As a musical genre reggae has always been noted for its tradition of lyrical social criticism, which is embodied in songs that talk about life, love , and the quest for identity that is to be found in the pursuit of freedom from the metaphoric ‘Babylon’ of ignorance to deeply rooted relationships of incongruity in society. By nature reggae music’s lyrics stands as an attempt to raise the political consciousness of the audience, such as by criticizing materialism, or by informing the listener about important subjects that includes the environment.
From an Asian standpoint, reggae finds itself at home in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia as the histories of so many Asian countries share the same plight to that of the country that birthed reggae –Jamaica, thus striking a sense of musical solidarity that transcends space, race and time.
Earlier I found myself sitting underneath an umbrella with Tony-Q Rastafara, who was gracious enough to offer me some insight to his life and music which he considers as his artistic expression of life in general.
Chuck: Is this your first time in Manila?
Tony: Yes. What’s interesting is that when we arrived in the airport yesterday we still feel like we’re in Jakarta, especially since we found ourselves immediately stuck in a traffic jam.
Chuck: Just like in Jakarta?
Tony: Yes like in Jakarta. (Laughs)
Chuck: I’ve also been to Jakarta; in fact I get the chance to go there at least 3 times in a year.
Tony: Really? Where do you go there?
Chuck: To the Greenpeace office there mostly, but I’ve also been to places outside Jakarta. Anyways, let’s start by telling me something about yourself....
Tony: I was born in Semarang, a little town located in Central Java, Indonesia, but I moved to Jakarta in the early 1980s, where I started out working in a factory a career that is very far away from music. After working there for a while I came to realize that what I am doing is not something that I want to do, it was not me, that’s when I decided to go for a career change to move from the factory to the music industry which is something that I am happily doing until now.
Chuck: I’m assuming that you learned guitar early on...
Tony: I learned it early on, like in high school partly because my father played the guitar also and he taught me a bit about playing the guitar and a lot of my friends, too were also into music. But I never really went to school to study music.
Chuck: We share a bit about music there you see I also play guitar in a band, I play in a punk band and I also did not have any formal music training I learned to play in high school mostly because I don’t know any sport so I decided to learn the guitar instead (laughs).
Chuck: How did you start out with your musical career?
Tony: Actually, if we will be talking about my career in reggae music, I started back in 1989 and now I have already released 7 albums and this December I will be releasing an 8th album.
Chuck: Do you have a permanent band that play with you or do you have like session musicians?
Tony: Actually, I used to have a band, but now my band is like they’re there as additional folks to play my music, because it allows me to have more freedom in writing songs, you see I just write songs that just pop into my head and I don’t know how to put those words into music so what I do is I just go to the studio and invite friends to jam over the song ideas and eventually they become songs.
Chuck: Nice. So early on are you already into reggae? What musical influences do you have apart from reggae?
Tony: I started with listening to you know Led Zeppelin and others.
Chuck: Classic rock?
Tony: Yeah classic rock. Up to now I am still fixated by rock music and blues. But I learned a lot of things from reggae music and I learned a lot from Bob Marley, I can identify with him. We share a lot of experience especially as struggling musicians. You see I started out my career as a street singer, and that pretty much was how earned a living for myself back then, the money I earned playing on the street was where I got my food and everything, and for me that represents a lot about the themes of real life that is explored in reggae music it is music about life and for me music became a means for survival back then.
Chuck: I think that’s how reggae music work its music about life and music from the streets brings us closer to what’s happening in reality.
Tony: That’s what I find really interesting about reggae music it talks about real life.
Chuck: And it’s also a way of life, it’s a lifestyle. So are you also into Rastafari?
Tony: Well, I’m interested in Rastafarianism, I can talk to people about it but, it’s a complicated thing for me you see, my family is Muslim and I grew up in that religion. But now I would like to believe that I’ve gotten sensible and now I understand religion as something that means many different things to many people and for me it’s basically about being ‘for life’. So now I see it in terms of how people view their religions in making their life good, you know...
Chuck: So for you religion is about how one understands and interprets life more than anything else?
Chuck: So in your music you tend to write about life in general, but do you specifically write about, issues like let’s say, the environment?
