Thursday, January 30, 2020

Contribution Against Apartheid

A Contribution Against Apartheid

by Arlo Hennings

Nelson Mandela

My journey to South Africa began in 1994 during the country’s first democratic election and the end to Apartheid. I was representing the 70s era A&M singer/songwriter Shawn Phillips. Little did Phillips know that during the South African cultural embargo, which was imposed by the USA Government that he had grown into a mysterious, iconic, music legend for supporters against Apartheid.

“Do you have any concert leads for me?” I asked Shawn Phillips.

“I heard rumors that I might be popular in South Africa?” he answered.

“All right, I’ll start there,” I told him.

Finally, after canvassing South Africa by phone for a promoter, I received an answer from my queries: “Want to celebrate the birth of a new nation?” David Marks asked. His message continued to tell me about a five-year-old South African music festival called Splashy Fen. Its purpose was to bring together all peoples through music.

David Marks

April 25, 1994

“As you know, South Africa is about to be liberated,” said festival promoter David Marks in a faxed memo:

Our first free and democratic elections take place on April 27, 1994 — so naturally, we are very excited and want to celebrate the occasion with those who supported the struggle against apartheid. . . You will be the first since the ’70s cultural embargo to enjoy the first major music and cultural happening in the new South Africa. What better way to celebrate the birth of a new nation and the death of apartheid?

To my utter shock, it was the same David Marks, the sound man, I had met at Woodstock in 1969. The tour came together within a week. That’s all the time I had to learn about the complexities of South African politics and Shawn’s 17 multimillion-selling albums repertoire. I learned that Shawn was triple platinum (50,000 records sold per award) seller in that country; a lot of records in a market of only nine million “white” people — the ones most likely able to afford to buy records. He must have some record royalties due?

“Did you ever get a royalty statement for the territory of South Africa?” I asked Shawn.

“No, I only got the information second hand from a South African who said they saw my records in the stores,” he said.

As I copied the last word of Marks’ fax over to my travel diary, the captain of South African Airways flight #202 announced, “At 5 a.m. you will see the sunrise over Africa.”

April 26, 1994

JOHANNESBURG: “Eight bombs exploded around South Africa; including one at a crowded taxi stand in Germiston, South Africa, killing 10 and injuring 36. Yesterday, 150 pounds of TNT took the lives of nine innocent people in the largest bomb to date outside the Monte Carlo Hotel on Bree Street in Central Johannesburg.”

I was safe flying over the Atlantic at 30,000 feet. Back home, my wife and daughter didn’t know if I was safe or not.

After reading the Johannesburg newspaper, I was having second thoughts, “A rock ‘n’ roll tour in South Africa?” I showed the headlines to Shawn.

“I don’t care about the money,” Shawn said. “I think a lot of my music really relates to what’s going on over there right now. Compassion for the human condition has always interested me. I want to share that with my fans. That’s why I want to perform in South Africa, no matter what the risks.” He spoke with great conviction, and I was glad he had organized his thoughts about this unusual tour.

Upon our arrival, journalists from all the major South Africa newspapers, television, and radio were scheduled to meet us at the airport.

During the long flight, I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” We owed everything to Mandela. He changed the future of a nation and became one of the greatest heroes of the 20th Century. How did Shawn’s music play a role in the dangerous rebellion to free a country of racism?

Before landing, the pilot announced that the international arrival section of the airport had been destroyed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. When we deplaned, we were routed around piles of unrecognizable debris. At the customs checkpoint, I stood in line behind the actor Danny Glover and recalled that he was an avid Mandela supporter. Officials glanced at our passports and waved us through.

Shortly afterward, Shawn and I found ourselves seated at a table of anxious-looking journalists.

“Welcome to the new South Africa, mate. How do you feel to be the first American musician to tour in our post-apartheid country?” one of the reporters asked.

“I think it’s the most exciting thing I’ve done,” Shawn answered.

“Did you know how popular you are here?”

“No, I’ve only heard rumors.”

“What do you make of our country’s situation?”

“Change was inevitable and you have a great leader.”

“How do you describe your music?”

“Edgar Winter once said to me, ‘Hey man, you’re from Texas. How come you got so far from the roots?’ I said, “Because there’s a whole tree above the ground, Edgar!”

“What is it about your lyrics that so many South Africans find compelling?”

“I still credit my father as a tremendous influence, particularly as it relates to his use of the English language in song. When I tried to read him a lyric once, I’m standing there all proud, he grabbed me by the front of the shirt and he jerked me about an inch away from his face, and he said, ‘Listen, punk. I’ve been writing for half a century, and I still can’t write a better line than ‘Jesus wept.’’’

“How do feel about South African music?”

“We all know how much Paul Simon turned the world onto South African music with his album, Graceland. From that record, I learned about great South African musicians like Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. Also on the record, and joining me at Splashy Fen, is the amazing vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.”

“Will you take any side trips on your tour to visit the shanty towns, and see what apartheid did to our country?”

“I would certainly enjoy absorbing all South Africa has to offer and share it with the world, anyway I know how.”

“Thank you, Mr. Phillips. Have a great tour.”

April 27, 1994

We met Theo Coetzee, our tour promoter, at his home in Randburg, a suburb of Johannesburg. Like all suburbs in “Jo’Burg,” it was exclusively white, and guarded by private security and electrical razor wire. Nearby shops were covered by security bars; no businesses stayed open late. It felt like living in a state of paranoia.

For Theo, an Afrikaner, the tour was the answer to his lifelong dream as an avid, antiapartheid rebel. The election meant the world to him, whereas other whites were booking the first flight out of the country. At the time, Theo was hobbling around on crutches, his foot in a cast. He explained that he’d been smoking dagga (marijuana) and fell. Otherwise, he seemed capable enough.

This was Theo’s first attempt at organizing a tour. He was bringing in an international performer and scheduled his shows during a time when his country swung in the balance of the civil war. While South Africa prepared for the mother of elections, on April 27, 1994, and despite reports that travel by car was not recommended we had packed for our 500-mile journey to an outdoor music festival called "Splashy Fen" located in the heart of Zulu country, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Theo Coetzee (RIP)

While Theo ran about the city doing errands, his maid stepped in to wash our clothes and cook. I had never met anyone who could afford a maid and was curious about her. She was in her late 30s, spoke a tribal language, and lived with her son in Theo’s back yard in a small, one-room building. She was who Mandela fought for: her right to vote; the right to have a say in her life; her right to leave the compound; her right to do anything. She was not a slave or being held against her will. But her options were limited.

When Theo returned he explained in his Afrikaner accent, which sounded like a mix of British meets Dutch with a lot of slang thrown in, “The family had come with the house when I bought it years ago. One day, the woman’s husband came to the door begging for shelter because a rival clan was going to kill him. I opened the door to them and they stayed ever since. Every house owned by whites has black staff. We give them a job and shelter. They came with the house, so I let them in. It’s the humane thing to do.”

On our way out of Johannesburg, we passed a voting hall where thousands of Afrikaner, British, Zulu, Ndebele, Venda, Xhosa, and Indian people — speaking more than 11 different languages — laughed and cried together for the first time in history.

Mandela supporters ran up and down the street, waving yellow-green-and-black flags into the air, shouting, “Tata,” (Father).

When Theo switched on the radio to the South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC), the one and only Big Brother-controlled media outlet, I heard three interviews: Nelson Mandela, Presidential hopeful Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and Shawn Phillips.

I turned to Theo in awe and said, “Who is listening to this broadcast?”

“All of South Africa,” Theo answered.

Watchful of the crowd, the police rested nearby against a footlocker filled with machine guns. The old laws were still enforced and the blacks lined up by the thousands on street corners to be carted off to their shanty towns in small white vans called a kombi. Being in the city after the workday, after dark, requiring a special I.D. card called a spanky. Without the I.D. they could be arrested.

