Looking back at the Indonesian Pussy Riot of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll

Space Four Zero owners Anthony Lefferts and Julien Poulson
Space Four Zero owners Anthony Lefferts and Julien Poulson Charlotte Pert

Looking back at the Indonesian Pussy Riot of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll

An exhibition celebrating all-girl Dara Puspita will launch Phnom Penh’s newest art space

With their catchy pop hooks, miniskirts and knee-high boots, Indonesia’s first all-girl rock ‘n’ roll band, Dara Puspita (Flower Girls), were adored by teenagers and despised by the country’s communist government.

“Dara Puspita were revolutionary,” said the Cambodian Space Project’s Julien Poulson, who is co-organising an exhibition about the band set to open at a new art space on Thursday. “Today, their story is considered iconic ‘femistory’ and, for music fans such as myself, they’re the greatest girl group of the 1960s.”

The four members of the band were all in their late teens in 1964 when they exploded onto the scene with their high-energy shows that had them jumping up and down, screaming-singing and bashing away at their instruments. While there had been plenty of female singers before them, their had never been an all-girl band who played their own instruments.

With a surf-pop go-go sound heavily influenced by the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, they were subject to harassment from the Sukarno government amid a crackdown on Western influences. While their lyrics were not political, their look, music and attitude were.

Dara Puspita were ‘revolutionary’
Dara Puspita were ‘revolutionary’ . PHOTO SUPPLIED

“They had an effect on the establishment akin to today’s Pussy Riot,” Poulson said.

After being put under house arrest for a month, they fled to Thailand, where they took a gig as house band at a club in Pattaya.

“President Sukarno was attempting to shun Western influence while looking for support from Soviet and Chinese communists,” Poulson said. “In Cambodia, the opposite was happening; Prince Norodom Sihanouk embraced and championed the modernisation of Cambodia and produced Western-influenced rock and roll and films and so on.

“Suddenly, this whole picture reversed. [In 1965] Sukarno was ousted by Western-supported Suharto in the bloody communist purges and Sihanouk, followed by Lon Nol, [were] pushed from power and influence by the Khmer Rouge. Somewhere amongst this bewildering political history is the story of Southeast Asian rock ‘n’ roll. Today, it remains a vibrant and affecting link to the past.”

Post-coup, Dara Puspita flourished in the less-repressive environment before heading to Europe for a three and a half years of touring and recording. They returned home to even greater popularity in 1971, but the years away had taken their toll and the group broke up not long afterwards in 1972.

“The Dara Puspita story bookends a time spanning 50 years of pop culture in Southeast Asia,” said Poulson, who has labelled the exhibition Dara Puspita: The Greatest Girl Group That N[ever] Was.

“It’s a story that maps the socio-political upheavals of the region – something that of course played out in Cambodia too – East versus West, the Cold War realpolitik of the era in which they began and how this affected great social changes across
the region.

“Also, Indonesian and Cambodian rock existed at the same time, so this exhibition is a way to present a story that’s not just local to Phnom Penh, but paints a picture of the region and the times.”

One of the prints in the exhibition Dara Puspita: The Greatest Girl Group that N[ever] Was
One of the prints in the exhibition Dara Puspita: The Greatest Girl Group that N[ever] Was. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The exhibition will include a selection of photographs given to Poulson by Dara Puspita’s drummer, Susi Nander, along with a series of limited-edition screen prints produced by the CSP-affiliated Sticky Fingers studio.

The opening will also be the launch of Space Four Zero – a converted shophouse in Street 118 that’s set to be ground zero for Poulson and company’s various art, music and film endeavours.

Poulson said the space – established with his business partner Anthony Lefferts – was intended to be an “art haus” with more flexibility than a formal art gallery, able to accommodate art exhibitions, live bands, spoken-word performances, forums and other events. It will also be home to a studio with equipment for sound and video recording and editing and a new record label, Chatomuk Records.

“The aim is really to create cool stuff that appeals to us as well as to create a hub for local artists. It’s a pop-art factory based in Phnom Penh and influenced by the environment we live and work in,” Poulson said.

The exhibition, which will head to Indonesia, Australia and the US after Phnom Penh, is only the start of Poulson’s plans to expose Dara Puspita to the world: He’s also planning to record a tribute album of their songs, and he’s filming a documentary about the band.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian Space Project are about to begin auditions and rehearsals in Kampot for a “rock opera” titled Hanuman Spaceman, which is due to premiere at the end of October, and the band’s new album Radio Cambodia will soon be the first release on Chatomuk Records. It’s hard to imagine how Poulson finds the time.

“It’s so much fun, I wish there was more time,” Poulson said.

“Most of this work has come via the Cambodian Space Project’s own surprising orbit, and travelling with CSP puts me in touch with other great stuff happening around the planet.

“At the same time, it makes me focus on why it’s so special to work locally in Phnom Penh and to produce work that is distinctly ‘made in Cambodia’, even when the subject matter is not necessarily Cambodian. We’re living and working in a vibrant new art scene and loving it.”

Dara Puspita: The Greatest Girl Group That N[ever] Was will open on Thursday at 6pm at Space Four Zero, #40 Street 118.

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