while, advertisements adorn both bodies and instruments and maneuvers mimic the iconic moves of sponsored skaters viewed in magazines. Visiting Focus Boardshop across the street from the Etnies Skatepark in Lake Forest, California reminds the observer that the elusive, focal point of style in the world of skateboarding is not only confined to the visual realm. As reissued decks from Powell Peralta, Slimeball wheels, and multiple videos adorn the walls of the shop, teenage skaters hang out, asking to bend and stand on decks and spin wheels, all the while watching and listening to newly released videos. Just as guitars and synthesizers reflect the users aesthetic outlook, the look and sound of skateboards signal to a skater’s audience (often other skaters in the park) what kind of skater he or she is.

Tara Rodgers’ insightful article on wood paneling on synthesizers for Sounding Out! has its analogue in the spiritual aura of the object in skateboarding. Bound up in this aura are genre-shaping histories that have taken the sport in innumerable directions. Whether it is the catwalk ethos of Vision Street Wear, Danny Way’s connection with Monster and Red Bull energy drinks, or enjoi’s self-referential marketing, the graphics that wrap around skate gear carry with them weighty connections to the sport’s most original moments. These moments are, of course, defined by marketing campaigns, hosted in influential magazines such as Thrasher and Transworld, and the zietgeist of the time. Intertwined with these branded materials is the sonic quality of the instrument. The sound of the instrument itself reflects the particular ethos of the skater who selected it. In the clip below, an employee working at Focus Boardshop in Lake Forest, California talks about the particular way his board’s sound reflects the idiosyncratic nature of its components. Notice how he skater speaks about the sound of his bearings as a direct link to his style, connecting to Borden’s idea of the board as a lived component of the body.

During my visit to the community skatepark in Athens, Ohio I come across two skaters who have returned to the sport after a two-decade break. One skater sports a longboard with 70a wheels so soft you can’t hear him skate through the concrete pool. Immediately after interacting with the longboarder, another skater finishes a session in the pool at the Athens skatepark with a long slide. I ask him about the role of his wheels and what he calls “the best sound in the world”:

Soft Wheels

Hard Wheels

Skaters related the histories of their boards to me with a sense of fond nostalgia. These histories functioned, primarily, as a mode of individuation, through which those observed were seen refining their identities within the community through conversation. As more time is spent at each of the parks, I begin to notice communal flows of conversation between skaters and their engaged terrain as well. Competitive aspects to out-do each other, synchronized maneuvers, and vocal responses are percolate the soundscape. As listeners perform and performers listen, connections with well-formed cultural codes of improvisational music begin to emerge.

Jamming the Skatepark

Improvising musicians often use the context of the jam session as an opportunity work out new ideas and rehearse repertoire. Minton’s Playhouse in New York is one of the original sites for the jazz jam session. Here, “cutting contests” allowed players the opporunity to outplay each other with virtuosic displays of improvisational prowess. Musicians play to hear each other individually and as a unit, often pushing each other to extremes. The sound is composed, listened to, and then reacted to. Skateparks provide a similar atmosphere. A trick (like an ollie) is immersed in the sonic flows of the surrounding skaters. The skatepark is simultaneously encouraging and competitive, forgiving and relentless.

When I visited the Vans Skatepark on National Go Skateboarding Day park employees tempted skaters to display their best moves throughout the park with the promise of free swag. The environment remained friendly and encouraging as skaters rose to the challenge, welcoming the pressure.

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The rituals of the skatepark are varied in their scope. When a skater lands a difficult trick, it is common to hear the tapping of board tails on the ground; applause. Vocal reactions to maneuvers (landed or failed) are also quite common.

What sets the sonic atmosphere of the skatepark apart from the sound of skating outside the park is the palpable lack of intruding sounds from the outside world. As communities continue to accept the skatepark as part of their permanent landscape, the once transgressive sound of the sport takes on a new meaning. The scrapes and slides that once signaled intrusion are now contained in a controlled space. While visiting these jam sessions, it became clear that the sounds of the skatepark remain a mostly male-dominated activity. While the instruments and terrain remain available to the wider public the sound of the skatepark reflects a relatively closed environment often shrouded in platitudes of youth culture. However, once a sense of acceptance and experimentation is cultivated, some other aspects of the skatepark are revealed. The skatepark is a place to play and explore the range of one’s repertoire. It is a place to engage with the limitations of the instrument and one’s own physical faculties. And, it is an environment that encourages friction, noise, and distortion. The skatepark is a communal amplifier, obscuring and reflecting sound as the players immerse themselves in the ultimate sounding board.

Bonus Material:

While immersing myself in the sounds of the skatepark for this project, the idea came up to reimagine the sounds of the skatepark as a musical composition. I asked musicians Michael Deakers, Casey Foubert, Junior High, and Ryan Richter to make a piece that used any portion of the recordings of the four skateparks I visited. Their work reflects a deep connection to the rehearsed and improvisational aspects of music-making and skateboarding. The sounds of these pieces emerged from hours of practice and spontaneous decisions allowing for a particularly effervescent creative outcome. To hear these, check out out my Soundcloud here.


Featured Image, “Grinding” courtesy of Luke Hayfield Photography

Josh Ottum holds an MFA in Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology from UC Irvine and is currently a PhD student at Ohio University in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts. His research interests include sound, energy extraction, Van Dyke Parks, Southern California, library music, and synthesizers. As a singer-songwriter, composer, and producer, Josh has released multiple records on various labels, completed numerous international tours, and composed music that has appeared on MTV, AMC’s Mad Men, and NPR.

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