Tony: Well, as for my music I’m always inclined to talk about life, about love and the things that matter. You see in my country, I sense a great need for people to see connections, with their lives in terms of equality and making their lives better and also of the need to for them to learn from history. I hope my music will be also a means for education for the next generations to make better choices in the future.
Chuck: So you see your music as your contribution to a better world.
Tony: Yes. And I think that’s what separates us, like others do this thing for money, life sometimes bands just want to become popular, but I’m more interested in the art and in the way it functions as a way to educate. I don’t really care whether I become popular or not.
Chuck: So it’s more about contributing something...
Tony: Yes for me it’s about sharing something special, something important. I just want to make something that would matter about life and its lessons.
Chuck: It’s always good to remember the lessons of our past.
Tony: Yes we need everything to remember, the lessons for our people.
Chuck: How were you introduced to Greenpeace?
Tony: Actually I first got to meet Mark (our Philippine country representative), in 2003 or was it 2004 when the Rainbow Warrior came to Jakarta, and they came to a cafe where I was playing and they became interested with my music, they got in touch and then they asked us to play in the Rainbow Warrior and we played there and it was just us performing with lights and the ship as our background, it was really great.
Chuck: Apart from Greenpeace, you also do gigs with other groups?
Tony: For me I regard my music as a form of volunteering, something like a service that I give you knows no-commercial and as long as we both share the same vision.
Chuck: Do you also work with WALHI? (Friends of the Earth, Indonesia)
Tony: Yes WALHI, I know them and I know a lot of people there. We actually got to play a few months ago for them, for their 30th anniversary in Indonesia, together with other bands from Jakarta.
Chuck: I got news from Mark that you have a new song; please tell us more about it?
Tony: Yes I wrote a song in Bahasa, but I want to explain it in English which is kind of hard.
Chuck: Are you performing it tomorrow?
Tony: Yes. Later I’ll be rehearsing it with a Filipino band. Mark told me there are a lot of good reggae bands here, and last night we went out to a bar and the drummer of a band there was really good and when we got to talk he said that he lived in Indonesia for 5 years as a musician.
Chuck: What is the song about basically?
Tony: It's called The Earth Is Waiting? Its talking about rubbish and why jungles are now gone and about how people respond by asking why and blaming God whenever a disaster comes. Its people about asking: “why would God allow such things to happen?”
Chuck: While at the same time we also forget to ask ourselves.
Chuck: I’m actually excited to hear it.
Tony: Yes, sure (he gestures to his companion to show the English translation scribbled in his notebook)
Chuck: There will be a video wall in the concert tomorrow maybe we can project the lyrics.
Tony: Mark, last night told me about the plan when I will be singing they’ll project it on screen while I am performing.
Chuck: Maybe I can copy it later and then have it encoded in the notebook.
Tony: Yes sure, do you have a notebook with you?
Chuck: Yes I have one with me. (Gestures to show notebook) So have you gotten the chance to explore Manila?
Tony: Not yet. Because last night we arrived in the afternoon and then we went to the Greenpeace office, the hotel, the cafe and returned to the hotel at around 2AM. I am so tired from travelling, it’s like we’ve been awake for almost 24 hours now.
Chuck: It was a long day.
Tony: Yes a very long day...
Chuck: So you flew from Jakarta, and then stopped over at Singapore?
Tony: Yes and the waiting there is also really tiring and it’s quite a long trip.
Chuck: So how long will you be staying here in Manila?
Tony: I’ll be here until the 29th I don’t know yet what time is my flight. But I’m really excited about playing tomorrow.
Chuck: And you still have the 28th to explore Manila.
Chuck: The concert venue is also a great place to explore since it’s near to a lot of historic sites in Manila.
Chuck: Yes. Anyways in the concert we will also attempt to do a live broadcast of our concert online and then we’ll also have a live feed from Jakarta at around 10:30 PM here.
Tony: That’s good. It’s good and that’s the thing with working internationally technology enables us to get into broadcasting across countries.
Chuck: It’s really exciting.
Tony: That sounds good.
Chuck: Yes. Anyways I guess this is it it’s almost time for your practice. So I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow at the concert.
Tony: Yes. Good luck mate. See you tomorrow.