When I invite my girlfriend to an evening in the karaoke bar, she is excited and anguished at the same time,” says Alitt Susanto, taking deep drags from a fancy cigarette atomiser. A fruity flavour wafts around us. “She doesn’t know whether I’ll be singing about love and longing. Or leaving.” The silver haze is quite atmospheric, something like what Rhett Butler might have stepped out into after the famous “Frankly…” Susanto, a bestselling author and vlogger from Indonesia, cloaked his purple prose of love in celluloid wizardry, which won the attention and affection of his partner. They both travel a lot on work. “The tables are turned when she takes the mic,” he grins.
I was exposed to the Indonesian love for singing and showcase singing, karaoke, when I stepped out of Jakarta airport. A video screen folded down behind the driver’s cabin of the luxury bus as we began our journey to Sabang. Everybody was taking photographs through the window; those who weren’t taking photographs were shooting videos. Those who had done both were busy editing, readying their next social update. I sat, a muggle, fixated on the screen on which lyrics popular appeared.
The lines scrolled over home-shot videos, mostly featuring a single white girl walking barefoot on a beach, doffing her frock for a bikini and walking into the sea, regardless of where the song was going. No sound as there was no line out; provided if anybody wanted to sing along. “We even have a headphone output for the serious singer,” the driver told me. This allows the singer to listen to the music without outside distractions and not miss a beat.
It is Yunita Zahara’s job to know Jakarta like the back of her hand, which she does as she works with an international relocation solutions provider. Accompanied by a common friend, we went to a karaoke bar on my second evening in Jakarta. By then, I had heard enough to be significantly piqued.
“The youth of Indonesia are under a lot of pressure,” says Valiant Budi Yogi, an award-winning author and travel blogger. “Karaoke bars are the cheapest and fun way of venting all that pent up steam.” Private rooms—the one which I hired for 100,000 Rupiah (`510) per hour—and single floored bars were not within reach of the common lot. So enterprising Indonesians started mobile karaoke bars, fitting their cycle rickshaws with sound systems and video screens.
The karaoke bar at Sarinah Mall, which Yunita had found for us, had it all. The only thing limiting your access to songs were your knowledge of them. The strobe light was after an annoyingly fast spider. But Yunita sang so beautiful that I cried. I took her hand and looked closely at them. I told her I always wanted to see how a great singer’s hands looked like. She blamed the Bintangs and said coyly, “All Indonesians sing very well.”
Staggering back to the hotel after three hours at the karaoke bar, we were hungry. We stopped by a roadside food stall exhibiting an array of meat and fish dishes. Two heavily tattooed youngsters took our jukebox requests. In Indonesia, these folks are called pengamen. You can see them ambling about food markets and crowded areas with a guitar and sometimes a drummer companion; 5,000 Rupiah for three songs. But you can pay more.
“It’s a very rare Indonesian who doesn’t sing,” says Indra Widjaya, a popular vlogger who wrote a blockbuster novel about his not making it to the top league in Indonesian Idol. “In Indonesia we sing not just to convey love but even anger, some simmering resentment or even a way out of an ongoing feud.”
“We grind away all our blues at the karaoke bar,” says Vika Fitriyana, celebrated television anchor. “Whatever your problems, there’s nothing which won’t go away if you sing two more songs or dance an hour more.”
It’s not all singing and dancing at the karaoke bar. Asking for karaoke bars in Bali I had to contend with offers of girls. And boys. ‘Any type’ and all ages. Honky tonk blues, to borrow from an old Rolling Stones song.