The Indonesian trio Ali often get compared to Khruangbin. Much like the Texas group with a Thai name, Ali play a mostly instrumental hybrid of funk and disco – taking inspiration from the Middle East. However, unlike the Americans, the band of Arswandaru, John Paul ‘Coky’ Patton, Kevin Septanto and newest member Absar Lebeh grew up and live in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country with centuries of influences from Arab culture.
When asked about the comparison, Ali show self-awareness but also confidence.
“It’s not a problem. If anything it serves as motivation that that kind of music can reach places we didn’t think was possible,” bassist and vocalist Arswandaru says, “We have to admit that Khruangbin and Altın Gün opened the path, and now that we can see the rails, I’m confident that we will be in the same league as them.”
All the signs certainly point in that direction. Last month, the band played a sold-out showcase of their debut album ‘Malaka’ at the prestigious Gedung Kesenian Jakarta, a facility commonly reserved for opera or theatre. The band have also been announced for the line-up of Australia’s Meredith Music Festival this December, following up on their tour of the country in February.
But Ali realised their band had appeal abroad way earlier.
“November last year, a booking agent from Europe who we had never met sent a lot of money to fly us to Rennes and play one show, just so he could see us live,” Arswandaru recalls. “He made several phone calls and got us emergency visas. It was crazy how serious they were, even though they only listened to one single.”
It was a turning point for the band, which had started as a fun, casual side project, to start taking things more seriously.
Drummer Coky and Kevin have always been, and still are, busy with their main bands: Kelompok Penerbang Roket and Elephant Kind respectively (Absar, who has since replaced Kevin as Ali’s guitarist, also plays in The SIGIT). Both wanted to start a music project from ground zero, and Arswandaru completed the line-up.
Initially playing garage punk, the band switched up their sound thanks to Arswandaru’s Middle Eastern-styled basslines, something he picked up from playing as an additional member for the Bandung-based psychedelic rock act, Mooner. The band naturally pivoted as the trio discovered their shared interest in that sound.
Before Ali released anything, the band would post playlists of their influences on Instagram. Altın Gün, Hamid Al Shaeri and Ahmed Fakroun were among the names featured on their very first Instagram post in April 2020, which had its location cheekily set to Yemen.
“The playlists shaped our collective references, even though many people mistakenly thought Ali was a media [publication] or something,” Arswandaru says laughing, referring to the fact that Ali didn’t post a band picture until over a year later.
Judging from these playlists, the band are obviously fans of older eras of music, which comes through in their album ‘Malaka’ both in musical style and production.
“I love ’60s and ’70s music. For me all music from those times are appealing,” Coky says, citing “the recording, the early synthesizer, the distinct drum and bass sound”.
The album’s opener and Ali’s very first single, ‘Dance, Habibi’, is a fun, groovy track with memorable guitar lines and chants in Arabic. ‘Malaka’ offers funky basslines, busy percussion and Middle Eastern guitar scales, while ‘Shoreline Transit’ opens with the sound of gentle waves crashing before wah-heavy guitars take over.
There’s something ‘tropical’ about Ali’s sound and presentation. Perhaps it’s the swirling blue water on the album cover or perhaps it’s the themed song titles such as ‘Crystal Sand’, ‘South East’, or ‘Grand Voyage’.
“Khruangbin serves as motivation that that kind of music can reach places we didn’t think was possible” — Arswandaru
Ali have certainly tried to paint a cinematic picture with the album, particularly of a hot summer on the beach.
“It would probably work as a score to a light love-drama movie set in Lebanon,” Coky says.
“Or something like Call Me By Your Name would work too,” Arswandaru adds.
So it’s fitting that Ali’s very first live performance took place at a beach club in Bali, which was received very well by the dance-ready crowd. The band’s sparse vocals means listeners get to focus more on the ‘vibe’ of the music and its groove – a big part of Ali’s appeal.
“We want to make background music, with the groove at the forefront, while the guitars act as a topping,” Arswandaru explains. “Plus, Arabic singers are ridiculously good, so it’s not like we would be able to do it justice.”
Nevertheless, the band gave their best effort with the Arabic vocals and lyrics with the help of Abdul Kadir, Arswandaru’s neighbour and friend from Yemen and a native speaker of Arabic.
“Arabic is similar to Indonesian in the sense that the conversational language and the language used in lyrics and literature is quite different,” Arswandaru says. “So I always ask Kadir to fix the grammar, and whether it sounds natural for him.”
The Middle Eastern and Southeast Asia connection is also explored through the band’s album title. ‘Malaka’ references the Malacca Strait, a stretch of water through which Arab merchants sailed to access the Malay Archipelago, including the islands that now make up Indonesia today. Centuries later, influences from Arab culture and the Middle East can still be felt in modern Muslim-majority Indonesia, from borrowed Arabic words to similarities with Melayu music.
Arswandaru calls the connection “subliminal”, citing traditional music in areas in Indonesia like Java and Sumatra which uses “somewhat similar scales to Middle Eastern music”.
Some Indonesian acts who play more commercial music have also dabbled in the sound, even back in the ’60s, with artists such as Adikarso and later on, rockers like AKA and Ahmad Albar.
“What we’re doing is nothing new. Perhaps the concept is fresh, but it’s definitely not a new sound,” Arswandaru argues. “Cultures are passed down and filtered through different lenses until perhaps it becomes what we hear as Melayu music.”
“Our album would probably work as a score to a light love-drama movie set in Lebanon” — Coky
‘Malaka’ was released on vinyl, courtesy of Anukara Records, with 500 copies already completely sold out at this point. No wonder: Ali’s warm, vintage sound is a wet dream for a certain segment of record collectors who prize traditional music from other, ‘exotic’ continents. The band’s Indonesian origins and unique Southeast Asian bent also sets them apart from other Arabic music, though the band’s Indonesian identities aren’t always immediately obvious in Europe: when Ali went to France, their liaison officer mistook them for Tunisian immigrants.
Khruangbin and Yin Yin, a Dutch band that take inspiration from East Asian music from the ’60s, have faced accusations of cultural appropriation. Ali have yet to be drawn into this debate, but insist they have a right to play the music they write.
“I think we’ve earned the right, after hundreds of years of cultural assimilation,” Arswandaru says firmly. “That should be a good enough explanation.”
“If we want to involve our egos in this, we probably have more rights than Khruangbin to play some of their material,” he continues, half-laughing. “But they are the better musicians and they did it first.”