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.
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:
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.
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.
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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Editor’s Note: Even though this is officially Osvaldo Oyola‘s final post as an SO! regular–his brilliant dissertation on Latino/a identity and collection cultures is calling–I refuse to say goodbye, perpetually leaving the door open for future encores. He has been a bold and steadfast contributor–peep his extensive back catalogue here–and we cannot thank him enough for bringing such a whipsmart presence to Sounding Out! over the years. Best of luck, OOO, our lighters are up for you!–J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
As several of my previous Sounding Out! Blog posts reveal, I am intrigued by the way popular music seeks to establish its authenticity to the listener. It seems that recorded popular music seeks out ways to overcome its lack of presence as compared to a live performance, where a unified and spontaneous sense of immediacy seems to automatically bestow the aura of the “authentic”—a uniqueness that, ironically, live reproducibility engenders. Throughout my time as a Sounding Out! regular, I have explored how authenticity may be conferred through artists affecting an accent as a form of musical style, comparing their songs to other “less authentic” forms of music through a call to nostalgia, or even by highlighting artificiality through use of auto-tune.
One of the ways that artists and producers get past a potential lack of authenticity when recording is through call outs to “liveness.” I am not referring to concert recordings (though there are ways that they can be used), but elements like counting off at the beginning of songs or introducing some change or movement in a song. There is no practical need to count off “One, two, three, four!” at the beginning of a recording of a song if it is being pieced together through multiple tracks and overdubs. These days a “click track” or adjustment post-recording can keep all the players in time even if not necessarily playing at once; even if a song is being recorded as a kind of studio jam, the count off could be edited out. It is an artifact of the creation, not a sign of creation itself. Instead, the counting can become an accepted and notable part of the song, like Sam the Sham and the Phaorahs performing “Wooly Bully,” giving it an orientation to time—the sense that all these musicians were present together and playing their instruments at once and needed this unique introduction to keep them all in tempo.
Similarly, sometimes artists call out to other musicians, giving instructions when no instructions are needed, assuming that most popular music is recorded in multiple takes using multiple tracks. In Parade‘s “Mountains,” Prince commands the Revolution, “guitars and drums on the one!” when clearly they had rehearsed when putting together the song, and ostensibly knew when the drum and guitar breakdown was coming up. Prince, furthermore, joins artists as varied as the Grateful Dead and the Beastie Boys in mixing concert recordings with studio overdubs to capture a “live” sound on songs like “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” and “Alligator.” Even something as ubiquitous as guitar feedback is a transformation of an artifact of live performance into a sound available for use in recording—something that was purposefully avoided until John Lennon’s happy accident when in the studio to cut “I Feel Fine.” Until then, playing with feedback was a way to demonstrate performance skills through onstage vamping.
These varied calls to liveness provide a sense of authenticity to music made via the recording studio, denoting what I understand as the spontaneous sociability of music. Count-offs and studio shout-outs provide a sense of unified presence to a performance, especially if the performance has actually been constructed piecemeal and over time. This is something of a remnant of an old-fashioned notion that recorded music is measured in quality in comparison to live performance. It’s any idea that hung around both implicitly and explicitly long after bands started experimenting in the studio with effects that ranged from the difficult to the impossible to replicate on stage, and reinforced through recordings by performers who purposefully referenced their lauded live performances.
For example, James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” is built on this conceit. The entire song is a conversation, a call and response between James Brown and his band, the J.B.’s. From the opening line, Brown introduces the song as moment in time in which he is compelled to do his thing, but he demands both encouragement and cooperation from the band in order to achieve it. When Brown asks Bobby Byrd, “Bobby! Should I take ’em to the bridge?” we as listeners are invited to play along with the idea that it has suddenly came into his head to have the band play the bridge—as it might’ve happened (and thus been practiced) countless times in his legendary live shows. It suggests a form of spontaneity that the reality of recording would otherwise drain from the song. Sure, according to RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (2012), “Get Up” was recorded in only two takes–already fairly amazing–but the very nature of the song makes it sound like it was recorded in one, even if it had to be broken up into two sides of a 7-inch. That reality doesn’t matter—what matters when listening is the feeling that we, as listeners, are being allowed to partake in the capturing of what seems like one unique, and continuous, moment.
The question then arises: What about recorded music that does the opposite, that makes a point of highlighting its artificial construct—the impossibility of its spontaneous performance? While there are examples that date back at least to the 1960s, does this shift highlight a difference in aesthetic concerns by the pop music audience? If calls to “liveness” suggest a spontaneous sociability to music, what do the meta references to their songcraft suggest about what is important to music now?