I didn’t know what freedom meant to them other than the right to vote. For centuries, their lives had been ruled by whites; what would this new-found freedom do? Because South Africa’s infrastructure —banking, police, airlines, media, etc. — had been run by white people, change was a scary proposition to those who previously weren’t involved in managing their own lives, let alone a country. Some tribal people believed that Mandela was going to literally build them a new house the next day.

To that question, Mandela said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

“The reason apartheid is ending was that the South African rugby team got beaten to a pulp by the worst team in the league,” Theo said, in jest. “Therefore, unable to sign new players because of international sanctions, the government had no choice other than to abolish apartheid in order to save their rugby team from further humiliation.”

Breaking all bets of an impending civil war, Jo’Burg was strangely peaceful on the first day of the elections. The highway to Natal Province, however, was cluttered with armored convoys. We encountered many security stops along the way and police wanted to know what was in Shawn’s music cases. Theo talked us through every checkpoint.

A few hours later South Africa opened up to the Highveld, the broad, grassy plateau that sweeps across the South African interior. The landscape was reminiscent of the American West. We pulled into a gas station and were suddenly mobbed by an army of young, black boys dressed in pressed uniforms. While addressing Theo as Sir, two boys ran the pump, three rubbed down the van and windows with a cloth and shined our shoes.

As we drove deeper into rural South Africa, the demographics changed dramatically. Soon, all of the villages were populated by black Africans. It dawned on me had they wished us any harm, they could have squashed us like bugs. On the contrary, they paid no heed. I suspected that if they harmed white people, their entire town would be wiped out. I also thought that they were simply peaceful people; the young men, perhaps, a mix of intentions.

Coming over a hill, I had a National Geographic moment when I saw a beautiful, barefoot young tribal girl balancing a large load of firewood on her head. My head was dangling out the window to get a better look and she stared back at me with the largest coal-black eyes on Earth. As the hill flattened out, I saw her village of squatter shacks erected out of dump debris, scattered beneath a handful of bony trees. There was no water, no electricity; they slept on straw mats upon floors made from cow dung. This, my first trip to a developing country, opened my eyes to the appalling living conditions that these people endured. Like Mandela, who had spent 27 years in prison, the poor blacks in South Africa had spent generations behind bars made of hatred and fear.

April 28, 1994

“Look out!” I yelled at Theo to slow down.

Along the Highveld roadside, a sign read, Beware — Rhino Crossing. Theo assured us that no rhinos had been spotted near the toll route for decades. “Like the American buffalo,” he explained, “once they were everywhere, now they can only be found in a game reserve.”

By dusk, the road climbed into the fog-clasped Drakensburg Mountains. Darkness, weaving roads, rain, and cattle slowed our journey further. Hours behind schedule, we reached a hand-painted sign, Splashy Fen — 15k. Bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched ahead of us. When we arrived at the entrance to the Zulu wilderness area campground, a raging storm blew in off the Indian Ocean. Within minutes our van got stuck in a foot of mud.

Somehow, word of our arrival made its way to Bart Fokkens, professional hang glider, and the festival manager. Soon enough, we heard a voice outside the van. We breathed a sigh of relief. It was Bart.

“Sawubona,” he greeted us in Zulu. “To roll over the mud, you need to deflate the tires, avoid the bad ruts, and stick to the right. Whatever you do, don’t stop,” he instructed.

The next hour passed like a log chute ride at an amusement park.

Up and down a grade that would put any four-wheeler to the test, we slid our way past the music tent and on to the musician’s cottage — a warm, three-bedroom, thatched-roof cottage with a fireplace. We had an extra room, so I invited about a dozen musicians out of the rain to stay with us.

Our first night at Splashy Fen was unforgettable. The grounds owner Peter Ferraz, a retired journalist, and his wife and three lovely daughters, put to rest my fears about being caught in some kind of Zulu uprising. They built a fire, passed guitars, wine, and smiles. For hours, many Splashy Fen musicians — like Saranti, from the band “Keep the Change” — entertained us.

I had been gone for almost two weeks. With the hectic schedule and eight-hour time difference, I hadn’t been able to call back home. Danika, my daughter was now four years old and I missed my family dearly. Courtesy of our host’s phone, I was finally able to place the long-distance call. Hearing the voices of my wife and daughter warmed my soul, and uplifted me further. I was able to reassure them that I was okay and safe, and the tour still on track. I would be back in a couple more weeks.

Shawn Phillips tour badge

April 29, 1994

Splashy Fen, the Woodstock of South Africa. In the morning I stepped outside and inhaled, am I really here? I looked out to Dragons Head, the highest peak in the Southern Drakensburg Mountains of Kwa Zulu, Natal — 10,000 feet above sea level. The storm brought days of rain that mixed with the cold mountain air. Below Dragons Head, 5,000 mixed-race, barefoot, soaked-to-the-bone, graying flower children, new-age ethnics, professionals, teenagers, and toddlers danced about smoldering campfires. As strange rhythms echoed across the valley floor, tent doors flapped like Mandela’s green flags in the freezing drizzle. Exploring the campgrounds, I discovered the food gardens, (a group of tents with outdoor grills), which included some South African delights like Bunny Chow, Zulu Porridge, and regional beer. After I chose a Bunny Chow, Shawn met mud-clad, smiling fans.

“Far out,” a young person said, stumbling upon Shawn.

His companion just stared, stoned. Recognizing the American artist, they offered him a toke of their Durban poison stick (marijuana), which Shawn declined, “Besides water, I never put anything into my body before I perform.”

Marijuana was an unofficial export of the Natal province, which accounted for its popularity and its abundance. Earlier that morning the police had set up a roadblock in front of the festival entrance and arrested dozens of people who had marijuana. I was puzzled by the busts: despite all the heavily publicized rumor of civil war, how is it the police could afford to spare so many officers over a few harmless joints?

Splashy Fen concert ticket

April 30, 1994

At the information tent, I began to immerse myself in the local South African music scene. Guitars for Africa: 3rd Ear Music — a compilation album featuring 24 of South Africa’s finest guitarists — was as good as any I heard in the States. One outstanding recording was by Sipho Mchunu, who demonstrated Zulu guitar, a unique technique with a special tuning/strumming system.

The lineup for that day featured 30 bands and many memorable performances. Saranti’s band, Keep the Change, opened with the melody of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” They changed the lyrics to “By the time I get to Splashy Fen,” which concert-goers embraced. Keep the Change also created an original sound by combining elements of jazz, folk, and rock with their own Euro/American pop style. The group reminded me of the Roches meet Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Another highlight was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the legendary 10-man acapella group that sang on Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning album “Graceland.” They filled the music tent with their authentic, chain-gang gospel, in voices deeper than a South African gold mine. In response to their version of the South African-penned hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the crowd saluted the group as heroes and exploded in applause.

The University of Natal African Music Ensemble also caught my ear. Using handmade, otherworldly looking instruments, the group created a rich Afro tapestry of plucked, strummed, and shaken folk songs from Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The “Hairy Legged Lentil Eaters” followed with an unforgettable performance. They combined banjo, violin, and electric guitar to create new mixtures of folk and political satire.

Beneficiaries of the festival included the Wildlife Society, Ladysmith Black Mambazo Trust, the Underburg Himeville Education Foundation, and the Drakensburg African Schools Organization.

Later that night, Shawn would take the stage. At the lower stage altitude of 6,000 feet, combined with heavy fog, he found it hard to sing and keep his guitars tuned. Regardless of the elements, he performed a couple of his favorite songs from each of his 17 albums.

