In Jakarta, there is a famous place called Tanamur. It is not a national monument, or an ancient temple, a marvelous natural wonder of the world, or any such typical tourist trap. But to the denizens of Indonesia’s crowded, raucous capital, it is a notable landmark.
Tanamur (or Tanah Abang Timur) is the country’s first discotheque, possibly the first disco in all of Southeast Asia.
Its owner, Ahmad Fahmy, said that he was inspired to found the club by the dazzling nightspots he had encountered while studying in Germany. Tanamur would quickly become a signifier of a young society swiftly modernizing in the wake of a drastic change in political and economic conditions. By the time Tanamur’s doors first opened on the 12th of December 1970, Indonesia had formally been under the control of the “New Order” government of President Suharto for two years. While the New Order was marked by an increased politicization of the military, robust repression of opposition to the government, and forceful repudiation of the communist leanings of Indonesia’s previous ruler and first president, Sukarno, it was also a period marked by prodigious economic growth, spurred by domestic and foreign investment.
In 1969, the governor of Jakarta had ratified the main points of tourism development. The objective, among other things, was to emphasize the creation of a climate conducive to stimulating domestic and foreign capital flows. Tanamur proved to be a key site in this plan, as expatriate investors who came to Indonesia to facilitate production in the oil industry found the club (amidst the emerging cosmopolitan maze of massage parlors and steam baths) a welcome spot to decompress and find some exciting entertainment after work.
Indonesia’s music culture had flourished since the country first gained independence in 1945, but it was limited by Sukarno’s strict regulation of the arts and culture sector. Cultural purity was a priority, and the embrace of foreign influences was forbidden. Traditional Indonesian music was all that was permitted, and ambitious musicians who flirted with western pop and rock n’ roll in the nineteen sixties often found themselves thrown behind bars.
The arrival of the New Order changed that. Suharto’s full-throated advocacy of foreign trade extended to the culture industries, and Indonesian musicians in the seventies and eighties availed themselves of a wide range of western influences including disco, funk, and even synthpop. Independent record labels sprouted up, and musical instruments and hardware imported from Japan gave the music makers of Indonesia a whole new box of toys to play with.
However, record sales remained relatively weak. Even with the expansion of the Indonesian economy, the trickle of that wealth down to the mass population remained relatively tepid. Records were extremely expensive to manufacture and it was difficult to recoup those expenses when even members of the middle class could barely afford to purchase the product on a regular basis. Hence, some musicians and labels like Musica Records took advantage of the marketing opportunities provided by mass media, providing their records exclusively to local radio stations, which then broadcast these new modern sounds across entire provinces. Other labels like Jackson Records and Irama Tara Records continued to take their chances on the direct market, eventually favoring the cheaper and more easily disseminated cassette format. But between 1970 and 1973, the best place to enjoy the hottest modern music was at discotheques like Tanamur.
Other discos followed in Tanamur’s wake, serving to democratize nightlife in Jakarta. Before the establishment of Tanamur, the main sites for after-dark entertainment were elite hostess bars and expensive karaoke lounges. After Tanamur, the city saw the rapid appearance of several easily accessible discotheques such as the Guwa Rama located in Hotel Indonesia, Minidisco in Gondangdia, Pit Stop, Disco 369 and Samantha Disco, each with its own distinct character, vibe and clientele. Minidisco, with its traditional padang restaurant décor, was a friendly, all-encompassing spot that opened its doors to all. Guwa Rama was a bit more exclusive, requiring a reservation for the privilege of paying its upscale gate fee and gulping down pricey drinks all night.
Tanamur however remained the best disco in town, regularly hosting a multinational, multicultural and multiracial crowd stripping off their clothes in abandon to dance in the humid Jakarta night. It was the place where you were most likely to find yourself rubbing shoulders with Muhammad Ali, Chuck Norris or Dutch football star Ruud Gullit at the club’s theme nights like the Halloween Party, Beach Party Night, and even Saint Patrick’s Day celebration!
But there were other options for the people of Jakarta to enjoy disco even outside of the established clubs. A young man called Adiguna Sutowo (son of the Ibnu Sutowo, director of Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned energy corporation) joined forces with two friends to purchase a set of state-of-the-art disco equipment from Singapore, complete with lights and speakers and all the latest LPs. With this gear, they launched Merindink Disco, the country’s first mobile disco. Adiguna would rent out his sound system to disco enthusiasts from all walks of life—and his fee was not cheap, but the appeal of the sound system was democratic. Rich kids hired Merindink to play at exclusive birthday parties in their palatial homes. Less well-heeled youngsters pooled their funds to get Merindink to score their block parties. With permission from neighbors and the Ketua Rumah Tangga (neighborhood chairman), Merindink would rock out in the street all night, allowing all the residents of the neighborhood to dance to free disco music. Merindink was pivotal in entrenching disco music as an integral part of Indonesian youth culture of the nineteen seventies, playing the latest disco tracks not only in Jakarta but beyond to other regions like Bogor, Bandung, Yogyakarta and Makassar.
Disco could be heard booming in hotel ballrooms, on the sidewalks, emanating from the windows of high-rise buildings. The main audience was middle-class youths, so disco became something of an aspirational music, a signifier of upward social and economic mobility. It was a culture replete with its own fashions, mannerisms, slangs, modes of décor and shopping. The guys wore boots, flared jeans, form-fitting satin shirts imported from France and Italy. The girls wore spaghetti-strap slip dresses, jumpsuits and crop tops. Everybody bought the latest disco records and cassettes so as to be up to date with the latest conversation and trends. Local radio stations held disco DJ competitions.
Just as the disco culture mutated into proto-hip-hop in the United States, Indonesia was not left behind. In 1985 the movie Gejolak Kawula Muda (“Youth Uprising”) hit the theaters, introducing the Indonesian public to breakdancing. And with this new incarnation of disco came new sounds: drum machines imported from Japan, synthesizers, influences from New Wave and synthpop. Young people could be seen toting boomboxes in the street, conducting B-boy battles in parking lots.
Another curious disco fad that took off in Indonesia was roller disco. The amalgamation of disco and skating had enjoyed brief popularity in the west in the late seventies and early eighties (with the change in tempo necessary to facilitate smooth skating to the music resulting in the new permutation of disco later known as “boogie”). However, it was only in the late eighties that roller skating became extremely popular in Indonesia, and roller skate disco parties along with it all over Jakarta and Bandung.
Western trends like this were common in Indonesia throughout the eighties. This was fine with Suharto in most cases, so long as Indonesians did not adapt the western culture of openly criticizing the government. In some cases, artists who flouted this rule found themselves in jail, or persecuted. An example of this would be singer Iwan Fals (regarded as the Bob Dylan of Indonesia) who in 1984 was arrested and interrogated for two weeks due to his popular protest songs. Other musical rebels were forced to go into hiding in the hinterlands of Indonesia. Such despotic tactics did strike fear into the populace and most musicians stayed far away from producing any material that even suggested anti-government tendencies, instead focusing on lighter subject matter like romance and having fun.