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Voice of Baceprot: Indonesia’s female metalheads get set for Glastonbury

In News, World
June 25, 2024

Medan, Indonesia – The Indonesian female metal band Voice of Baceprot are worried about their upcoming performance at Glastonbury in the west of England, but not because they’ll be playing in front of thousands in one of the world’s biggest music festivals.

Instead, they’re thinking about the weather and what they might eat.

The trio, made up of 24-year-old vocalist and guitarist Firda “Marsya” Kurnia, 24-year-old drummer Euis “Siti” Aisyah and 23-year-old bassist Widi Rahmawati, have never been to the United Kingdom before, and have been watching YouTube videos of the festival to prepare themselves.

“We have heard that it rains a lot in England and, even when it is not raining, it is always drizzling,” Siti says, looking pained.

They are also, she says with a grimace, “concerned about the food”.

Voice of Baceprot (VOB), which means “noisy” in Sundanese – a language spoken by about 15 percent of Indonesia’s 270 million people – will be the first Indonesian band to perform at Glastonbury, which gets under way this week.

For Siti it was the band’s “biggest dream” and a shock when the offer first appeared via email back in March.

“We thought that we would have to play other, smaller venues first, but we got the gig straight away,” Marsya said. “We are so excited.”

VOB was founded in 2014 in Garut Regency, a conservative region of West Java province, when the trio joined an extracurricular theatre group at school.  According to Marsya, their acting was “terrible” and, in an effort to bolster the girls’ spirits, their teacher suggested they try music instead.

At the age of 14, the girls picked up their instruments for the first time and began to learn how to play. They had never heard metal or rock songs before, but their teacher gave them his laptop and they discovered playlists filled with songs by bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Armenian-US heavy metal group System of a Down.

“It was then that we discovered metal,” Marysa said.

The women began playing at local music festivals and uploading their shows to Facebook where they quickly began to attract interest. They also posted covers of songs which also received positive reviews.

In 2018, they released their first single “School Revolution” which took on an unexpected life of its own thanks to social media.

“In 2019, there were demonstrations [by students protesting against changes to the criminal code] all over Indonesia and people would upload videos of the rallies with our song playing over the top,” Marsya said.

From that point on, the group became synonymous with music that resonated with Indonesia’s youth and tackled themes of female empowerment, environmental destruction and pacifism – with the trio singing in English, Indonesian and Sundanese.

Flourishing music scene

Indonesia is no stranger to heavy metal and outgoing President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, is known for being a fan of bands like Metallica and Megadeth.

The trio on stage at Wacken Open Air, a festival in Germany/ They are posing on stage. There is a huge crowd behind them.
The trio played Wacken Open Air, a heavy metal music festival in Germany, in 2022 [Courtesy of Voice of Baceprot]

The country also hosts the Hammersonic Festival – the largest metal music festival in Southeast Asia.

“Throughout its journey, the punk and rock scene in Indonesia has been greatly influenced by developments over time,” Mikail “Mike” Israfil, the lead singer of Indonesian punk band Marjinal, told Al Jazeera.

“Technology and modernity have had a big influence on the shape and development of the scene. The current challenge faced by artists is how to respond to change itself. What’s interesting is that the punk and rock scene in Indonesia is increasingly open, conscious of space and conscious of form, so that it is able to show its quality.”

Within this context, Israfil said, VOB “continues to bulldoze the boundaries of no class, no borders”.

Hikmawan “Indra” Saefullah, who played guitar in the Indonesian indie band Alone at Last from 2002 to 2013 and is a lecturer in Indonesian studies at the University of New England, told Al Jazeera that “the existence and achievements of VoB deserve appreciation”.

“The rock music scene in Indonesia has quite a long history and legendary bands and musicians. Unfortunately, in general, it has been dominated by male bands and musicians with few female performers, although back in the 1960s and 70s we had a legendary all-female rock band named Dara Puspita.”

With that in mind, Hikmawan described VOB as “the new generation of the Indonesian rock music scene”.

“They started their careers from the bottom, and developed dynamically. Their appearance wearing hijab [the Muslim headscarf] has not stopped them from continuing to play rock and metal music, even though many people have criticised them, especially from conservative circles.”

These “conservative circles” included the women’s own families, who were hesitant in the beginning.

