For me, one of the best ways to get to know a place is to know what songs everyone in a group can come together and sing. In the UK, it’s probably Mr Brightside by the Killers, a handful of Queen songs, Gloria Gaynor, or perhaps Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis. Whether we like it or not, the lyrics are somehow ingrained in our psyche – too many family parties growing up, watching our mums dance around the kitchen to the radio, or those giddy nights as a teenager singing with your friends in a car or on a park bench.
Across the other side of the world in Java, singing together (excluding the religious kind) is just as common as in the UK, if not more so. Not a group setting goes by without someone rooting out a guitar or finding a particular song on Youtube. Often these shared singing experiences include a number of the songs that are the same as the UK – I genuinely think I’ve heard Don’t Look Back in Anger more in the past two years than I have done throughout my whole life – but perhaps more soulfully, more like oxygen, are the songs of local legends Didi Kempot, Tombi, Nella Kharisma and the wholesome genres of campur sari and dangdut.
Last weekend as the final few acts were left to play on the main stage of Ngayogjazz festival in Yogyakarta, a few thousand people, primarily young but with a noticeable older presence too, crammed together to watch the above-mentioned legends take to the stage. Having sat relatively restrained throughout the performance of Arp Frique (who were excellent but very unknown to the crowd), it was like someone had switched a light on, or like loved family members coming home for the first time in years. Where everyone had previously been sitting, there was a wave as all took to their feet, phones were either hastily brought out to document the moment, but equally phones were hastily put away to focus on what was happening. With the opening song of Kartononyo Medo Janji and Soimah’ piercing, distinctive warble, followed by the anticipated kicking in of the percussion, standing from the back of the stage it was the perfect position to see a thousand souls souring as the audience bellowed the words back to the band.
The best, best thing about campur sari and its younger, cheeky brother dangdut are the call and response elements that everyone knows and waits for throughout each song. The lyrics are stories of heartbreak and waiting for your lover, different locations for meeting your love and the pains of finding out that your lover has gone off with someone else. Meanwhile, the distinct formula of the songs means that while singing along to the main lyrics, there’s anticipation for the right moment to shout out ‘oh-ah-oh-eh!’ in the bridge. As new versions of old classics become popular online, the audience throws in additional lyrics: in the gap between Didi Kompet swooning ‘janjineeee’ (your promise) the audience in a wave shouted back ‘janjine, janjine, janjine pie?’ or ‘your promise, your promise, what happened?’ if translated loosely into English. The songs evolve on their own, developing a relationship between the younger audience and the classic singers, and it works. Everyone sings together like a big extended family.
It’s that euphoria, that joint experience and knowing that every single person at that moment is sharing what you shared, grew up knowing what you knew, if it was that particular high school heartbreak, that particular glimpse into life at home listening to those songs, the way maybe one point in your life you actually probably dismissed that song as a bit old and lame, but are now coming to realise just how much it means. Watching Didi Kempot pour out the lyrics and the audience throw their hands up into the air was so personal, so local, but at the same time so universal. It reminded me of all the times I’ve sung songs that I’ve loved, or haven’t loved but could sing without thinking, the hollering until you’re a bit sore, the not caring how good you sound, or how ugly your face is as you strain to get the words out, but mainly that magnificent euphoria of togetherness, the slight tackiness and the unabashed, uncontrollable love of that moment, the musicians, your community, and every single person around you.