When Shawn came onto the stage, the entire campground sat in suspense under the music tent. I could feel their anticipation running through the ground, and up to the back of my neck, where my hair stood on end. I had seen Shawn when I was only 15 years old. Now here he was, the former broken musician, reunited with his lost fans in a lost country that had reunited with its lost hero. With the end of the cultural embargo, artists from around the world would soon flock to the new South Africa, engaging in cultural exchange. A new dialogue with the world was on top of that mountain that night, and Shawn opened the conversation.

Shawn Phillips live Splashy Fen

Backstage I talked with David Marks about what happened to the South African music business during apartheid.

“When I called and asked the American record distributor about the royalties on my hit song "Master Jack" the publisher called me a racist and hung up,” Marks told me.

I set up a meeting with the South African record company that had been selling Shawn’s records during apartheid. “Where is the money for Shawn Phillips’ records?” I asked the label executive.

“That was too long ago. I’m sorry. We no longer have financial records dating back to that period. How about a couple of record awards mate?” The white record executive grinned. 

“Surely, there must be some accounting for hundreds of thousands of sold records?” I was shocked.

He rolled his fingers on his desk, “Sorry mate, we sent the money to where it was supposed to go, and where it went from there, I don’t know.”

The story of the missing record company royalties would become a worldwide scandal. The loss of royalties wrecked careers and lives, including those of Rodriguez (Sugarman), and Shawn Phillips.

Shawn Phillips and I holding his South African record award for “Second Contribution”
During the music festival, I met many South African musicians. Zakes Myataza, a Zulu musician who had not stopped playing his guitar since we arrived, said, “My grandmother taught me to throw harmonies like bones: both tell the future.”

Xhosa percussionist Enoch Lengoasa remarked, “Every tribe has its own record of dreams. Ours is the praise song.”

The first cultural event of the new South Africa was lekker cracker, Afrikaans, (super good). Hundreds of musicians performed nearly every type of music imaginable. More than 5,000 people gladly listened. There was no violence.

Shawn and I, as his manager/agent, returned to South Africa to do three more countrywide tours (1995-2000). Each year I returned, I hardly recognized the changing South Africa. I saw little change though for most blacks, except for a new and small, growing middle class.

The opening up of the country did develop into one of the world’s largest tourism markets. The new music of South Africa found its long-overdue place among the world music charts. Unfortunately, much of its music history and the role music played in ending apartheid, was not professionally documented. David Marks founded the Hidden Years Archive Project, the largest audio library of indie and indigenous South African music in the country, consisting of 50 years of anti-apartheid-era music history.

During the tours, I had the unique opportunity to get one on one with many South African musicians and exchange our ideas.

I returned home to Minneapolis, MN convinced — more than ever — that music could change the world.

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"That Guy" Legend in His Own Mind

Contributor to the Minneapolis and Indonesian Music Scenes

by "That Guy"

Arlo Hennings

I’m going to write this in the 3rd person and pretend that someone else wrote it about me because when you do that the story apparently doesn't come off as self-aggrandizement. However, if a bit of editing is needed here and there please contact my attorney.

He lived in Minneapolis his whole life but traveled a lot for music stuff.

Throwing a dart at a musical beginning, the the proverbial first stringed instrument was a Sears & Roebuck ukelele, I'll skip past being the roadie for my brother's rock band, and listening to the Litter's "Distortion" album through two 4x12 Twin Reverb speaker bottoms and jump ahead.

In Minneapolis, disco fever finally ran its course, cooled off, and died out by 1979. The musical recovery was aided by the growing influence of punk and new wave music, which overlapped the disco era. At first, Hennings didn't understand the raw edge, back-to-the-rock basics of punk’s three-chord guitar style. But the energy, rebelliousness, and spirit of the sound hooked him. Then, catching the new wave, he finally found a way to plug back into his own music.

Counter to what Tom Wolfe labeled as the narcissistic “me decade,” the genre of new wave was pushing its way down a rogue stream. Unlike the self-mutilation, panic-driven angst of early punk, new wave was characterized more by fashion and attitude—or lack of one. Androgyny, mousse wet, black shoe-polish hair, vampire-pale skin, skinny ties, James Dean-type leather jackets, girls in tight pants, drum machines, and synthesizers made up the style and the sound. In the United States, the new wave music branched out into several main tributaries including Minneapolis, Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles.

A handful of local entrepreneurs and artists in Minneapolis set out to make a splash. Low rent, a good local economy, the explosive success of Prince and a supportive fan base made Minneapolis, like Seattle, a great spawning ground for new music. Unclassified as a “movement” the music scene became known collectively in the press as the "Minneapolis Sound." Though critics argue that the Minneapolis Sound was penned by R&B artists like Prince, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Hennings believed that other styles contributed to the mix, including rock, blues, and folk. No one can say for certain who started the Minneapolis Sound, but everyone involved had ownership of “the scene.” Dubbed the "third coast, and "Nashville of the North,” the Minneapolis music scene exploded into an impressive underground economy consisting of hundreds of clubs, bands, agents, studios, managers, distribution, and record companies. Hennings worked with many of them.

 In 1968, one of Minnesota's first music business entrepreneurs, 19-year-old Patrick Raines (manager of Al Jarreau and Aimee Mann) gave him a job and, until he couldn't count the change back correctly, sold pop, checked coats, and took door fees. He helped to build a dance hall in Burnsville, Minnesota called the Prison. The Prison was part of the late 60s Minnesota ballroom era. It became a hot spot for local, regional, and national bands. It was a place where bands, such as the Delcounts, the Underbeats, Crow, Castaways, and the Grasshoppers, broke ground for successful national careers. The business looked easy from his vantage point where the venue was magically sold out. When the show was over the band got a percentage of the door money. However, Raines (and sometimes with agent impresario Marsh Edelstein) walked out with big bags of cash for doing nothing more than throwing a party. The Prison also proved to be his first job at (or doing) A&R (being a music talent scout). He considered the job to judge the bands a big responsibility and spent most of his time listening to records sent to the venue for an audition. Right or wrong, he used his own ear to decide who got to perform. Hennings loved the energy and didn't care about being paid.

Hennings' first music business job in 1967 was working the soda fountain for Minneapolis promoter and manager Patrick Rains.

Raines took his promoter ambitions a step further in the summer of 1970 when he rented the football field-sized Parade Stadium and hired twenty national bands. It was Hennings first local outdoor rock festival. Frisbees, beer, other substances, and a long line-up of great bands kept the 10,000 concertgoers happy. He was told that the last act of the evening was driving a farm tractor across the field towards the stage. A longhaired, super hippie guy waved to the crowd. "Who's that?" I asked Raines. "That's Shawn Phillips," he replied, "Go over there and make sure he doesn't fall when he steps down from that tractor." Hennings' friends considered Phillips to be the Dalai Lama of rock. Hennings was too star-struck to talk to Phillips, so he just pointed to an anvil microphone case for him to step down on to. Phillips laughed and jumped down to the ground from the tractor like it was a horse. He nodded to him, with a smile. "Much obliged," he said in a deep Texan drawl. The crowd burst into a cheer as he walked past him onto the stage. Busy running errands for the promoter, Hennings only caught bits and pieces of Phillips's mystical-like songs Spaceman and Woman. Those songs and others got airplay on the local radio station KQRS, and they stuck in his head. An introduction to your Phillips album collection could be leveraged for romance. During the early morning hours, he remembered hearing Second Contribution coming from a bedroom.

Hennings did not become an instant fan. Phillips's concert ended an hour and a half later. The crowd applauded and stomped a demand for an encore. Phillips took a long bow and told Minneapolis how much he loved them. 25 years later, (1994) Hennings became Shawn Phillips's manager for 18 years.

