Dutch art deco, indie music, and Java’s best cuisine come together in Bandung
I’d already played with Robi and friends on a couple of mini-tours of Thailand and Vietnam, but had never even seen Navicula perform live other than taped concerts on YouTube.
Other than getting a chance to rock out on guitar with Navicula—their regular lead guitarist couldn’t make the gig due to another commitment (Australian Edward Andrews carried off most of his responsibilities with aplomb; I was just sitting in)—I was also immediately seduced by the chance to see Bandung, a city I hadn’t visited in nearly 20 years.
Once known as the Paris of Asia, the former Dutch colonial hill station boasts a smattering of vintage art deco buildings left behind by the Dutch, a booming economy, and the best overall climate of any city in Java.
My arrival, via train from Jakarta, is smooth. A few of my old haunts are much as I remembered them, such as Jalan Cicendo’s 117-year-old kimia farma, where the Dutch developed drugs to overcome malaria. Maybe one day the locals will find a new purpose for the magnificent, abandoned buildings.
Gedung Sate, named for a roof finial that resembles satay, Indonesia’s most famous dish, hasn’t changed a bit and still represents the city’s architectural centrepoint. The Dutch East Indies Company erected the monumental building in 1920 to house public works management. Bearing neoclassical designs mixed with native details, the stately building now serves as the office of West Java’s provincial governor.
Meanwhile Jalan Braga, the Champs-Elysees of this the Dutch colony’s eastern Paris, still boasts a parade of cafés, including a few with live bands playing everything from dangdut to rock.
Much of my time this visit is spent around Jalan Dago, a modern neighbourhood known mainly for its appeal to both local and international shoppers. Here a succession of factory outlets carry clothing made in Indonesia for export, but kept behind, presumably, as “seconds”—pieces that don’t measure up to export standards. Locals say this is mostly pretence, and that plenty of top-drawer goods are available. The wide avenue is also home to a phalanx of small shops that cut and sew custom blue jeans from a wide variety of denim fabrics, in any requested style.
Although the Bandung denim scene draws a steady stream of Jakarta residents, it’s the local music community that is apparently responsible for its continued success. Considered Indonesia’s hotbed of musical experimentation, Bandung boasts such diverse bands as minimalist garage rockers The S.I.G.I.T., death metal outfit Burgerkill, massively popular pop rock combo Mocca, and metal-heads Seringai, who opened for Metallica when they played Jakarta in 2013. That’s only a tiny fraction of the local scene, which numbers an estimated 200 bands.
Although several successful labels are based in Bandung, the stalwart of the indie scene is FFWD (Fast Forward) Records, co-founded in 1999 by Helvi Sjarifuddin, who is also the guitarist for the garage rock band Teenage Death Star.
The day after the Navicula concert, I meet up with Helvi at Omuniuum, a small shop selling books, CDs, and band merchandise on the second floor of a modern shophouse directly opposite the campus of Catholic University Parahiyangan.
“Mocca was the act that put us on Indonesia’s musical map,” he says. “Their first album sold close to 150,000 copies in 2002. Their songs were played regularly on local radio and on MTV Indonesia, and they’ve toured Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan. One of their songs was licensed for a Korean TV commercial.”
Omuniuum’s owner Iit Sukmiati told me that the CD market is still huge in Bandung. Her little shop sells an average of 2,000 discs a month.
“Fans here are hugely loyal to the bands they follow,” she says. “So even though they might be able to download music more easily, they’ll buy CDs, concert tickets, and band merchandise to support the musicians.”
Iit is also the director of Liga Musik Nasional (National Music League, or “Limunas” for short), who on their website describe themselves as “a bunch of heavy music lovers who want to share cool musical spectacles.”
One of Limunas’ main venues for such spectacles is the large auditorium of the Institut Francais Indonesia on Jalan Purnawarman. The IFI hosts an average of two Limunas-sponsored concerts a month. The night I hit the IFI stage with Navicula, the auditorium is completely packed with over a thousand fans in black T-shirts who head-bang, mosh, and crowd-surf their way through a set by local grindcore rockers Rajasinga before cranking the energy even further for Robi and crew. In all my years of playing music live, it is one of the most totally rocked-out shows I’ve ever experienced.
During the weekend I’m in town, I’m fortunate enough to be guided around the city by Jeanie Laksmi, a Bandung native who was introduced to me by Bangkok DJ Scott Hess. Jeanie also happens to be a raging rock fan, and we spent the weekend driving from one place to another, local bands blasting a soundtrack on her car stereo.
After I tell her I’m keen to try local cuisine, Jeanie takes me right away to Ayam Goreng Suharti. From the outside, the restaurant looks like an old Dutch house, but inside there’s a surprisingly spacious dining hall with wooden tables and chairs that reminds me of “family restaurants” in the deep American South. The house specialty is a magnificent ayam goreng (fried chicken) wherein the bird is marinated in coconut milk and spices for a few hours before frying. After the chicken is done, a fritter-like mix of rice flour and coconut cream is quickly fried in the same oil. The resulting kremes (“crispy” in Indonesian) are piled atop the fried chicken when served. Along with the signature dish we enjoyed a terrific gurame bakar (baked gourami) in spicy soy gravy and sayur asem, a tamarind-based soup that’s a Bandung forte.
Later I get the chance to try sambal terasi, a Sundanese fish-chilli-lime dip reminiscent of Thailand’s naam phrik. As is the case with the latter, steamed vegetables, along with fried tofu and tempeh, are used to scoop up the paste.
While in Bandung I lodged at The 101 Bandung Dago, a trendy new hotel with friendly staff, light and airy rooms, a pool, and an all-day café serving well-conceived Sundanese, Indonesian, and international dishes. It’s also within walking distance of the Institut Francais Indonesia, not to mention innumerable Jalan Dago shopping venues, so if you’re in town for one of the indie, punk, or metal shows, consider putting up here.
I’m already coming up with excuses for another trip to Java’s music capital, very soon. Anyone need a guitarist?