The World Through Music and Culture

Iwan Fals: The Voice of Social Justice in Indonesia

Iwan Fals at a recent concert in Bali, Indonesia. (Photo by Niall Macaulay)

Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)

*Original story broadcast on The World (PRI/BBC).

The late 1990s was a time of upheaval in Indonesia. The government of President Suharto was marked by widespread corruption and severe restrictions on civil liberties. Just as the US in the 1960’s had musicians who helped forge the anti war movement, Indonesians were inspired by a singer songwriter named Iwan Fals. Often referred to as “Indonesia’s Bob Dylan,” Fals’ music is still serving as a voice against social injustice. Maria Bakkalapulo reports.

For the full story, click here – THE WORLD / Iwan Fals

52-year-old Yanwar lives on the streets of Jakarta. He says Iwan Fals' music pushes the government to do a better job. (Photo by Niall Macaulay)

52-year-old Yanwar lives on the streets of Jakarta. He says Iwan Fals’ music pushes the government to do a better job. (Photo by Niall Macaulay)

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.)

In Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of Iwan Fals. 52-year-old Yanwar, who prefers not give his last name, lives on the streets selling discarded plastic bottles to recyclers. He says Fals’ music sings out against political corruption. “I like Iwan Fals because the music and the lyrics criticize the people who work in the government so those people could be better,” says Yanwar. “So they could do a better job compared to now.”

For many Fals is the voice of Indonesia’s discontent — even today, he’s a constant critic of the government. His sound and subject matter is reminiscent of early Bob Dylan. Fals is 51 today. He has produced 30 albums and has a new one on the way. His music covers everything from government corruption to underpaid teachers — as well as pollution and love. Fals started performing when he was only 13. “When I was school age,” Iwan Fals explains. “I started playing music in the streets to make a little extra pocket money. I could see a lot of what was happening while on the streets. I would write songs about these things that I found interesting. I would stop by my friend’s stall and read the newspapers he sold. There were so many stories that I would read about, and would inspire me to write songs.”

At a recent show in Bali, Iwan Fals played three hours straight to a mostly young crowd. “Bento” is a protest song about a greedy man flaunting his wealth. Although his music is often sung during protests, Fals says he likes to sing about things other than politics. “From the beginning until today, I’ve never wanted to be boxed into doing a certain type of music, whether it was political, social, environmental or love songs,” says Fals. “I just want to fill my life and my time with music and songs. But I never like to see people treated badly, that is why my songs are the way they are.”

Back in central Jakarta, at a railway station coffee stall, Andy Chandra is playing chess. He first heard Iwan Fals’ music 20 years ago. He says the music depicts the social inequality many Indonesians face today. “So basically I like the Iwan Fals because it is very promise with the grassroots and government also hate his songs because his songs are very strong to pushing the reforms,” Chandra says. “Talking about the social activities. Many problems with our grassroots, he sings songs are about our reality. He is a nice man. We need many like Iwan Fals. We like it very much. All Indonesia love Iwan Fals. We need more Iwan Fals in Indonesia.”

Fans like Chandra say that Fals gives people like him a voice. Even though Indonesia’s economy is on an upswing, the rift between rich and poor is growing. The lyrics that spoke to people more than a decade ago are still having an impact.

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