Why Jakarta has the coolest jazz scene in South East Asia

I’m standing in a hot, cramped toilet cubicle in Jakarta while a man I’ve just met fiddles with something behind the toilet cistern. Seconds later, the entire back wall swings open and I step into Jakarta’s most popular jazz club.

Prohibition Asia is a speakeasy that looks, feels and smells (you can smoke in bars here, and cigars are the indulgence of choice) like a bar Sinatra might have propped up in his heyday. One wall has been covered with a mural depicting a pistol-toting, fedora-wearing wise guy, and the bare bulbs dangling above the bar, with its leather seats and backdrop of artfully exposed brickwork, give the room a golden glow. 

“We’re going for a 1920s vibe,” says wonderfully dapper food and beverage manager Kenny Riyanto. “This includes the drinks – we’ve got lots of prohibition-era cocktails, such as negronis.”

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I’m in town for Jakarta’s Java Jazz Festival – an odd concept for a country more famous for its beach parties. But jazz is huge in Indonesia, and the festival celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. 

The majority of Asia’s best jazz musicians hail from Indonesia. Take Joey Alexander, an Indonesian pianist whose album topped the global jazz charts within a week of its release in 2015 (Joey was 11 at the time), or the late Bubi Chen, regarded as the godfather of Indonesian jazz. He honed his craft with the help of a two-year stint in America under the tutelage of pianist Teddy Wilson, who regularly accompanied Billie Holiday. 

Why Indonesia? There are various theories. Many claim better access to the internet (Indonesia has always had strict laws relating to censorship of online content) has exposed Indonesian music fans to a wider range of genres than ever before.  

“We’ve got 34 provinces and each one has its own music style,” says Anwar Sani, whose jazz band is topping the bill at Prohibition Asia tonight. 

“Indonesians love music, whether it’s blues, rock n’ roll or jazz.” Anwar’s favourite jazz musician is the late Chet Baker, but we bond over a shared love of Brit pop band Suede, while manager Kenny reveals a soft spot for punk band Rancid. 

Similarly, the packed line up at Java Jazz – there are 11 stages – is nothing if not diverse. Jamie Cullum, Dionne Warwick and Joss Stone have all headlined. But so have Sting and the Goo Goo Dolls – a reminder that organisers are all too aware that tickets to jazz events sell quicker when there’s a more mainstream name chucked into the mix. It’s a tactic used by Prohibition Asia, too, although Kenny admits he gets frustrated with certain requests. 

“The most common ones are Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars,” he groans. It’s a careful balancing act. “We have to compromise,” admits Anwar. “We’ll play Bruno Mars if someone requests it, but we’ll mix it up by playing a funked-up or acid jazz version.”

Over at the festival site, The Soul Rebels are taking to the stage. This New Orleans-based brass ensemble are known for their mix of jazz, blues and funk, and they’ve collaborated with everyone from Metallica to Green Day and Snoop Dog. Their set is brilliant, and includes jazzed-up versions of hits like Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams and The Outhere Brothers’ Boom Boom Boom. They’ve played here before and know how to work the audience perfectly, at one point getting them to side-step back and forth in perfect unison. 

“It always feels like the first show here – the energy’s always amazing,” says snare drummer Lumar Leblanc backstage. “There’s so much appreciation – perhaps because they don’t get as many opportunities to see bands like ours perform live.”

Side-stepping neatly back and forth might sound like a strange way to show appreciation, but less so here. Audiences seem more polite and orderly. Maybe it’s the lack of alcohol – Indonesia is a Muslim country, and although alcohol’s available, festival-goers’ beverage of choice seems to be drinks produced by the sponsors. Polystyrene plates of spicy rendang are typically washed down with iced tea from Teh Botol, and milk drinks from Indomilk. 

Later that evening I head to one of the largest stages to watch Grammy-nominated jazz singer Gretchen Parlato (daughter of Dave Parlato, Frank Zappa’s bassist). Thousands of people fill the venue, although most are sitting cross-legged on the floor in neat lines. I can’t help but feel it must be slightly unnerving for foreign artists. Barring The Soul Rebels, who’ve played here before, the Indonesian acts seem much better at working the audience. The brilliant Saxx in the City, Indonesia’s top saxophone act, are a case in point. “Indonesian fans are slightly more passive,” admits the band’s Nicky Manuputty. “They’ll sit and listen, but in their hearts they’re going absolutely crazy!”

And never more so than on the festival’s final night, when I head to the main stage to see American soft rock band Toto strut their stuff. They might not appeal to the thousands of hardcore jazz fans who’ve come to the festival, but for others, they’re the main event, and as a result, thousands more Indonesians have been introduced to the wonderful world of jazz. And there’s something rather surreal – and quite cool – about being in the front row of a Jakartan jazz festival, watching thousands of Indonesians go absolutely bezerk as Toto belts out Rosanna – albeit a jazzed-up version. The entire audience seems to know every song, word for word. This includes the beautiful hijab-wearing woman next to me, who’s happily head-banging away. The late, great Bubi Chen would be proud.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Singapore from £447 return. Air Asia flies from Singapore to Jakarta from around £100 return.

Staying there 

Double rooms at the recently-opened Alila Jakarta from £185, B&B.

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