Arlo Hennings and Shawn Phillips holding multi-platinum awards for Phillips' "Second Contribution" recording

Hennings next destination after Patrick Rains was the Denver Pop Fest (June 1969). By August 1969 he was beneath the stage at Woodstock, and it wasn't very difficult to get past the stoned backstage security to hang out there. Most of the crew were either too wrecked or exhausted to notice a mud-clad 15-year-old stumbling around trying to build his vision of working in the music business. In front of the stage, a sound-mixing riser rose out of the mud above a sea of people. To protect it from rain, the equipment was covered by a makeshift tarp. Beneath the tarp, a person with thick sideburns and glasses, wearing an Australian-like outback hat was desperately trying to control the direction of the music. Hennings didn't know it at the time, but working the controls was not Crocodile Dundee, it was Shawn Phillips future South African promoter, David Marks. Hennings was fueled with more inspiration, having come close enough to touch many of his music heroes; like Pete Townshend and Joan Baez; even though they were all too busy being frustrated with the festival organizers to pay attention to the young rocker. Woodstock had shown him more than any other music festival of the time the possibilities of bringing together people through music. The idea of raising social awareness and creating personal harmony through music stuck with him and became his lifelong ambition. Three days later the empty fields of Woodstock farm were now mountains of trash. One cultural tsunami had risen and crashed. Hennings made his way back to the interstate and let out the wild thumb. Thumb against the blade of a pocketknife. Thumb as shiny fingernail of reflected camel eye. Thumb as a safety-pin-sized out-of-tune fiddle, plucking a cricket’s song. 

His next outdoor fest was in 1970 working as a stagehand for The Peoples Fest aka Stevens Pointe, Wisconsin. Hennings spent his time fulfilling the personal requirements of the festival contract riders. He served sitar master Ravi Shankar hot tea. He noticed his three-day unwashed body and dilated pupils, and smiling, kindly shook his head no. Hennings guided Buffy Sainte-Marie up the steep stage stairs and nearly dropped her and her guitar. He accidentally spilled a glass of water on Ted Nugent's guitar amps power box. After a motorcycle gang began raping the hippie chicks, the police were moving in to shut down The Peoples Fest, the promoter left without paying the crew, and he stood there wondering if this was “the end” the Doors sang about, and no better symbolized by the angst-driven, mayhem-based group from Detroit, Iggy Pop and the Stooges. As Iggy slashed himself with glass and was carried like an Egyptian king above the heads of his stoned disciples, destruction would become the new mother of the multi-day, rock festival. The summer of 1970 ended with his last multi-day outdoor fest, Wadena, Iowa. 

In 1970, Allen Fingerhut (heir to the Fingerhut catalog company), opened a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis called the Depot (later renamed First Avenue in 1979). The former Greyhound bus depot (thus the name “Depot”) became the first nightclub in the city to serve both alcohol and rock music. Hennings followed his love for the live music vibe throughout the 70s by mostly sneaking into the famous nightclub. Until the drinking age was dropped to 18 years old, he was underage and didn't have the money for a ticket. He would need to know how to get in without paying. He solved the problem: One guy would get in with a ticket, go upstairs to the bathroom and open the window. Then Hennings would climb up on the marquee sign and sneak in through the bathroom window. It was by this means that he kept his see-and-be-seen mojo for belonging to music alive. If only those were his acts performing at the club, he anticipated, trying to think like a music business person. It seemed like every group on their way up, like Prince, performed at the club. He kept his scene maker skills up to snuff, and he spent most of my early adult years at that venue. But, walking the music biz-walk and talking the music biz-talk would take place down the street at the CBGB's of the Midwest-The Longhorn.

Homeport for a slice of the Minneapolis alternative rock music makers was the a triangular area of Minneapolis known as the Wedge neighborhood. The CC Tap bar, which anchored the intersection there at 25th and Lyndale Avenue South and to the north Lyles Bar & Grill became a popular hangout for musicians and where Hennings worked as a short-order cook.

Near CC Tap, Twin Tone, and Wide Angle record companies opened up and helped put Minneapolis on the music map. Next door to Twin Tone, Cookhouse studios (which recorded a demo for Paula Abdul) recorded many local artists like Hennings. Oarfolkjokepopus, the main underground record shop, helped distribute the new sound.

By 1978, Hennings had an electric guitar and knew how to use it. He was introduced to a visionary guitarist named Bruce Allen and he was starting a punk rock band he dubbed the Tsetse Flies. Allen asked Hennings to jam for the rhythm guitarist spot.

Later Hennings started a band called Vitamin Q and played lead guitar during its five-year run. Playing new wave hits of the era and a few originals, the band became one of the most popular acts in the Midwest. One of the first bands to play the legendary Jay's Longhorn, Vitamin Q's original claim to fame came from his song “Me Magazine,” about the “me generation.” In 1981, the song appeared on the "Best of the Twin Cities Beat" album and TV show. Furthermore, pulling on experience from his rock festival days, Hennings helped to transform the group’s warehouse space into a concert hall that provided free access to original groups. Their space became known as "On Broadway" and gained recognition as a critical spawning ground for developing talent. In 1981, the D'Art Magazine, Minnesota Daily, Vol. 2, No. 25, Feb 4, published a feature article on the venue called, "Q Could Stand for Question Mark."

Mid 80s, in the middle of the Wedge neighborhood, Hennings had an 8-track recording studio. He chose to lend a hand to artists; to provide opportunities for those less gifted in the department of carving a niche for themselves, which helped to preserve fine expressions of the spirit calling unto itself.

Arlo Hennings and Marty Weintraub - Thump Studios

Hennings next-door neighbor and longtime promoter/friend Sue Mclean

From the time he was 15 years old, Hennings had also dreamed of becoming a writer. So, in addition to working with the band, in 1983, he published a chapbook of poetry, titled "Tomorrow Never Answers" (out of print). Hennings distributed it to area book and record stores and sold it from the stage. The book received a feature write-up in the Twin Cities Reader magazine, and, to his delight, was carried by his old pen pal, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, at his New City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.

After Vitamin Q disbanded in 1985, he teamed up with an aspiring, young music producer, and a future business partner, Marty Weintraub. With his help, Hennings recorded a double album and accompanying a 40-page story titled, Burden of the Beat: The Eyelid Movie — a libretto that parodied the idea of wanting to be a rock star. The project received favorable reviews. The Minnesota Historical Society documented the work (AV collection disc #175-A). The Plains Art Museum in Moorhead, Minnesota, offered him a grant to exhibit the multimedia piece. In addition, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press nominated the work for their top-10-picks of that year. The project has been reissued in the CD-R format available at GoJohnnyGo Records.

Paul Metsa holding Hennings "Burden of the Beat"

In 1986, Hennings joined folkie, Poppa John Kolstad's Mill City record distributors as sales manager. As a record distributor, he promoted and distributed over 100 independent labels. Including, a fledgling new label owned by school teacher turned label entrepreneur Bob Feldman. Feldman named the label Red House after his house. Looking for reassurance on his first Greg Brown release, he called Hennings daily for guidance and reminded him that the local bookstore was sold out of their six CD copies. Hennings worked at that post for two years until launching his own business: Hennings Multimedia.

John Kolstad (left) Bob Feldman (right)

1989, believing in the commercial potential of several Minneapolis songwriters, Hennings shopped their music to Los Angeles record companies. With no connections, $500 limit VISA card, months behind on his $350 per month rent, and a car borrowed from his dad, he banged on the doors of Hollywood for months. Finally, the president of PolyGram International Music Publishing liked what he heard and signed his company to a production deal. It was my first major success story in the music business. Hennings was catapulted from the flame of a hamburger grill to a music industry giant. The St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a feature on his accomplishment and called it one of the most significant boons to happen to the Minneapolis music scene. Doubting the deal, Jon Bream at the Star & Tribune refused to run the story. His contract stipulated that he was to find and develop talent who could produce tomorrow's hits. In other words an A&R man (talent scout). The details of that story can be read in the essay The Tin Pan Alley of Minneapolis.

