Global Politics

Coffee and music in Indonesia

How do young people in the Indonesian province of Aceh have fun and obey strict Islamic or sharia law? As Julia Simon reports, they go listen to music in the region's many coffee shops.

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Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, but only the province of Aceh, which was devastated by the tsunami in 2004, is governed by Islamic or Sharia law.

For the young people of Aceh, that means no movie theaters, no girls and boys hanging out together in private. But it doesn't mean they don't have fun.

There's a burgeoning music scene in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, in coffee shops, and even on the beach.

On a recent Friday at noon, 28-year-old Ronny sat on the sand, playing his guitar. In this conservative region, most other people have gone to the mosque for Friday prayers, but Ronny said he has other plans.

Like many young people here, Ronny plays in a band, and he hopes to perform in one of Aceh's many coffee shops.

40-year-old Rizkie Agustiansyah opened the Haba Cafe in May, with money he earned working for the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that descended on Aceh after the tsunami.

Rizkie said that with all the former NGO workers-turned-entrepreneurs, there are a lot of new coffee shops in town.

?Every month, one or two cafes open in Banda Aceh, but five close,? Rizkie said, laughing. He said all the competition is forcing changes. ?Now a lot of cafes offer WIFI, and they have live music.?

On Friday nights, Haba is packed with hundreds of people ? boys and girls sit together at tables. Rizkie said that even under Aceh's Sharia law, it's fine as long as they don't kiss.

On this night, young people came to hear five bands, including one called ?Left4Right,? which is essentially a Beatles tribute band. Andri Gapi, the band's lead singer, said people in Aceh call his band the Beatles.

?When I walk down the street and go into coffee shops, some people start shouting, ?Hey, John Lennon! Where are you going?'? Gapi said.

But in Aceh, playing music in coffee shops means following rules imposed by the Wilayatul Hisbah, the local government's community policing group. It's known in English as ?the Sharia police.?

Samsuddin, who like many in Indonesia goes by one name, heads the Aceh Sharia police.

According to Samsuddin, music in the cafes is all right as long as people don't violate Sharia law, as long as they don't dance in couples or wear inappropriate clothing.

?We don't want to bring Jakarta's culture to Aceh,? Samsuddin said.

Left4Right lead singer Andri said the main reason a lot of young Acehnese spend so much time in coffee shops is that it's one of the few things they can do under the watchful eyes of the Sharia police.

?We cannot go camping, we cannot go to the beach at night, and we cannot go with our girlfriends to wherever we want,? Andri said. ?The coffee shop is the main place where people, young or old go for fun in Banda Aceh. On the weekend, there's the beach, but it's off limits at night,? Andri said.

The beach is also quiet on a Friday at noon. I asked Ronny if we would get in trouble for playing music, for being on the beach during Friday prayers, but he said that no one will bother us.

?The Sharia police are also human,? Ronny said. ?They also appreciate art.?

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