KARINA UTOMO: My voice, my weapon.
Growing up between Canberra and Jakarta, Karina Utomo felt the cultural jolt of both cities, each with their contrasting experiences of fear, war, death, boredom, safety, creativity and education.
Known for her dynamic vocal ability Karina Utomo's roar is more than an expression of power and rage, as she fronts extreme metal band High Tension. Karina Utomo's voice is a weapon, used to fight against cultural and traditional repressing silence that looms over the quiet history of Indonesia.
MEET KARINA UTOMO
KARINA UTOMO. I moved to Canberra, Australia, with my family when I was seven-years-old.
THE PIN. Where were you born in Indonesia?
KU. In Jakarta, so it was a real contrast because Jakarta was a city of 8 million people back then, and it’s probably close to 10 million now. So, going to Canberra in the middle of winter was...
… a shock to the system…
KU. I think that’s why I prefer living in Melbourne. Canberra is a beautiful city, however, the over-planning and the scarcity gives the place a very quiet and sterile feel. It felt rather isolating when we arrived, both the very different environment and not speaking a word of English contributed to this adjustment. Even watching cartoons was frustrating for me because I had just come from a country that, at least, had subtitles for shows that I couldn't understand.
We had moved to Australia because my father received a scholarship at the Australian National University (ANU) and then, eventually, my mum completed her doctorate as well. So, we stayed for an extended period and lived in an area where all of the ANU families lived. Our neighbours came from Samoa, Poland, Russia and India; people from all over the world in the same place, going through a similar experience, on one street.
Did you live in Canberra your whole life?
KU. I lived in Canberra until I was in high school, and then our family moved back to Jakarta, in 1998. When I went back, I didn’t attend school for the first six months of the year because of the different schooling systems between the two countries. I did go to "lessons", with the intent of easing back into Indonesia's comparatively much more intense education curriculum. "Lesson" was after-school tutoring that involved many kids from other schools.
In hindsight, I can say that 1998 was a truly terrible year to move back to Indonesia. Politically, it was an extremely tumultuous time in the country, with the end of the 31-year, extremely corrupt, Suharto reign. The country was feeling the impact of the international monetary crisis. I will never forget 12 May 1998 when the riots and mass violence happened. At 14-years-old, I can clearly remember a lot of Chinese/Indonesian-owned businesses getting burned down, along with their houses. The city was literally going up in flames.
A few weeks before the riots started in Jakarta, we saw one of the tipping points in the socioeconomic divide. People were going into a panic when those who couldn’t afford to buy up staple items from stores, like bags of rice or oil, became desperate. It was a complex situation that caused a lot of pressure and turned people to a mob-like mentality. Plus, the rapid spread of misinformation drove people to resort to looting and rash violence.
At this time in your life, did your family try to keep a sense of normalcy around your life?
KU. Yes, our life was normal, our neighbourhood was safe, we were very lucky. However, everybody around us was constantly talking about politics – you could not switch off from what was happening. Even as a 14-year-old, my friends and I were constantly talking about politics, feeling genuinely concerned and fearful. People had started to "go missing".
Four university students were shot and killed during a peaceful protest on 12 May 1998 (one of them, was an alumnus from my high-school). There were a lot of demonstrations that lead to people being "silenced" for participating, leading up to the end of the Suharto era*.
*and since the mid to late 1960’s but, that’s another piece of brutal history.
Was it hard returning to Indonesia after being in Australia?
KU. I definitely struggled with adjusting, after having had a taste of the Australian education system, with how much it fostered creative freedom and critical thinking. I became utterly frustrated at school in Indonesia and missed the auto-didactic method of learning in Australia. One of the teachers at my high school in Jakarta still practiced physical punishment as well; I was physically punished a few times in my first few months of adjusting.
I remember the teacher, who taught ‘Bahasa Indonesia’, berating me for using incorrect Indonesian grammar during class. He also berated me for living in Australia, and for forgetting my own language, and made me stand at the back of the classroom on one leg, for about an hour. I remember it so clearly. The dagger in the heart was when he basically said, 'you’ve betrayed your own country by not knowing how to speak your language’. I had spent the previous years trying to learn perfect English so that I wouldn’t be berated in Australia, so it was an ironic situation! [laughs]
I haven’t told many people that story.
You would think that the culture shock would come from moving away to Australia, but the shock was moving back to my own country.
How much longer did you stay in Jakarta after the May 1998 riots?
KU. We stayed there for another couple of years, I had to finish year 9 and do these big exams that tested three years worth of high school knowledge. I did about twenty subjects, each had 40-50 multiple-choice questions per exam and most of my time was spent studying. Indonesian schooling is very harsh and competitive. My parents were worried that I wouldn’t be able to achieve in the Indonesian curriculum because I had become accustomed to the process of learning in Australia. To their astonishment, I was ranked in the top three in my year. I loved learning, and I am also very competitive, which worked in my favour. It was a really nice surprise that for working hard and achieving a high rank, my mum decided to get me a gift, and that’s when I got my first acoustic guitar. That’s when I started making music.