Hennings PolyGram office was located at Owen Husney's (formerly Prince's manager) American Artists complex, 312 Washington Ave. During his time as co-publisher and A&R man, he placed several artists on major labels and saved the independent label Twin Tone Records from bankruptcy by finding them a new national distribution deal on Restless. In addition, he filled local attorney offices and recording studios with his business. Artists from Kevin Bowe, Willie Murphy to The Rembrandts, and the list goes on. Hennings wanted to sign everyone! In 1990, the Minnesota Music Academy asked him to present the Artist of the Year Award, Ann Reed, Red House Records winner.

1991, after two years with PolyGram Hennings contract ended (it felt like two minutes), due to a merger between PolyGram, Island, and A&M records. The beginning of the 90s was significant in the music business because that's when the conglomeration of the labels began. The new PolyGram was eventually eaten up along with several other labels like Motown. What followed was Universal Music; the largest monopoly on creativity ever created in the popular music record business. Also, during this time Prince had to become formerly known as Twin Tone records went under, The Suburbs, Replacements, Husker Du broke up, First Avenue fought to stay open, the Longhorn and Duffy's closed, Flyte Tyme shuddered their doors, as well as many others throughout the music eco-chain, the Minneapolis Sound "biz" simply burned out or for the most part faded away except a couple Major label signings in the early 90s like Babes in Toyland.

Hennings tried to make a go of it with several local music business start-ups like Entercorp and Matthew Benjamin Productions. He was interviewed and wrote the music business curriculum for a music school, Music Tech but was never hired because someone said he was vindictive?

Most of the artists and businesses he worked with failed to pay or disappeared; consequently, he ended the 80s like it started, an experiment; the wave receded, and he walked below the lamplight versus the limelight. It was time to rebuild and re-evaluate the next step on the long and winding road of show biz. Hennings was in his 40s, a bit long-tooth for show biz, and starting over again. In an effort to give his music business experience academic credibility, he achieved a 4-year music business-based Baccalaureate of Arts degree. In addition, to further share his experience on paper, he also earned a Master's degree in Creative Writing. As part of his second post wave transition, he moved from his ratty, but historic, one-bedroom recording studio apartment to a house in the suburbs. In the meantime, he had his first child, which further put the brakes on the idea of moving to Nashville to take a job with PolyGram Music. During this time, he held his life together by working various dead-end jobs again. He will never forget the one night, as a limousine driver, he drove Prince and Carmen Elektra around. On another run, it was a carload of senior high school girls. One girl asked him in an uppity tone, "So what else have you done besides drive a limo?" he answered, "I signed artists to record contracts." She laughed hysterically and commented on how funny he was. Hennings humor apparently was worth an extra $10 tip. He understood what Louie Perez, drummer of Los Lobos meant when he said: "I went from being a Grammy-award winning artist to fifteen minutes later pushing a cart in Ralph's Market and buying some Pampers."

As bad as things appeared Hennings did not lose sight of his original Woodstock dream: to raise social awareness and create interpersonal harmony through music. There would be more songs and other artists? The drum would beat again but, for how long, and where would he have to go to find it?

Among the many dead-end jobs, he worked to make ends meet one was driving a limo. On his way back to the limo headquarters, dispatch buzzed. A group of VIPs in the kingdom of Prince needed a ride to a reception at the First Avenue nightclub. He headed back out in the fast lane.

Hennings pulled up to a purple-painted house with a large, purple windmill in the back yard. Two people came out the front door of the stately, but not an extravagant house. Hennings opened the limo door for the couple. He had never met Prince up close before. He had rented his studio and his cousin St. Paul Peterson was in one of his bands. Prince’s real height was not hidden by his platform shoes. Hennings was 5 feet 7 inches tall, and maybe Prince's head touched the bottom of his chin. Prince gave a half-smile and nodded. Hennings loved his purple suit. It was a cross between Disney and porn fantasy. Prince’s sexy date, Carmen Electra, the glamour model looked good in anything. Hennings thought one of her boobs was bigger than Prince’s head. She followed Prince into the back seat. Hennings jumped behind the wheel. The perfume inside the limo was thicker than a Minnesota summer night.

“Where would you like to go Mr. Prince?” Hennings caught himself, blushing.

“First Avenue, backstage door,” Prince answered.

On the way, Prince and Electra made small talk. Much of which was about celebrities until Prince changed the topic to business and Hennings ear was now the steering wheel. He forgot to raise the vanity glass divider between the front and back seats. Prince didn’t notice that Hennings could hear everything.

“Do you like the name for my new band, “The New Power Generation?” Prince asked Electra.

“It’s cute,” she giggled. “Just like you.”

Prince sighed, “I’m really fed up with my record company, Warner Brothers. They want to control everything I do. They’re slave drivers and I am their nigger.”

“Do you have any ideas about what you can do?” Electra said.

“If they want PRINCE they can have him. Maybe, I will give them the rights to my name and fuck it,” Prince complained.

“What will you do without your name?” she asked.

“What will I do without you?” Prince shot back.

Hennings looked into his rearview mirror and they were making out. He thought the timing awkward to butt in and ask for a job. So, he kept his thoughts funky, set on the music. “Raspberry Beret,” Hennings hummed his favorite song by Prince.

He pulled the super stretch into the garage behind First Avenue. Several security guards were waiting for the royal couple. He opened the back door and they were escorted off to his private booth above the danceteria.

“Hey, how do I get paid?” Hennings asked one of the guards.

“Figure it out,” he shrugged.

The next day, Hennings called the manager at Prince’s, Paisley Park studios. The manager apologized and dispatched payment for the limo and another check for him. It was signed by Prince in the amount of $500.00.

Next to his name, he made a little glyph.

That night was the most money he had ever made driving limo.

By the early 90s, the music that lit the charts on fire and carried a the lasting effect on today's songwriting ended (at least for him) in one long sustained power chord. Like the trash piles that followed Woodstock; the countless parties; the deals; the dreams; the music; the groundbreaking films by Chuck Statler; were all on the cutting floor of an existential rockumentary. After the acoustic tsunami had swept over the city, the dream that Minneapolis could become the "the Third Coast" was washed away in the sand; the strident wave that engulfed the the zeitgeist of the Minneapolis 80s music scene seemed to disappear into the smoldering CC Tap hamburger cloud from which it came and decades later Jay's Longhorn and First Avenue remembered.

Can we call the 80s Minneapolis music scene a movement? He believed it was, in some respect. Writers have only gone as far as highlighting the popularity of the indie underground scene, Prince, and venues. Maybe Hennings story will help to push the question. Perhaps historians in the future will look back at what happened in a different light and reclassify the narrative.

From 2000-2009, Hennings took a nonmusic related business development position for a weather data services company. In 2009, during the height of the Great Recession the company folded and Hennings, then 56 years old, could not find a new livable wage job. He sold off everything and left for Bali in 2011.

Meanwhile, Shawn Phillips retired and all those stories and more can be found in his book "Guitarlo".

When Hennings is not in Minneapolis he resides in East Jawa Timur, Indonesia. His words can be found in Indonesian media outlets such as the (Bali Advertiser, Tirto, and the Indonesian Expat Magazine.) His music contributions can be found on his own Indonesian Jazz label (Indojazzia), which landed a young pianist from Bali, Eric Sondhy, on worldwide music charts. In addition, he is the curator for the music podcast show 107.3 2Ser Australia, featuring the latest in cutting edge music from the Indonesian archipelago. Furthermore, he is the first foreigner to participate in the Indonesian music awards (AMI). Hennings also managed the International critically acclaimed Indonesian band, I Know You Well Miss Clara. Finally, he was the Director of Business Development for the Ubud Concert Series and the Indonesian Music Expo (IMEX).

