Rock ’n’ roll damnation

Marco Ferrarese

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Marjinal from Indonesia at Soundmaker Studio, Penang. Photograph : Cole Yew

In the darkened room at Soundmaker Studio in Penang, a band of Southeast Asian Muslims is playing on a rickety stage. They sound indistinguishably loud and heavy metal. They’re dressed in heavy army boots, black leather pants, black shirts, and the heavy leather jackets that the Ramones and Motörhead made famous around the world. Below them, on a floor filled with smoke and people, the temperature reaches 33°C. Thank God — or thank Satan — that inside the club there are a couple of air-conditioning units, or the whole band would simply melt on stage.

The singer has his face smeared with white makeup, two black pits of horror for eyes, and an inverted cross crudely painted on his forehead. He’s singing about crucifying the Christian God, about a black Satan, and other stuff that works with black metal’s imagery. But as soon as the last guitar chord reverberates from the rudimentary PA system, the band gets off stage, and one of the concert organisers announces a forty-five-minute break to allow for the Islamic afternoon prayers, before the next band can take the stage.

Back home in Europe, where I come from, this would ignite absolute horror. It would be seen as premature subcultural ejaculation. A threat to the integrity of the scene. But in peninsular Southeast Asia, where a thriving heavy metal and hardcore punk scene has existed almost since the moment it was born in the West (Malaysian band Blackfire, from Kangar, in Perlis, one of West Malaysia’s most Islamic states, started playing in 1982, at the same time Metallica and Slayer were taking their first steps), the nature of subcultures is shifting. Like the leather jackets and boots the band was wearing on stage, in Southeast Asia, subcultures can be easily shed. People can switch back and forth from the liminal mosh-pit, going back to wearing their everyday identities. And like it or not, they go back to respecting the societal chains that Western subcultures were born to break: religion, family, capitalism, development. Being part of a subculture, for most, remains a form of part-time employment.

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