Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)
Original broadcast on the BBC.
Cowboy hats and American country music isn’t exactly the image that comes to mind when most people think of the world’s most populous Muslim country, but Indonesians are shaking it up to line dancing and classic Nashville country tunes.
At the center of it all is Tantowi Yahya, Indonesia’s country music powerhouse. Not only a multi-platinum artist, he is also a widely popular TV host of the Friday night country music program, Goin’ Country. Millions of Indonesians tun in to hear local talent cover classic and traditional songs put to a honky-tonk beat. We go to Jakarta and hang out on the set of Yahya’s show to talk to a few cowboys and cowgirls to see what all the hoopla is about.
TRANSCRIPT: (The below is a transcript of the audio story. Be sure to click on the above link to hear the voices, music and sounds on-location.)
MARIA: On Friday nights, country music fans in Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta put on their cowboy hats and boots and kick up their heels to a country beat…
Tantowi says “Howdy and Apa Kabar (how are you)”… “Welcome back to Goin Country and Salamat Malam (good evening).” Crowd yells “Goin Country.” Sings “I like it, I love it.” (crowd hoots)…
MARIA: The Country Music Club of Indonesia boasts that 3,000 cowboys and cowgirls are signed up in the region to join in local line-dancing events. And at the center of it all is country music’s guru, Tantowi Yahya. Host of the live weekly TV program, Goin’ Country, he brings classic country hits to more than 20 million Indonesians who tune in regularly to hear local talent cover country classics and traditional songs put to a honky-tonk beat. He’s a Muslim and sees no reason not to enjoy this or any other kind of music.
Tantowi: What is Indonesia and what does it have to do with country music. I cannot blame them for that. There is no way that a place like Indonesia, being the largest Muslim country in the world. I can understand what they think. If you think “Country road take me home…’ we don’t have that here. We don’t have it, like it’s meant in the John Denver song, but we just like it. I mean there are so many songs that are not adaptable to the conditions here in Indonesia. But we don’t care. What we care is that the melody is nice. The music is harmonious. It creates the atmosphere of simplicity and honesty and sincerity. Those are the qualities not found in other music.
MARIA: Country music caught on like wild fire in 1960’s when songs like “ Your Cheating Heart” by Hank Williams became pop chart hits around the world.
Tantowi: In the 1960’s Economically, we were not very strong. We just got independence in 1945. Everything was just in the beginning pace. But, most of the people got a chance to listen to new songs through radio, through national radio, Australian radio, BBC, Voice of America. They turned their radios on and learned the songs. There are very few Indonesian writers that were not influenced by those songs. The songs that were composed that day were country songs. (sings) That is very country and it was very popular back in the early 1960’s, called Patah Hati, or “heart breaking,” the lyrics are the same as those of a country songs and the melody the chords and the twang.
MARIA: It’s this nostalgia for the old country music that brings fans out by the hundreds to sign up and be a part of the studio audience. Wearing a cowboy hat and silver sheriff badge pinned on his shirt, 62-year-old Tirta says he has always wanted to be a cowboy.
Cowboy1: I like cowboys. I like the cowboy lifestyle. I like the hat and the leather. Like in the movies. I always dreamed of being a cowboy. I like being a cowboy. I watch the cowboy westerns all the time.
MARIA: Tantowi Yahya feels the fans can easily relate to the music’s lyrics:
Tantowi: Back in the 1960s, in the early era of Indonesian pop music, the lyrics were dominated by pain and heartbreak and being left out. Being cast out. Exactly the same themes used by country music writers. And then, the melody. Most of the music in the early 1960’s were three chord songs, just like country music. So, when I was a kid, I used to sing “hello, darling, it’s been a long time…” and I didn’t know that it was a country song.
MARIA: These twang-y songs of heartbreak are a hit for the 50 and up crowd in Indonesia. 54-year-old Andreas swaggers around like a cowboy as he talks to his friend during a show break.
Cowboy2: Country music is in my soul. I like the hunting and a big motor bike, but I don’t have a horse, only an iron horse. Country music is my style. No choice, only country music. For me, cowboys are about friendship. Cowboys are good people. Supportive. Gentleman. Happy nice things. So, always about fun.
MARIA: Ester says that she likes line dancing with her friends every week, which has also become a club-like atmosphere for many who attend regularly.
Cowgirl1: I like country line dancing. It is different. It has a spirit in country. I make a lot of friends. Friendships. We are like family here. We go everywhere together. We go to other countries and other villages.
MARIA: For some Indonesian Muslims, like Heri, the party-like atmosphere that country music creates makes them feel uneasy.
Heri: Because before I learned my religion, I don’t care about anything. Can go to the discotheque. I can look at woman normally dressed. Now, I am learning the religion, I cannot look at the woman not normally dressed. If I look, it is bad. Not really good because not like the Muslim. It is normally, the Muslim cannot look at dancing like this. Uncomfortable, yeh. Because looking like many sex. Not in jilbob, looking breast. Not comfortable.
MARIA: But the fond sentimental feelings that many older Indonesians have towards these old country songs are leaving a lasting impression on young people who want to keep it going. For Rani Tofani, the lead singer of Sweet Hurricane, country music is part of her.
Rani: My dad really loved country music so much. Maybe it is genetic from my dad. I grew up hearing country music. Country and country and country music.
(Sings)“Help me make it through the night” Sammi Smith. He told me you have to sing it perfect. That is my favorite
MARIA ASKS DURING THE INTERVIEW: Why country music of all things?
Rani: A lot of love. My father really loved the lyrics of country music. Simplicity and honesty, that’s country music for me and my father. . I really love country music. I really love your country too. (laughs)