Koes Bersaudara

Koes Bersaudara 1967: To the So Called "the Guilties"

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One doesn't hear much about British Invasion-style pop groups from Indonesia in the mid-'60s, and the story of Koes Bersaudara offers a good explanation why. Koes Bersaudara translates as "The Koes Brothers," and they indeed featured four brothers -- Koestono Koeswoyo (nicknamed Tonny, lead guitar), Koesnomo Koeswoyo (nicknamed Nomo, drums), Koesyono Koeswoyo (nicknamed Yon, rhythm guitar and vocals), and Koesroyo Koeswoyo (nicknamed Yok, bass guitar and vocals). The brothers became rock & roll fans in the '50s when the music began to hit the Indonesian airwaves through Voice of America, and they and formed a vocal group in the style of the Everly Brothers. But even though the Koeswoyo Brothers were hardly the only kids in Jakarta who fell hard for the Beatles, letting folks know you were a Fab Four fan could be dangerous. Indonesian President Sukarno was openly hostile to the influence of Western pop culture and harbored a special hatred for the Beatles; when a high-ranking Naval officer hired the brothers to play his daughter's birthday, their version of "I Saw Her Standing There" sparked a violent melee that led to them spending three months in jail. Given this, it's remarkable that Koes Bersaudara were able to cut two 10" albums for a major Indonesian label in 1967, and an even bigger surprise is how good they were. Sublime Frequencies have collected 21 Koes Bersaudara tracks on the album To the So Called "The Guilties" (named for one of their original albums), and while the recording quality is sometimes primitive, the performances are splendid -- Tonny was a fine lead guitarist, Yon and Yok's harmonies are excellent throughout, the band was tight and played Western-style rock with confidence and skill, and the songs, while in Indonesian, can often pass for lost gems of the Beat era. The album opens with material from Koes Bersaudara's second and more accomplished album, which is significantly more energetic and rocks harder; the earlier material shows more of a contemplative folk-rock bent, through the songs and performances are still quite impressive. Once you get past the language barrier, Koes Bersaudara sound significantly more "Western" than most Asian rock groups of their era, but if these guys didn't work much of their nation's musical heritage into their rock & roll, they certainly let their experiences inform tunes like "Poor Clown" "Di Dalam Bui (In Jail)," and "Balada Kamar 15 (The Ballad Of Room 15)," and this is music that speaks powerfully of its time and place while sounding very cool to boot.

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