Did songwriting with your first guitar give you a sense of freedom?
KU. In a way… music has always been an important aspect of Indonesian culture, especially in my family. Traditional dancing and other artistic practices are important aspects of our Javanese culture. Growing up though, these artistic practices were not really seen as anything more than a hobby (I come from a very academic family). As a teenager, I really enjoyed personal songwriting outside of traditional art practices like traditional dance and music as there were fewer parameters to adhere to.
When I was living in Indonesia, it was really hard to see other bands perform. The issue of safety meant that most of my weekends were pretty regimented. I'd spend my time at the mall, with my friends, hanging out in a safely enclosed, air-conditioned place, that had a cinema and ‘photo booths’. I remember how exciting it was to discover bowling alleys, not inside a mall. The reality of the situation was that there was no feeling of real ‘freedom’, like what I felt in Australia.
Moving back to Canberra didn't provide a lot of all ages things to do either but, I studied contemporary music in my final 2 years of high school, and enjoyed that. It was my first sense of collaborating and writing songs and playing in a band.
At that stage what did your songs sound like?
KU. Oh, they were terrible. Definitely not good at all! It’s impossible to avoid being shit when you first start something.
Was there is a punk scene in Indonesia?
KU. Absolutely, my memory of ‘punk’ in Jakarta, as a teenager, was the visibility of punks around the mall and traffic lights. They had the full shebang; mohawks and safety pins through the ears, a little intimidating. Even with that being around me, I didn’t know what being a punk in Indonesia was like.
Growing up as a young woman from a middle-class Indonesian family meant that there were a lot of rules and restrictions. It wasn’t until I had access to social media (Friendster & MySpace), in mid-2000s Australia, that I started going to DIY shows. I was pretty thrilled to see shows in the basement car park of the Mandarin Hotel and in obscure bars on weekdays. It was not until that time that I felt like I had truly discovered the punk/heavy scene in Jakarta and I felt a stronger sense of belonging and a connection to my city.
When you came back to Australia, did you feel a sense of rebellion?
KU. I was feeling really grateful. We were only on temporary visas, and I just didn’t want to stuff it up. [laughs]
What has been your experience of becoming a heavy music artist in the Australian music scene?
KU. It really started for me when I turned 18, attending hardcore shows in Canberra. It was my first experience of seeing someone with a strong sense of personal power created through music. This expressive power created from singing in this very loud, abrasive, and expressive way was compelling. It impacted me and made me determined to learn how to distort the voice and create that level of volume.
How did you start to learn how to sing like that?
KU. To put it simply, I started by screaming over riffs in the rehearsal room, and eventually, it started to sound okay. I lacked confidence in the beginning, back then the voices I'd heard live were entirely male-dominated. It made me question the physiological possibility of a distorted female voice, and how it could sound, and whether it would be received well.
How do you sing hardcore in a healthy way?
KU. I am no expert. My approach to this method of signing is intuitive and immensely personal. I think it’s important to remember that each person is unique. My pet hate is getting lectured by strangers (who are often unfamiliar with technique) that I’m bound to damage my voice. I have been singing like this for over twelve years, and I feel like my voice becomes stronger with each day of practice, each tour and when I learn or discover something new. It is also affirming to look at the history of traditional and contemporary ‘abrasive’ singing. Look at the number of active death metal bands with vocalists that have been singing in that way for more than twenty years. Look at some of the training methods used by Korean Pansori singers… I was lucky enough to sing alongside an incredible artist called Sage Pbbbt, whose practice is inspired by Inuit and Mongolian throat singing, from an opera by Cat Hope. It was enriching to hear her voice and observe her techniques. I was also incredibly inspired by another soloist in the opera, Judith Dodsworth, a soprano, whose voice is so powerful. When Judith does her vibratos, it is like lightning cutting through the atmosphere.
I take care of my body and my instrument, I know what it can endure. It is not simply about distorting the voice but transcending the physiological elements of voice and the strength of the body, addressing instinct, repressed rage. Singing is when I feel most present. It affirms my work to address the silencing and trauma that has happened for generations. It is a complex and visceral, necessary process for me.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
KARINA UTOMO. I'd tell the younger me to embrace Javanese culture: learn to speak Javanese and appreciate the lessons from my ancestors, strongly refuse propaganda and refuse seeing things through a colonial lens.
There were so many missed opportunities from the Indonesian Government’s suppression of important literal works such as Pramoedya Ananta Toers writing; I often imagine how valuable it would have been if I had access to his writing as a teenager.