Metal singer Karina Utomo’s roar history
When Karina Utomo returned as a teenager to Jakarta from Canberra, where her demographer parents gained their doctorates, she was worried.
Violence and intimidation were never far away in the country of her birth, and intergenerational Indonesian trauma could play out among her compatriots in the oddest ways. Then 14, the Java-born Utomo pondered her thin high-school history textbook and its rote learning of what she suspected was propaganda, fearing she might forget how to think for herself. It would be almost a decade before she learnt the truth about the event that defined Indonesia’s 20th century, the slaughter of half a million people in the anti-communist purge of 1965-66 and the advent of the Suharto era.
“I used to protest by sitting in the car, not wanting to go to school,” says Utomo, now 34 and the singer in metal band High Tension. She is seated in the home she shares with her husband, Murray McKenny, a drummer and reporting specialist with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Surrounded by bush on a hilly allotment in North Warrandyte, in Melbourne’s north-east, kookaburras laugh close to the window while we talk.
The couple’s bashful and affectionate female ridgeback rescue dog Raekwon, named after the Wu-Tang Clan rapper, gazes up from under the dining table, as Utomo recalls her Bahasa Indonesian having deteriorated after several childhood years in Australia with her parents, brother and sister.
“I remember being berated by my Indonesian language teacher because I had used the wrong grammar, telling me I had betrayed my own country because I could not speak my own language properly.” Utomo laughs ruefully. “He was calling me lazy and made me stand on one leg for an hour.”
About that time, an older student from Utomo’s high school was killed when rubber bullets were fired on anti-Suharto demonstrators in the lead-up to his resignation after three decades as president. She became deeply worried her father might be attacked during riots because of racial issues of skin colour, his lighter than hers.
Etched into her memory is the burning down of a music store, which sold cassettes because CDs remained a luxury item. The shop, she says, was targeted because it was owned by Chinese Indonesians, the long-time targets of racist scapegoating. “Buying music with my father was a treat,” says Utomo, whose young tastes had already turned to punk. “That was somewhere we had gone every week and it symbolised access to music, to engage in a culture with which I connected.”
Eventually, Utomo’s mother brought her back to Australia to complete her high school years in Canberra, after which she studied fashion. But at 19 it was music that caught her imagination, and the guttural howls and screams of metal in particular, generally considered the domain of male singers.
Was Utomo attracted to defying gender expectations? “In the beginning, what ignited this need to learn to sing in that way was seeing—” Utomo stops mid-sentence and pours a tea, seeming a little self-conscious as her husband walks through the room. “Let me stop and think, because I get asked this a lot.”
After a pause: “I started learning how to sing in that way when I saw a hardcore band in Canberra. I really wanted to learn how to do that. That shaped my taste for extreme music.” The band was the all-male 4 Dead. “There was definitely no visibility of other women participating in that way, especially in Canberra. There was a lack of women playing instruments, let alone singing in that way. It took me years to confidently sing without feeling self-conscious.” Utomo bursts into laughter: “When I first started, it sounded like shit.”
Now she fronts High Tension, whose debut album Death Beat was nominated for best hard rock/heavy metal album at the 2014 ARIA Awards. The music is heavy, even extreme, its grinding drive matched with Utomo’s deep, primal vocals. Careful listening is required to comprehend her lyrics, even when they are written in simple, evocative language. Utomo harnesses an unmistakeable anger, though the singer says we all have a repressed rage – she just found a cathartic way to let it loose.
“We still get so excited about creating music and our latest album is so different to our other releases,” she says. On Purge, the troubled history of Utomo’s Indonesia is laid bare. Utomo credits bassist and fellow original member Matt Weston, who also plays with The Nation Blue, for helping her find her “political voice”.
No longer an Indonesian citizen, Utomo has grown increasingly bold in songwriting about the story of her country, specifically its ongoing traumas. Purge deals in detail with the massacres of 1965 and 1966. On “Red White Shame”, she sings about an unnamed perpetrator of violence: “If I met you in hell / would I join in?” Elsewhere, she sings of soldiers: “Armoured, they shine like cockroaches.”
On “Rise”, she intones: “Conscience, pried open / Memories, suppress, denied.” Utomo says she has persisted in asking for the unvarnished truth. “This is the thing that really bothers me – people from my parents’ generation are almost in a state of denial.”
Utomo was 23 when her father finally told her about what happened in Indonesia in the mid-’60s. The revelation sparked some in-depth reading. Her bookshelf includes titles such as Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia, which describes the violent targeting of ethnic Chinese, accused of being communists.
“My father told me he would see people get killed in his village,” she says, before adding quietly, “and he would just ignore it.” He had no choice.
