It’s the mid 1960s in Indonesia. A war has broken out with Malaysia in an attempt to break up the newly formed federation and ward off colonial rule, behind closed doors a mass genocide is being carried out against communist threats and left leaning minorities, and up until 1964 absolutely zero girl bands have been formed. As juxtaposition to the dark government regime of President Sukarno, the radio is filled with the same sugary ballads we still hear today when we hop into a taxi at just about any South East Asian airport. The soft lilting melodies of a crooning chanteuse are underpinned by jangling chimes and the sort of synthesizer that might otherwise be found on an answering machine. Western rock n roll music is banned across the country, and the nation’s biggest live act of the time, Koes Bersaudara, has been arrested for performing covers of The Beatles. Despite all the odds, the rumblings of rebellion have reached Surabaya and four teenage girls are playing their own instruments and bonding over illegal copies of iconic albums. And, by some wondrous twist of fate, Dara Puspita is born.
With a name that literally translates to Flower Girls, Indonesia’s first girl band was made up of sisters Titiek Adji Rachman on lead guitar and Lies Adji Rachman on rhythm guitar, as well as Titiek Hamzah on bass and Susy Nander on drums. Ani Kusuma briefly joined the group on rhythm guitar in 1965 when Lies left the to finish her schooling, before returning and resuming the original line up. With a sound more reminiscent of surf rock than the brit-laden releases of the era, and characterised by a deliciously lo-fi buzz, these four girls might just be some of the most under-appreciated names of the decade. On hearing iconic track A Go Go for the first time it is impossible not to wish for a time machine to transport you to the sweaty dance floor of one of their early shows. Rumour has it that screamed lyrics and writhing dance movements were par for the course, and it is surprising that they quickly garnered such a strong following in their home country.
Following early success, the band relocated to the capital of Jakarta in 1965 and soon gained a reputation for their energetic live shows (of which, sadly, we couldn’t find any video footage). Along with attention from fans, they attracted the unwanted eye of then-President Sukarno, who had previously declared western music to be a “form of mental disease.” After a month long interrogation and the arrest of contemporaries/friends/boyfriends from Koe Bersaudara, they sought safe haven in nearby Thailand. Bangkok provided not only a more forward thinking culture, but also a place to continue their musical endeavours. The quartet soon integrated Thai influences into their sound, including a rock version of the Thai folk song Puyaili and original song Pattaya Beach. Based on their short-lived self imposed exile, modern day comparisons see the band (perhaps hyperbolically) coined as The Pussy Riot of the 1960’s. Regardless, they were certainly trail blazers in the female rock movement.
After the Sukarno regime came to a bloody end in late 1965, the band returned to Indonesia and released their first LP Jang Pertrama. This was the first in a series of critically successful albums, most notably the 1967 thirty minute dance-a-thon A Go Go, including a stellar cover of the Bee Gee’s hit To Love Somebody (listen in full here). In 1968, the band decided to travel further afield to fulfil dreams of worldwide success and commenced a three year tour of Europe. Reception in the western world was lacklustre compared to what they had become accustomed to at home and at best they scored sets as an opening act for bigger names, with drummer Susy Nander commenting “no one will be sure to buy the record of the unnamed female band like us.” By the time they returned to Indonesia in 1971, relationships were strained and despite selling out crowds of over 23,000 people, they made the decision to disband in 1972.
Despite never fully reaching the recognition they deserved, the legacy of these four women with a rock n roll vision has continued to live on. We are able to hear their music due to a large reissuing of albums otherwise only available on limited vinyl through Sublime Frequencies, and experience a beautiful reimagining of album covers from Sticky Fingers Art Prints.
For me personally, I discovered this band in 2015 by recommendation from an eclectic friend, and some days I get so worried that wonderful music like this will be forgotten that I just have to write it down in the hope that one new person will hear it and love it. If that person turns out to be you, then today is a good day.
Check out the full discography here.
While you’re at it check out our interview with Spanish girl group Hinds on the eve of their stellar debut Leave Me Alone.