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Indonesian president turns on the schmaltz

Times Staff Writer

With the next election two years away, it’s a little early to be wooing voters with love songs.

So when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono released a CD of schmaltzy pop tunes he had penned, including “My Longing for You” and “Dear, I Miss You Too,” some Indonesians were left wondering, if only halfheartedly, what’s up with their leader?

The retired army general, it seems, has long been a closet composer.

“The secret is taking a little time to reflect,” Yudhoyono said at his recent album launch. “Between the tight schedule of work, in the middle of problems, I need to rearrange my heart. And that’s when I want to communicate, to express my ideas, my heart as an ordinary human being. That’s when I create.”

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Yudhoyono said he put out the album not as a political move but to highlight a fight by performers and songwriters against piracy. Besides, he pointed out, lots of world leaders have hobbies.

“There’s a president that loves to read poems, such as the president of India,” he said. “And the leader of Malaysia likes to ride horses. There is a president who likes to play saxophone, and there is a prime minister who loves climbing, such as New Zealand’s prime minister. And there is also a president who loves fishing. As for me, my hobby is music.”

Yudhoyono said he wrote one song, about peace, brotherhood and love, on the first night of Ramadan, the holy month when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk to cleanse their souls. A song titled “God’s Power” came to the president when he was on a flight from Vancouver, Canada, to Tokyo, heading home from the United Nations’ fall session in New York. And Bali moonlight inspired a number about Yudhoyono’s longing for “the queen of my heart.”

News that Yudhoyono is a man with songs in his heart hasn’t caused much of a stir in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Newspapers briefly noted the release of his album. Next to a large color photo of Yudhoyono singing with his guitar, an Indonesian newsmagazine predicted, “His album is sure to sell well.”

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So far, music reviewers haven’t hazarded critiques of the president’s musical talent.

The harshest review has come from opposition politician Herman Herri, who advised Yudhoyono to save sentiment for his diary, leave music to experts and turn his mind to creating jobs.

“People are suffering now,” Herri, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, told the House of Representatives. “So don’t talk theory through songs. People don’t need a lullaby. They need to eat.”

Art on Yudhoyono’s debut album shows the president, wearing a slightly pained expression and a dark windbreaker, playing his guitar against a backdrop of dark sky and a silhouetted volcano.

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He leaves the singing to seven Indonesian artists.

If, as some here have speculated, Yudhoyono is pitching for the youth vote with his pop songs, he may be disappointed.

Patrick Guntensperger, who teaches media and culture at a Jakarta university, asked his students what they thought of the president’s album. The response was “mild indifference,” he said.

In the first three years of a five-year term, Yudhoyono’s approval rating has plunged from 80% to 54%. He hardly needs a softer image because “he is too damned soft,” Guntensperger said.

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“He is perceived as being vacillating, unable to make a decision, reluctant to ruffle any feathers, and overly concerned about appearances and unconcerned with substance.”

That’s not likely to help the president cross over from politics to pop music, where everyone is a critic.

“Like the president himself, the record will probably be all appearance, no substance, designed to appeal to everyone, and ultimately, mediocre and shallow,” Guntensperger said.

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paul.watson@latimes.com

Dinda Jouhana of The Times’ Jakarta Bureau contributed to this report.


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