In 2020, Hennings returned to Minneapolis to take care of his ill daughter and is due to remain until further notice. What will be his next mix of mischief? We won't know until it happens. You probably won't see his name in local papers anymore or nominated into Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and other dubious honors for past shaker and doers but he played a role in the music scene in his own way and there's nothing wrong with that?

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

Other resources

Interview KFAI RADIO 1985

Interview KFAI RADIO 2017


This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee, or other group or individual.

© Truth Serum Essays 2020

Monday, January 27, 2020

Down in the Longhorn

Down in the Longhorn

 Interviewer James Joyce, Literary Hub, New York

Arlo Hennings - musician, author, music business shaker remembers Jay's Longhorn
Vitamin Q performing Jay's Longhorn (1979) Arlo Hennings (left guitar) Michael Gacek (drums) Steve Knaeble (bass) Anita Kozan (keys)

About Jay's Longhorn

Jay's Longhorn was an underground music venue that gave birth to many local, national, and international artists in the late 70s and early 80s. The venue has been compared to places like CBGB's in New York. A recent book called, "Complicated Fun" and a documentary by Mark Engergretsen "Jay's Longhorn Film" as well as several reunion concerts have shined a new light on that music scene.

JJ: Arlo Hennings started into the music biz as a teen in 1968 selling pop in a dancehall. 22 years later he was a local A&R rep for a major record label, and in between, traveled the road from Woodstock to performing in Jay’s Longhorn, managed his own venue, recording studio, record distribution manager, live musician, and artist manager.

JJ: When did you first play Jay's Longhorn?

AH: It was 40 years ago in 1979 when my Neo-psychedelic Vaudeville band "Vitamin Q" played the Horn (1979-1983). As Hugo's roommate (drummer of the Suburbs) and part of Bruce Allen's (Guitarist of the Suburbs) pre-Suburbs experiment "The Tsetse Flies" the Q mostly opened for the Suburbs. Later there were member changes and the band went on to perform many venues until 1985.

Songs by Vitamin Q

Me Magazine

High Rise Babies

Mr. Fire

JJ: Can you share your favorite stories at Jay's Longhorn?

Listen to Hennings live story version on YouTube

Arlo Hennings - Jay's Longhorn 1979

AH: Highlights were getting paid $50 by Hartley Frank for playing my own music. Even though he grinded me into the floor like a cigarette to get the money, I was ecstatic. It was my own music. A first. A dream. Another time was witnessing Hartley Frank stand in front of the stage while Husker Du played and he demanded they turn it out. I don't think Bob Mould could hear him or cared. He was playing a solo. Frank unplugged him. Another time David Johansen played to a near-empty house and I stood in front of the stage by myself. He came by me, made shoulder contact, and gave me a nod. It was the closest I had ever come to a rock star. My second rock star encounter happened when Elvis Costello was dating Steve Knaeble's (my roommate) sister, Katie Knaeble. He would come to her apartment after the gig.

JJ: Did you know Jay Bernie?

AH: No. I only saw him once leaving the building one time. My cousins, Billy Peterson and Bobby Peterson played in Natural Life before the venue switched music direction. When Hartley took over there was this band war between the Horn and Duffys. I think Duffy's started it with demanding exclusivity. I don't know if Jay worked at Duffy's then.

JJ: What do you take away from Jay's Longhorn experience?

AH: It was where I cut my music business teeth. It was Rock n Roll University 101. I don't put the Horn on the same level as my experience as Woodstock. However, both did impact the national music scene in unique ways. I feel fortunate that I got to partake. In all the excitement, I was inspired to record "Down in the Longhorn," which is based on the Animals "Down in Monterey."

Down in the Longhorn

Vitamin Q Facebook page

Arlo Hennings Bio

Monday, January 20, 2020

Survival Guide for Potential First-Time Expats to Indonesia

Survival Guide for Potential First-Time Expats to Indonesia

by Arlo Hennings

Arlo Hennings - travel warrior

My stories and information are based on “living” in Indonesia as opposed to visiting as a tourist, an academic grant or on some other short-term arrangement. However, regardless of how long you stay, there is a takeaway with what I have to say for anyone.

Making mistakes goes without saying. We all make them. Try and learn and move on. Reversing course, however, is not always so easy in a foreign country. Having said that it’s hard to impossible to imagine what life is like in a country halfway around the world. Today, you can Google search for everything and take into account all the positives and negatives you can find and make an assessment. But, there is nothing better than the reconnaissance mission. Visit first before you move. People who are recruited for employment, research project or invited as VIP do not need to worry about the same unknowns a new expat faces.

Back in 2011 when I moved to paradise long before there were Bali related Facebook community pages, blogs, Vlogs, videos, and books, there was limited information available online besides the alluring and mythological tourist photos of green pristine jungle and colorful Balinese dressed up in their exotic ceremonial costumes, Wikipedia, one old National Geographic documentary, history book, Lonely Planet, and the Hollywood romance story, “Eat, Pray, Love,” which I did read and by coincidence lived next door to where the author lived in Ubud. Once the new airport was built in 1969, remodeled in 2013, the Internet arrived in the late 2000s, a new 2nd International airport under construction in North Bali, the island zoomed from the 19th to the 21st Century in about 20 years' time. From that moment on Bali was changed forever. What will become of Bali in the 2020s is anybody's guess but the warning signs are flashing.

I relied more on what I was being told by expats who had lived there for a long time and their stories and advice. I had never met the expats in person and our connection was they were musicians and I was a professional agent. Before I left for Bali, they signed a representation agreement with me. I thought I was being pragmatic and organized.

Beyond the musician's sketchy details, my research needed a serious fact check. I hadn’t a clue about what Bali was really like. Life in a country that was, in essence, a different universe. A decision based on photos and words from strangers.

I was going there to live, not a retreat or a Fulbright grant.

I was a late 50s Baby Boomer. A victim of the 2000s Great Recession over 50 out of work club. Having lost my job and unemployed for over two years I faced homelessness. Lacking other options, I sold my home, for half of its original value, to a young immigrant couple. Ironically, they came to America for a better life — the same reason I was leaving it. I was about to find out what it meant to be an immigrant, only in reverse. In an act of soup line fear, I booked a one-way ticket to Bali, Indonesia.

In preparation, I backed up my life on an iPod. There were worse things that could happen, I reasoned - like a drunk driver severed your spinal cord. Government mismanagement and corporate avarice blew away everything I had like a Category 9 hurricane. My life evaporated before my eyes: job, house, cabin, pet, health care, car, an extensive record, and book collection, everything that collectively added up to the past 50 years of my identity, gone. Each item I lost felt like a butcher chopped off a part of my body. My suitcase was full of bloody fingers and toes. Even contact with my adult daughter would become a challenge, and then there was the even more frightening prospect of losing a reason to want to live. My beloved cat, Boo Boo, was adopted by my daughter. Basically, anything I couldn’t carry, with the exception of my guitar, and my witness, a lonely fish swimming in an aquarium. There was a sense of freedom in jumping off a cliff. The unpredictable winds of change fingered my hair, the smell of lightning over a rice field, the hunger for a dream over the sacred smoke of 10,000 temple fires. A flute in my head played and filled the canyon lands of my skull with an ancient melody that sounded like how a boy once saw his life outside a bus window.

I was crazy in a sick society. 

The jet was somewhere over the pacific before it dawned on me this was really happening. I watched a sun that didn’t set. I accepted a red wine from the flight attendant and began to gulp down the reality of where I was headed. All I knew about Bali was from a yoga musician I knew who lived there. He said it was cheap. Until I had a better idea of where I was going, it was a type of cheap that I could swing for a while. The trip was going to take at least 27 hours. I would arrive a few days before Christmas in an alien world. I had plenty of time to sit there and stare out the airplane window. Push the rewind button flashing on the tiny iPod screen in my hand and wondered if I was making the right decision.

