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Iwan Fals : Croonin' with a Conscience

Croonin' with a Conscience
IWAN FALS sings a timeless message of justice for all

Here's why iwan fals matters: because boy bands don't take on dictatorships. They don't stand up when everyone else is hunkering down. They don't put to song what others are afraid to put in print. Pop stars should give a damn—when they do, remarkable transformations are possible.

When Iwan Fals & Band held a benefit concert for flood victims last month in a Surabaya stadium, it was the group's biggest performance in more than a decade. Though the 40-year-old singer and songwriter Fals hasn't released an album since 1993, his face is still visible on the mud flaps of three-wheeled pedicabs and on street-side food stalls in the smallest of villages across the Indonesian archipelago. The fame of Iwan Fals lives on—especially in the hearts of the country's underclass—because his message will always matter.

In front of the stage in Surabaya, 13,000 fans—students, workers, the unemployed—are chanting "We want Iwan." At 7 p.m., the call is answered. Fals launches into Underneath the Flagpole, a foot-stomping favorite that sends the crowd into a frenzy. "We're all from the same blood so let's not argue/ We're all from the same bone so let's not separate," sings Fals, lyrics again apt in these times of ethnic and religious violence in Indonesia. "You remember these songs?" he shouts. The answer is a resounding "Yeah!" In the crowd, 22-year-old Ali, a waiter in mud-caked sandals and pants rolled up to his knees, says he's waited since he was a child to see his idol: "He's the voice of the people."

And he has been a thorn in the side of those who would abuse their power. In 1984, Fals was hauled in for a song that touched a nerve with the then Suharto regime. Mbak Tini (Miss Tini) told the story of a hooker who opened up a roadside coffee stall and married a truck driver hauling dirt. Problem is, the husband's name was Suharto and the wife was short and fat, not unlike the First Lady, Ibu Tien (Mrs. Tien). Fals insists that the song was not about the former First Couple. But he is as unconvincing now as he was then. Fals was confined to his hotel for two weeks while officials drew up charges of insulting the head of state—which could have led to jail. In the end, he was never prosecuted, but from that point on, Fals was rebel, hero and star all rolled into one. Today, there is no Suharto around to needle. But Fals' reminders to legislators not to sleep through hearings, and calls to fight oppression have never been more relevant. "He's always had courage," says pop singer Sophia Latjuba.

But he has mellowed. While Fals still writes music, he finds greater comfort painting abstract canvases and studying world religions. His growing introspection stems from the pain of the 1997 death of his teenage son, Galang. Fals' eyes turn red and watery when speaking about the boy, a talented guitarist who had just launched his first album at the age of 15. Fals was watching TV when Galang came home late one evening, said good night and went up to bed. "The next morning I found him unconscious," Fals recalls. He admits his son had experimented with drugs but insists his death was asthma-related. "Iwan changed a lot after Galang's death," says his wife, Yos. "He's looking to fill a void."

Fals is set to launch a new album and has just kicked off a 14-city tour. But he is wholly uninterested in the details, so much so that he's not even aware that an invitation has been extended to perform with U2, possible headliners at East Timor's gala independence celebration in May. Yos, who manages Fals' career, says the once-in-a-lifetime experience won't fit into their schedule. Her husband shrugs off the lost opportunity, but admits, "man, I bet the sound would have been pretty good." For Iwan Fals, the beat never stops. (Source : Time Asia) ***


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