The classic example is Ringo Starr’s bellow, “I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!” at the end of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” an exclamation made after umpteen takes of the song recorded on the same day, but there are more contemporary and even more obvious examples. Near the end of Outkast’s “Prototype,” (at 4:21) Andre 3000 can be heard talking to his sound engineer John Frye about the ad libs, “Hey, hey John! Are we recording our ad libs? Really? Were we recording just then? Let me hear that, that first one. . .” There is an interesting tension here between the spontaneity of an “ad lib” and listening back to pick the best one or further develop one when re-recording, and Andre in his role as producer decided to keep it in as part of the final product. The recording itself becomes part of the subject of the song as a kind of coda. The banter is actually a brilliant parallel to the content of the song, which undermines the typical “we’ll be together forever” love song trope for one that highlights the reality of serial monogamy common in American culture and lessons each relationship potentially provides us for the next. Rather than pretend that a romantic relationship is a unique and eternal thing, the song admits the work and changes involved, just as it admits that the seemingly special spontaneity of a song is developed through a process.
Of course, hip hop as a genre, with its frequent use of sampling, tends to make its recording process very evident. While it is possible to play samples “live” using a digital sampler or isolating sections on vinyl via the DJ as band member, the use of pre-recorded fragments means that rap music relies on the vocal dynamics of rap to carry the sense of spontaneity. Yet, in 1993’s “Higher Level,” KRS-One opens with a description of the time and place of the recording—“5 o’clock in the morning” at “D&D Studios,” establishing forever when and where and thus how the recording is happening. Five o’clock in the morning places the creation of the song with a context of working and rocking all through the night to get the album completed. The song may or may not have actually been recorded last, but its placement at the end of Return of the Boom Bap, gives it a sense of a last ditch effort to complete the collection of songs. The fact that “5 o’clock in the morning” is likely also among the cheapest available studio times potentially highlights budgetary concerns in the recording itself. This is a rare thing to include in recording, though the Brand New Heavies cap off the dissolution of their 1994 track “Fake” into pseudo-jazz-messing-around with one their members chiding, “a thousand dollar a day studio!” This is a different kind of call to authenticity, as a budgetary concern is an implicit to a “realness” defined by being non-commercial.
One of my all-time favorite examples is a few years older than “Higher Level”—“Nervous” by Boogie Down Production: “written, produced and directed by Blastmaster KRS-One,” which includes an attempt to explain how a song is put together on the “48-track board.” Instead of calling instructions to a band, KRS points out that DJ Doc is doing the mixing and instructs him to “break it down, Doc!” just before a beat breakdown (listen at around 1:40). He explains, “Now, here’s what we do on the 48-track board / We look around for the best possible break / And once we find it, we just BREAK,” and then the pre-recorded beat seems to obey his command, breaking down to just the bass drum and a sampled electric piano from Rhythm Heritage’s “The Sky’s the Limit.” Later, he says, “We find track seven, and break it down!” and the music shifts to just the bass guitar and some tinny synth high-hats.
So how does highlighting the recording circumstances, or just bringing attention to the fact that the song being listened to is a multiple-step process of recording and post-production benefit the song itself? Is it like I mentioned in my 2011 “Defense of Auto-Tune” post, that this kind of attention re-establishes authenticity by making its constructed nature transparent? I’d say yes, in part, but I also think that–through its violation of the expectation of seamlessness–the stray track or reference to recording within a song is a nod to a different kind of skillfulness. Exhortations such as “Take it to the Bridge” give an ironic nod to the extemporaneous to call attention to the diligent workmanship and dedication demanded by studio songcraft. Traditionally, live audiences may appreciate a flawless or nearly flawless performance and understand a masterful recovery from (and/or incorporation of) error as the signs of a good show, but, these moments that call attention to the recording studio situation claim there something to appreciate in the fact that Ringo Starr endured 18 takes of “Helter Skelter” until he had painful blisters, or that KRS-One and DJ Doc worked out the proper way to “feel around” the mixing board to make a grooving collage of sounds as disparate as the theme from “Rat Patrol” and WAR’s “Galaxy.”
KRS may have once admonished other MCs to “make sure live you is a dope rhyme-sayer,” but clearly he believes liveness—whether implicitly or explicitly—is not the only measure of musical ability. Rather, the highlighting of labor in the construction of a recording becomes its own kind of (anti-)vamping and demonstration of skill, and of a different kind of sociability in making music that these conversational snippets and references to other people in the studio make clear. This kind of attention to the group labor is especially important as various recording technologies become increasingly available to the wider public and allow for an isolated pursuit of recording music. Just as calls to liveness in recording engage the listener in ways that suggest participation as a live audience, calls to anti-liveness also engage the listener, but by bringing them across time and space into the studio to witness to a different form of great performance.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and a PhD Candidate in English at Binghamton University working on his dissertation, “Collecting Identity: Popular Culture and Narratives of Afro-Latin Self in Transnational America.” He also regularly posts brief(ish) thoughts on music and comics on his blog, The Middle Spaces.
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