Welcome to Paradise

I was called a Quaker Head, Colonist, greenhorn, naive, travel rookie, or just plain stupid and unlucky but my next three years in Ubud went like this. In the first months, I suffered from an incurable problem with dysentery and after many attempts seeking help with no avail at the local clinic, I finally cured myself with anti-biotic. I went through several mishaps with unscrupulous expat landlords who made the hard to deal with Balinese look like saints. I dislocated both my big toes from slipping on the wet rock leading to my villa door. On the Bali New Year called Nyepi, I vomited so bad from something I ate that I passed out and lost my memory for 24hrs and woke up in a 3rd World hospital.

One truth was that the villa rentals were reasonably on the cheap but the owners would never repair them expat or Balinese alike. I listed half my villa on the (technically illegal) Airbnb site and managed to almost break even on my rent. Everybody it seemed was in the housing rental game. If I had a dollar for every Life Coach and Yoga instructor card pushed into my hand for a rental discount I’d be rich. My best friends were an expat strung out on the Bali moonshine called araq and a woman struggling with cancer who was also in the villa tourist rental game lived next door. My lack of a friendship network wasn’t from a lack of effort. The expats I met came from every corner of the planet were tribal and into things that didn’t interest me or just shake me upside down to see what fell out. The Balinese were looking for more than hanging out. As a consequence, I spent a great deal of time alone. That's not to say anyone was wrong. If you can't transcend it move on.

After screwing me, my two musician expat clients disappeared and I learned they didn't have a work Visa in the first place. Contracts are worthless between foreigners on an island that was more similar to the lawlessness of the Wild West or Pirates of the Caribbean. I also entrusted the locals more than the expats because, for the most part, I knew where they were coming from. If you had a notarized contract with a Balinese you stood a chance it would be honored.

The area outside of Ubud where I lived was going through a burglary wave and I slept with a knife under my pillow. I thought to build a small villa of my own and gave a local the money to do it and he ran off leaving me a partially constructed building. Many months and dollars later, I finished the villa. My first rental guest was brutally raped and murdered by a bandit and not only did the young school teacher lose her life but I almost ended in prison over the matter.

During my years in Ubud there were many good times too, I can’t complain. My daughter visited and I met a couple from my hometown in the USA who helped me edit my book. Both had a good time. But the bad parts never would have happened in my former home.

Not all visits or expatriation end in mistakes on Bali of course. My mistakes some I can write off as happenstance but others I own. What happened to me is in no way to suggest that it will happen to you. The takeaway is to be prepared for the unexpected. Be flexible, adaptable, patient, and learn the ropes. Without knowing the language your chances of long-term survival are not good. You will need help.

Bali has succumbed to bad planning and regulation, which has led to pollution, overcrowding, horrible traffic, chaos, and frustration. Another word for it would be "greed." Parts of the island are better than the other. The center of Denpasar featured discotheques, prostitutes, penis trinkets, rowdy tourists, and a lot of crime. But to be fair mixed in with the bad there are nice shops, restaurants, festivals, and people of all races trying to earn a living. The image of Bali being a paradise still remains strong in the minds of unknowing foreigners. My friends think I’ve hit the big time living there! Every year a new wave of expat dreamers splash ashore and as many floats away on life rafts. The turnover is dizzying and makes it hard to care who anyone is. There are many expats who established successful businesses on Bali and I am one to believe they started long ago when everything was much less expensive and competitive. Some grew organically, the right place at the right time like the Yoga Barn.

Since the dawn of time, people have dreamed of paradise on Earth. Those places include 
Atlantis, Gyanganj, Xanadu, Shangri-La and recently, Bali. 

Back to reality

Health care is questionable, toilets lack soap, packs of wild, rabid dogs abound, restaurants lack inspection, dengue and typhus are prevalent, and if those things don’t get you maybe a python in your kitchen cupboard or a drunken tourist on a motorbike will.

Once you get out of the city you might find a spot where you feel the only person on the planet. Many of the locals are wonderful. If you open your mind to it there’s a lot to learn like Gamelan music, Balinese art, dance, temples, and Hinduism. Chill out and take in a local jazz band. You can live with a romantic partner without a marriage book. Unlike nontourist areas on other islands there’s no limit on alcohol and the sense of false freedom is so intoxicating it corrupts the mind. A Balinese man literally saved my life and if it wasn’t for his help I would have died or disintegrated. A Balinese editor published my writing in a local magazine, many other locals went out of there way for me in ways people from where I came from would have never done. I was also fortunate to meet an Indonesian woman who although she couldn’t speak English moved in with me and saved me from being an owner of a lonely heart and prison.

What’s left of the lost green jewel of Bali can best be found from the balcony of a private 5-Star luxury hotel and a guided tour in your air-conditioned car. The more adventurous can find parts of the old Bali and befriend a loyal local friend. It’s out there. You have to dig harder to find it.

I wrote about my experience in Bali and Indonesia in greater detail in a book called “Guitarlo”— sold everywhere. You can read a review about it in the Bali newspaper.

My land blessing ceremony in Ubud, Bali.
Excerpt from the book Guitarlo -

"I set about my day with renewed vision and focus, more determined than ever to break down the barriers separating me from my companions, in this new sphere of being. So far, I’d had little success at connecting in any meaningful way with the people I’d encountered on this journey. It was important to me to build new friendships, but my experience thus far with others in this place — whether native, foreign, or even fellow American expats — often left me feeling discouraged. Besides having my first housekeeper, my landlady had also seen fit to employ a gardener to care for the grounds. Although I considered domestic servants, whether indoors or out, to be an unnecessary extravagance, I had come to be grateful for them, not nearly so much for their domestic skills as for the role they would play in my enculturation and adaptation to my adopted country. Over the past few weeks, I had begun to develop a congenial relationship with Wayan (pronounced Why-Ann), the gardener. Like Made, Wayan is a common Balinese name, indicative of the lowest Hindu caste, called Anak Agung. While all were equal within the temple, in the outside world there existed prejudicial attitudes between the Anak Agung and the people of the upper three castes. Wayan was 38 years old at the time; small in stature and strikingly handsome. With his Javanese Muslim wife, Etty, Wayan had a 12-year-old son, who was a budding music prodigy. Contrary to accepted tradition, Wayan had adopted his wife’s religion, despite the strong disapproval of his large, traditional Hindu family. Etty worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week making hand-beaded bracelets, earning two cents per bracelet, to help make ends meet.

