Pump up the new Punk

Despite risks from oppressive regimes, young people in Burma, Indonesia, Iraq and Russia are discovering the anarchic energy of punk rock.

world Updated: Mar 17, 2012 22:16 IST

Despite risks from oppressive regimes, young people in Burma, Indonesia, Iraq and Russia are discovering the anarchic energy of punk rock.

It's been a long time since the term "punk rock" could strike fear into the British establishment. The Sex Pistols' John Lydon - aka Johnny Rotten - was long ago transformed into a pantomimic national institution, and now advertises Country Life butter; it's 16 years since Tony Blair admiringly mentioned the Clash in a speech at the Brit awards.

The last few months, however, have brought news from abroad suggesting that in many places, punk's combination of splenetic dissent, loud guitars and outre attire can cause as much disquiet and outrage as ever. The stories concerned take in Indonesia, Burma, Iraq and Russia - and most highlight one big difference between the hoo-hah kicked up by punk in the US and Britain of the late 70s, and the reactions it now stirs thousands of miles from its places of birth. Back then, being a punk rocker might invite occasional attacks in the street, a ban on your records, and the odd difficulty finding somewhere to play. Now, if you pursue a love of punk in the wrong political circumstances, you may well experience oppression at its most brutal: torture, imprisonment, what one regime calls "moral rehabilitation" and even death.

First, then, to Iraq, and news that will surely warm the heart of anyone who still believes the US and Britain attacked that country to introduce it to the

wonders of democracy and tolerance. Last weekend, Reuters reported that at least 14 young people had been stoned to death in Baghdad, thanks to "a campaign by Shi-ite militants against youths wearing Western-style 'emo' clothes and haircuts".

For the uninitiated, "emo" is short for "emotional hardcore", and refers to a music and dress-code traceable to a variety of punk invented in Washington DC in the mid-1980s. In February, the Iraqi interior ministry said it equated "the 'emo' phenomenon" with satanism. One thing is definitely true: figures for emo-related killings are blurring into those for homophobic murders (put at up to 58 in the last six weeks alone), reflecting a widespread perception in Iraq that emo is a byword not just for devil-worship, but homosexuality.

In Moscow, a court ruling on Wednesday marked the latest chapter in the story of an all-female band called Pussy Riot, two of whom were arrested last month after they illicitly took over the pulpit in a Moscow church, and attempted to recite a "punk prayer" written in opposition to Vladimir Putin. Pussy Riot's music is scratchy, unhinged stuff that takes its lead from a fleeting genre known as riot grrrl - traceable, at least in part, to Washington DC, and brought to fruition nearly 20 years ago by such groups as Bikini Kill, and a British band called Huggy Bear.

"We somehow developed what [those groups] did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance," one band member called Garadzha Matveyeva has explained, "which leads to all of our performances being illegal - we'll never give a gig in a club or in any special musical space. That's an important principle for us." The band, who always perform in identity-concealing balaclavas, has a free-floating membership that can number up to 15 people - it amounts to "a pulsating and growing body", as Matveyeva sees it. This week, the two members who were arrested had their detention extended by six weeks.

In Burma, the country's punk rock milieu has been fomenting since around 2007, when musicians came together in brazen opposition to the country's ruling junta. Its most notable representatives are two bands, No U Turn, and the Rebel Riot, both of whom favour the mohicans-and-studs look de rigeur on the Kings Road circa 1980. The Rebel Riot are led by 24-year-old Kyaw Kyaw. His band and their fans though tolerated by the authorities, are regularly harassed by police; there are also suspicions that punk audiences are usually smattered with undercover police.

What all these stories highlight is the ongoing vitality of a musical form that, in its homelands, has tended to fall into self-parody. In the more placid environs of Copenhagen, an organisation called Freemuse - which claims to be "the world's leading organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians" - attempts to keep tabs on the persecution of musicians across the planet, and its programme director, Ole Reitov, is aware of the fact that punks seem to be disproportionately in the line of repressive fire. "You're seeing the same symptoms in all kinds of countries: it's a matter of what you do if you feel you're powerless," he says.

In December last year, a punk gig took place in Aceh, Indonesia, the "special province" of the country that has its own police force pledged to maintain sharia law. Supposedly because the event's organisers had forged official documents to gain the requisite permit, 64 of its attendees were arrested, and taken to a nearby detention centre, before being transported to a "remedial school" 37 miles away. There, their mohican hairstyles were forcibly removed because they were deemed "insulting to Islamic traditions". According to a police spokesman, the group was held there to "undergo a re-education, so their morals will match those of other Acehnese people". Demonstrations followed not just in Indonesia, but in London and San Francisco.

The story was the latest twist in the 20-year history of Indonesian punk, explained down a phone-line from Jakarta by 30-year-old Fathun Karib, a member of a punk-metal group called Cryptical Death, and author of a doctoral thesis on the subject. He puts the events in Aceh down to local politicians running for elections. "They use sending the punks to moral rehab to prove they're doing a good job," he says.

The first wave of Indonesian punk stretched from 1990 to 1995. The second Indonesian phase began in 1996, inspired by a US punk fanzine and record label called Profane Existence, and the British band Crass, who shared an essentially anarchist ideology. This development played into a sea change in Indonesian public opinion, as opposition to the Suharto regime - which fell in 1998 - hardened. A third phase, he says, saw the punk scene become "more international" - a development marked by a famous occasion when the Exploited played in Jakarta in 2006. And from then until now, punk rock has rooted itself across Indonesia.

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask him the inevitable question: what appeals to him about a music and subculture that will soon be 40 years old? His answer is spoken with the same passion you would have found in London during the hot punk summer of 1976. "It's simply an expression of freedom," he says. "It has those do-it-yourself values. And it's always opposed to the dominant culture. That's why people like it."

First Published: Mar 17, 2012 22:12 IST