Marysa’s parents banned her from playing music and, one evening when she came home late after performing at a festival, she found that she had been locked out of her house as punishment.

“I had to sit outside for hours before they unlocked the door,” she says, laughing at the memory.

In Widi’s case, her older sister did not want her to attend music festivals, telling her that she was “ruining her future” by playing metal music, a sentiment echoed by Siti’s family who branded her new musical career “an unserious hobby”.

But as the band’s fame grew, their families had a change of heart.

“It was when they saw us on local TV for the first time that they started to support us,” Widi said.

‘Moral responsibility’

The band get inspiration for their music from their personal experiences, and some of their songs are direct responses to the criticisms that women should not play heavy metal.

Siti, Marsya and Widi (left to right)/ They are dressed mainly in black with black headscarves. Widi is wearing denim overalls as well, while Siti and Marsya have added a colourful waist coat and jacket respectively
Siti, Marsya and Widi (left to right) were not originally metal fans.

Marysa’s favourite song is, What’s the Holy (Nobel) today, which she says is about ignoring haters and “surrendering to a higher power” while Siti favours their 2021 hit, the pointedly named, God allow me (please) to play music.

Before they go on stage, the band pray and spend time together as a trio without outside interruptions, something that Marysa said is important “to foster their chemistry as a band” – although they continue to have their differences.

Asked if they ever argue, the women collapse into giggles. They argue about many things, Marysa says, but usually these are trivial, such as what they want to eat for dinner.

The women lived together for three years in Jakarta from 2020 to 2023 before they split from their record label and became an independent band. When asked what prompted this decision, they answer in typical metal fashion.

“We are too wild and can’t be controlled,” Widi says with a laugh.

They are happy to be back in Garut, for now, where the weather is cooler and the atmosphere calmer than Jakarta, but becoming independent has also brought its own challenges. They have had to run their social media themselves and are also building a studio in Garut which needs to be project managed, in addition to planning a tour Indonesia, having previously toured in France, the Netherlands and the United States.

While they find life in Garut more peaceful in many ways, there has been pushback in the conservative regency, as well as online, with the women regularly receiving threatening messages. Are they concerned that people may actually hurt them?

“I’m very worried that it could happen,” Marysa admitted.

Once, when the vocalist was on her way home from band practice in Garut, someone threw a rock at her. She did not go to practice again for a week. Siti has also received hateful comments online, mostly in the form of body shaming, with trolls branding her “too short and too fat” and commenting on her skin.

“They said that, as an international musician, I should watch my diet, then they bullied me about my acne, saying that I should have the money to get it treated.”

When this happens, Siti talks to her bandmates about the comments.

“They usually tell me to ignore them and point out that the people making the comments are ugly too,” she said, laughing. “By the next day, I have usually forgotten about them.”

Widi said that trolls also like to attack her skills as a bass player.

“They tell me that there are many bass players who are better than me and ask why I am even bothering to play. Usually I reply and tell them that I am going to keep playing whatever they say.”

Marysa also points out the obvious sexism in the kinds of comments they receive. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has thousands of male rock, punk and metal bands who are never accused of doing something that is haram or forbidden in Islam.

“In Garut there are so many male bands and they never have any problems. It is so contradictive,” Marsya said.

When asked what the future holds for VOB, Siti’s message is simple.

“When I play music. It makes me happy and I can also support myself and my family financially. So it is such a positive thing for me. We will keep playing for as long as we can,” she said.

“I will play music until I don’t want to any more,” added Marsya.

The crowd at Worthy Farm in Glastonbury. There are lots of people in front of the stage. There are flags and pennants
Glastonbury features some of the world’s biggest names in music and the tickets sell out in seconds. Elton John headlined in 2023 [Jason Cairnduff/Reuters]

For now however, they are focusing on Glastonbury, and are planning on camping during the festival so they can fully immerse themselves in the atmosphere of Worthy Farm.

They are also busy designing their costumes for the show which will feature traditional fabrics from Garut and Indonesian motifs including the country’s crimson and white flag.

Within the vortex of controversy that has always surrounded the trio, the women are cognisant of the weight that comes with the June 28 performance.

“It is a lot of pressure and we feel a moral responsibility,” Marysa said.  “It is not just our name up there on stage, but our country’s as well.”

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