Utomo’s family is middle class and Muslim, though her upbringing was not strict. She learnt Arabic and studied the Koran. “My father was always pretty non-religious, but you actually can’t not have a religion in Indonesia, and there’s approved religions. Faith has always been a big thing, especially for my mother’s side of the family.”
Her relationship to faith is “a very tricky question”, she says. “I feel privileged I know as much about Islam as I do.”
In 2017, Utomo interviewed older Indonesians about the anti-communist purge to write her songs. Getting people to talk candidly is difficult, though, even today. While the Communist Party of Indonesia, known as PKI, has long been eliminated as a political force, President Joko Widodo has ruled out an apology for the mass murder.
Conversations with her brother and sister over their birth country’s history have been deep and flowing, but Utomo’s mother has been less openly engaged, reluctant to acknowledge the horrors of the past.
“I try to tell my mum, ‘No, a genocide happened in Java and Bali’, and the people that were getting killed and taken had a certain political view. That really passive response that Javanese people have is probably because of the violence they were subjected to. Speaking out literally meant you could be killed ...
“If you had any affiliation with the Communist Party, that would prohibit you from taking on certain roles. My friend’s mother, because her uncles had been taken as prisoners of war during the purge, her hand would shake every time she had to fill out a form, because she knew that they had to keep their history secret. This happened to millions of Indonesians.”
I ask her whether survivors of the period harbour any guilt about being unharmed, while neighbours and possibly family members were targeted. “I feel like it’s more a sense of mourning of what was taken and what could have been,” Utomo says. “How would it be now if these people weren’t taken and killed, and how would that shape Indonesia today? I guess that idea is not just relevant for Indonesia’s history. I could say the same for Australia’s history.”
Later this month, Utomo is lending her powerful vocal techniques to Speechless, a contemporary opera with non-verbal singing inspired by refugee children in Australia’s offshore detention, premiering at the Perth Festival. Composer Cat Hope, who wrote the work in a “vocal language beyond words”, says of Utomo: “Our art is the result of our lives. Seeing a young woman growl and scream in that way is quite powerful. I think it goes beyond a definition of rage.”
Hope was inspired by the harsh treatment by conservative parliamentarians and media of former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs upon the release of The Forgotten Children report.
Feeling frustration in wanting to help refugees, the composer says she wanted to enable people to process the complex issues involved, seeing opera as a transportive art form with many tools – overtures, arias, duets – for conveying complexity. Opera’s appeal, however, is usually limited to an older audience in Australia.
“It was important to me that this opera be contemporary,” Hope says. “I’m a big fan of heavy music and I knew about Karina’s performances and her vocal style and I was really interested in this idea of extended vocals beyond the avant-garde.”
Speechless uses the conventional structure of an opera, yet Hope not only eschews words but does not use conventional music notation. The score is “image and line-based”, she says. “I’m interested in drones and long-form sounds and texture.” She traced children’s drawings from the report – pictures of families behind bars and nature but not many happy faces – and traced graphics showing the ages of children in detention and incidents such as self-harm. Hope then used these illustrations to create a score with parts for the singers, the 31-piece Australian Bass Orchestra and the six members of the Decibel new music ensemble. There is also a 30-voice choir. The production employs iPads to co-ordinate the score for all involved.
It sounds challenging for a performer, classically trained or not, but Utomo is enthusiastic about what the opera score can achieve. In particular, she thinks its basis in data is a revelation. “I’ve read the Human Rights Commission report and it’s very difficult to read. I feel like when you see data, when you see numbers, it feels very real.
“I remember, for instance, when Trump won the election, and just seeing the numbers of people that had voted for him, I didn’t leave the house for three days because it felt really upsetting. I did feel a sense of despair. It’s difficult when you’re hopeful about where the world is going, and you see that [result], or you see the results of the marriage equality postal survey, which was positive, but there were still many people against it.
“The data in The Forgotten Children report is so confronting, but the way that Cat has innovatively interpreted this data – to create a score that is completely accessible in terms of someone like me that hasn’t come from a classical music background, and I can read and interpret and sing it, with guidance – it’s amazing.
“If anything, someone who can’t read music can understand what’s going on in the whole opera from looking at this visual score. It’s pretty awesome.”
Whether with High Tension’s thundering metal or in the non-verbal screams of Speechless, Utomo’s raw singing itself comes across as an act of purging. “Absolutely, and I feel like the response is just very intrinsic. It has to come from a place of deep conviction. I don’t want to feel detached from things and feel complacent and operate in my own little world, because you must keep fighting to stop this cycle from continuing.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Roar history". Subscribe here.