Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Tony Q gives local flavor to reggae

Wahyuana, Jakarta

For more than 15 years Tony Q has delved into the world of reggae music -- a genre made popular by the legendary Bob Marley and which originated in Jamaica -- adapting the Jamaican sound and fusing it with the Balinese, Sundanese and his own Javanese style.

The 43-year-old musician may not be a household name all over Indonesia, but his dedication to reggae has brought him iconic status among local fans, particularly in Jakarta and Bandung.

Today, Tony Q's New Rastafara band -- in which he is the guitarist and lead vocalist -- is the only reggae group from Indonesia to be annually invited to the Houston Legends of Rasta Reggae Festival Tour in Texas, now in its 19th year.

New Rastafara has also become a regular at concerts organized for social events such as the annual fundraiser for AIDS in Ancol, North Jakarta, and at Greenpeace's Stop Illegal Logging campaign recently.

But being a professional musician was not Tony's first choice when he first started out.

After finishing high school in Semarang, Central Java, Tony -- whose real name is Tony Waluyo Sukmoasih -- arrived in Jakarta, where he worked for a short time as a quality control staffer at a factory and then as a designer for a publishing company.

Those rather mundane nine-to-five jobs quickly became history after Tony started hanging around with some artsy types at the Bulungan Sports Center in South Jakarta back in 1983. And Tony knew he had found his niche; playing music with the likes of violinist Hendri Lamiri and street musician Antok Baret, as well as discussing all things art with film director Arya Kusumadewa and actor Alex Komang.

To earn money, Tony became a busker around the Blok M shopping complex, singing popular songs from rock groups like The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Kansas and Pink Floyd. Or he would stand in for musicians in bands that performed in cafes or pubs in the area.

In 1986, Tony left rock for country music and put together the Country String Band, and played the banjo.

With just a few local competitors in that genre, the group quickly became a staple in hotel bars in Jakarta such as the Mandarin Oriental, the Sahid Jaya and the Horison.

The Country String Band became so big that they were invited to participate in an Indonesian-U.S. cultural exchange program organized by the U.S. Embassy in 1988, at the Surakarta Hadiningrat Palace in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java.

The program showcased artists from the United States -- including the wife of then U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul D. Wolfowitz -- and traditional Javanese dances. The Country String Band brought the house down when they covered Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, John Denver, Bob Dylan and bluegrass icons, the Osborne Brothers.

The band was an instant hit, and it was invited to perform at the Fourth of July celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta that year and the next.

But success in country music, while gratifying, still left Tony Q with a desire to push the creative envelope with his own music.

"I began thinking about creating my own music. I wanted to contribute to music according to my own tastes. Without necessarily expecting applause from an audience," he told The Jakarta Post recently.

So he rediscovered reggae music, and Bob Marley who was considered its undisputed king.

"I found that I was interested in the lyrics of Bob Marley's songs, which contained stories of life on the street, portraits of life, love ballads, messages of peace and anti-racism as well as social criticism," Tony, who also has Jamaican-style dreadlocks, explained.

In 1989, he established his first reggae band, Roots Rock Reggae, and they soon got gigs at places like Pondok Indah Pub in South Jakarta. That first band did not always play strictly reggae, however, but also some blues and rock ballads.

A year later, Tony left the group for a string of reggae bands that he established and eventually left, such as Exodus and Rastaman.

Tony said that one of the reasons he left the groups was that they had become too commercialized for him.

In 1994, he established Rastafara with the additional components of percussions, a trombone, a trumpet, and a saxophone. The group quickly became a hit with reggae lovers and received lots of requests to play in Jakarta and Bandung.

But yet again Tony's restless nature got the best of him and after seven years he left Rastafara.

"Maybe we got too many contracts to perform, so the spirit of the group got lost," he explained.

Since mid-2001 Tony has been playing with his new group, the New Rastafara, every Wednesday and Friday night at BBs Cafe in Menteng, Central Jakarta.

Although still keeping with the spirit of peace and social criticism a la Bob Marley, Tony's brand of reggae is uniquely Indonesian, which probably explains why he has such a large following here.

One example are the lyrics from Bunglon (Chameleon), a song from his album Damai dengan Cinta (Peace with Love) released in 2000:

Banyak pahlawan kesiangan, mengaku-aku ikut andil dalam perjuangan/Banyak juga yang berganti baju, tak pernah punya urat malu/Merancang strategi untuk tetap korupsi, pertahankan kolusi/Bunglon selalu berubah warna, mengikuti warna tempatnya (There are many heroes that come too late, claiming to have a share in the fight/There are also many that change their stripes, without any shame/Constantly scheming to find new ways of being corrupt, sustaining collusion/Like a chameleon always changing color, to blend in with the surroundings).

Tony added a Malay flavor for the song Pesta Pantai (Beach Party) with the use of the Minangkabau tambourine and talempong (gong chime ensemble), while for the song Witing Tresno Jalaran Soko Kulino (Love Comes From Habit) is distinctly Javanese, with lyrics full of Javanese idioms and the use of the Javanese gamelan in the composition.

Besides Damai, Tony has released three other albums; Rambut Gimbal (Dreadlocks) (1996), Gue Falling in Love (I'm Falling in Love) (1997), and Kronologi (Chronology) (2003). He is planning to release a new album later this month.

"I want reggae music that is distinctly Indonesian. I want to say that reggae has come to Indonesia, but we've fused it with our language," Tony said.