E25: Electronic Nationalism

Episode 26: Electronic Nationalism

Can expression of nationalism be offensive? For the 23-year-old Indonesian music maker and producer, Alffy Rev, the answer is affirmative. 

Awwalur Rizqi Al-Firori, or also known as “Alffy Rev”, picked up his first musical instrument at the age of 10. His interest in arts led him to study music and film formally. He always wondered why Indonesia’s national songs that are rich with noble values are only played for ceremonial purposes, not as accessible as pop music and its inklings. So, spending time in his home studio at the outskirts of the capital city Jakarta, Alffy arranges and produces remixes of traditional Javanese orchestra, Indonesian national songs, and even the national anthem into versions which he believes would be attractive to Indonesian youths. 

Within a relatively short period of time, his works have gained national attention. In early 2018, he played alongside the hugely popular American DJ and music producers –The Chain Smokers. Alffy does not think in limits. For example, Alffy prepared a demo theme song for the Asian Games a year before the event took place but ultimately, never received any response. So he decided to produce the music video on his own. Bringing along a large team with bands and an orchestra to shoot a video on the top of a mountain, which he believes symbolizes determination and perseverance, he then submitted the completed work once again. His effort came into fruition when they finally selected him to play for the closing ceremony of the event. After the gig at the Asian Games, possibly one of the biggest and most successful international events that Indonesia has ever hosted, he was asked to produce 12 theme songs for the country’s national airline Garuda as part of their official airplane take-off and landing soundtracks, all of which you can hear today on-board. 

You can almost tell that a song is Alffy Rev’s work by his signature touches: the gamelan score mixdown with enchanting strings, the uplifting beats, and everything about Indonesia captured in its music video. For instance, he has produced a remix of Tanah Airku, a national song about the unmatched beauty of the homeland. The song features Indonesian traditional orchestras and vocals by Brisia Jodie and Gasita Karawitan and has been played on YouTube over 13 million times. 

With a mission to make an even greater contribution to Indonesia, he then decided to produce a remix of Indonesia Raya, the Indonesian national anthem and released it on the Independence Day, which is on August 17. The song was different from previous  rearrangements: it kicks in with a solemn hymn-like tone before escalating to the uplifting fusion of EDM (electronic dance music) and traditional gamelan instruments that Alffy is well-known for. It was also accompanied by a beautiful video which included various ethnicities, people wearing traditional clothes and shot in exotic locations in Indonesia. However, some people were deeply upset about it, saying that his remix was degrading and disrespectful. Some critics even went to say that he violated a 2009 law which prohibits the lyrics or arrangement of the song to be modified, disrespected, or used for commercial purposes. He later formally apologized and removed the video from his Youtube channel.

The line between an acceptable and unacceptable form of the freedom of expression can sometimes be tricky, especially when the expression is one of nationalism and patriotism. The national anthem itself is a symbol of struggle and unity of the nation. This symbol, similar to the Garuda or Pancasila which symbolize the foundational principles of the state, are greatly important for the creation of the Indonesian national identity and carries a uniting power to this date. So on the one hand, it is reasonable for some, perhaps the older generation, to view the works as outright offensive. On the other hand, Alffy Rev’s motivation for these works was not at all to disrespect or to make fun of the songs. If anything, he just wanted to contribute to displaying Indonesia’s finest local culture and arts and make himself a living proof of how Indonesian youths possess great talents and strong sense of nationalism. 

The mainstreaming of national songs and the anthem may sound radical to many Indonesians. While the rearrangement of the Indonesian national anthem is not novel, perhaps his version is more conspicuous because his sounds very different from the original spirit of the song –the strong march rhythm and, of course, EDM-free melodies. However, reproducing the national anthem and other national songs into versions that are more suitable for mainstream platforms cuts off that association that these songs are mere nostalgia of the old stories and past struggles, to be performed strictly at national celebrations and special state ceremonies. Mainstreaming these songs, arguably in ways that enhance the quality of the song, allows the messages and impact of the songs to come through more easily to the youths, the very group of people whose sense of national pride needs to be cultivated the most. 

Whichever side you are on, these radical nationalistic and patriotic expressions can be easily identified and many of them remain to be stigmatized for how they understand their national identity and manifest their national pride. Students who studied and remain to work abroad, artists and writers who create artistic and academic works of some of Indonesia’s most controversial histories, or an everyday guy like Allfy Rev mixing national songs and EDM beats on his Launchpad are just few examples that showcase this seeming dilemma. Whichever side you are on, these radical nationalistic and patriotic expressions seem like they are not going to be out of trend anytime soon. 

This article is based on a recent episode of the Indonesia In-Depth podcast. You can enjoy his works and full story on our latest podcast episode: Electronic Nationalism, through the link above.

IdeasShawn Corrigan