I came to look forward to Wayan’s daily visits. Besides keeping the bushes trimmed, the leaves raked, and the outdoor area of the villa tidy, he was an exceptional handyman and competent mechanic; possessing any number of other skills. It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do. Because Wayan was nearly fluent in English, communication between us flowed easily, and he often served as my interpreter with non-English speakers. With equal skill, he could repair my scooter, extract a wasp nest from my bedroom, or shimmy barefooted up a 30-foot coconut tree — with the ease of a monkey — to fetch me a coconut. What Wayan lacked in stature he more than made up for with his vibrant personality and generous heart. He was hard working and fearless, with a warm, genuine smile that could light up a room, and make you feel good just being in his presence. Although he possessed a plethora of attributes that would be the envy of most Western men, he bore himself with such gracious humility that I stood in awe of him. Probably, what blew my mind most of all about Wayan, was his shyness about asking for money, even when it was well earned. When it came time for him to be paid and I would ask what I owed, he would look down at the ground, shuffling his foot and say, “Whatever you want to pay.” Sometimes he wanted nothing in return and only when I would forcibly shove money into his pocket would he reluctantly accept it. I found Wayan’s unpretentious demeanor so endearing, as to reaffirm my belief in humanity; that which I was sure had been lost back in America, along with everything else. Unlike other Balinese that I had paid for various services rendered, Wayan didn’t call me “Boss,” but “Bro.” I finally had a real friend on the island other than an ant and my guitar. In some ways, I felt more of a connection with him than with anyone else I’d ever met. Wayan would become an indispensable guide and source of strength and encouragement through ominous and foreboding passages ahead. I even came to think of him as my guardian angel because I was certain that without him, I might have abandoned my quest altogether and returned to America more defeated and broken than when I left. Like Made, Wayan willingly shared his story. By allowing me to see the world through his eyes I was able to gain new insight and perspective into the world of the Balinese people before they were thrust, with little or no preparation, into the 21st Century on a wave of technology and tourism. Wayan was born in the spring of 1975 to a family of rice farmers. He grew up sharing a traditional family compound with his parents and at least 50 other relatives. While 50 people living together may seem like a staggering number by American standards, some family compounds are even larger and might house as many as 100 family members. Their village of Kutuh Kaja had a population of approximately 1500 at the time, made up of some 300 families. I listened intently as Wayan recalled stories of his youth and told of the Bali of not so long ago. Although Wayan is in the same age group as most of the children born to American baby boomers, that’s where the similarity ends. Completely foreign to him were such contrivances as mechanized toys and electronic gadgets. In fact, while the first wave of baby boomers’ offspring in the U.S. were mindlessly flipping through 100 TV channels by remote control, playing Super Mario Brothers on early game systems, watching videos, and beginning to discover the world of computer technology, Wayan and his peers were doing school work by oil lamp because electricity hadn’t yet made its way to Bali’s remote villages. When not occupied with schoolwork or daily chores, he would swim in the river that once ran behind the village, an activity he remembers fondly. Wayan recalled the construction of the first paved road in his village in 1995, and even then only the wealthiest of villagers had a motor scooter for transportation. Wayan was in his late teens when television made its debut. It was a community event in which one day of each week a nearby soccer field would be converted to a public theater where villagers could go to view television programming projected on the large screen that was set up for the purpose. It wasn’t until the age of 25 that Wayan had the opportunity to attend a rock concert. There were no malls and muscle cars, no telephones in the village, and no air conditioning to counter the brutal tropical heat. It was hard for me to imagine such a primitive lifestyle, compared to my life growing up.

According to Wayan history nor English was taught in Balinese public schools and those who became proficient in English learned mostly by independent means. Wayan got his English lessons from an Indian man just a few years earlier, and when I inquired as to his knowledge of his country’s history, he responded that the past had never been of much interest to him because his life had always required staying focused on survival in the present. Wayan listened politely as I gave him an overview of what I knew of Indonesia’s history of genocide, occupation, slavery, terrorists, and political upheaval, before finally becoming the remote outpost of art and culture and the Mecca of healing practices that have made Bali a popular tourist destination. When I had finished, Wayan lit a cigarette and sat silently for a few moments before commenting, “Thanks, Bro. Good to know.” I felt he was merely humoring me and really didn’t care much one way or the other. The river that had once been a valuable resource and hub of activity and recreation for the village was now gone. Most villagers now own motor scooters and smartphones. The fortunate ones have laptops and a few own a car. On an eye-opener note is the central character of the book "Eat Pray Love," Ketut Lyer, healer. Lyer’s son drove around Ubud in a Ferrari sports car, buying up backpacker hostels, and branding them with his father’s name. By 2009, Internet usage was commonplace and the island was teeming with tourists and expats. In little more than two decades, Bali and the surrounding area had traveled from the 19th to the 21st century. For many villagers, like Wayan, it meant new jobs that had not existed before. Landowners could now obtain a significant sum of money for their rice fields that had, in many instances, failed to make a profit for many years. And for the “beautiful people” from foreign lands, with time on their hands and money to spare, it meant a new venue for self-discovery, where they could visit healers, admire ancient temples, meditate at a local yoga center, and later exchange their tales over a skinny caramel macchiato at Starbucks. Wayan had difficulty pronouncing my name because the sound of the letter “r” is absent in the common Balinese language. Even though he would practice saying it, it usually came out as “Aldo.” As our relationship grew, I began helping Wayan with organizing and promoting his business of locating and procuring suitable accommodations for foreign visitors. With printed business cards, the proper social media promotion, and nice new dress shirts bearing his business logo, Ubud Royal Properties, it wasn’t long until his cell was ringing, his company was booming, and his income had increased significantly."

Wayan Sujana
Three years later, Wayan became ill with Hepatitis B. His wife had no money took him to a local hospital where he received vitamins for treatment. Horrified at watching him die, the expat who bought my villa used $20,000 AUD of his own money and moved him to a better hospital. It was too late. Wayan died. Two years later, the expat who tried to save Wayan died from cancer in the same bedroom as my first guest. Altogether, four of my good friends died within a short period.

Do you still want to live in Bali?

I will talk about the cost of living in a few paragraphs.

First, there are other important facts to know. The island is part of Indonesia and although Bali has certain self-Governance it is under the thumb of Jakarta in the world’s largest Muslim majority country in the world. What does that mean? Like anywhere, there are national political issues and local issues to contend with and some can affect you so read their local media. You can learn a lot more from local media than someone’s travel blog. Try the national Jakarta Post and the Bali Advertiser.

Keep in mind Indonesia is regarded by the modern world as a “Developing Country” which should downgrade one’s expectation of making comparisons to a person’s 1st world country. In addition, 25 million Indonesians still live on less than US$1 per day and Indonesia is now the sixth country of greatest wealth inequality in the world. Today, the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the combined total of the poorest 100 million people. With that in mind, consider extreme poverty is your neighbor. And any time the haves walk beside the have nots that desperation can lead to trouble. Not only in Indonesia but anywhere. Today, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous nation, the world's 10th largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, and a member of the G-20. An emerging middle-income country, Indonesia has made enormous gains in poverty reduction, cutting the poverty rate to more than half since 1999, to 9.8% in 2018. The Indonesian archipelago is made up of 17,508 islands, (3,181 mi) from east to west containing the most volcanoes of any country in the world. Over 300 different native languages and six official religions recognized by the government — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The last time the Government counted in 2017 the population was an estimated 264 million. Indonesia is also the second-largest user of Facebook in the world.

Do not assume all of the Indonesian elite class does not care about the struggle of others. One Indonesian wealthy musician who I barely know donated money to my daughter's liver transplant fund.

Remember no matter where you go in Indonesia there are no Civil Rights or true legal protection for foreigners. For example, the house I funded for my wife, I don’t own. Regardless of a prenup agree that states joint ownership, on divorce, I’ll never get my day in court. Curtail, negative comments about their politicians on social media or even an innocent remark about the Mosque being too loud can land you in jail. Don't drive a motorbike into a swimming pool. Behave. 

Ready to pack your bags? Remember, “ if you don’t like it, leave,” (local encouragement).

As a developing country, there are long lines and traffic congestion everywhere. Patience would be an understated quality an expat needs to survive in this country. Besides the fact, you can’t drink the water and there is no proper waste disposal with the exception a truck might pick up and dump it somewhere in the jungle, on the road its basically hells bells, there is no insurance and accidents are settled on the spot. Electric and other cabling look like dangling spaghetti noodles as the wires loop above the street corners. One city is a nondescript as the other. If the product is in demand one street will sell the same item in triplicate. A local will be waiting for you to sell a ticket to see a waterfall. There is little regulation on anything except narcotics and Visas. And maybe if you’re living on Java with an Indonesian woman you’ll need a marriage book. All sales are final. To get a repairman may take days.

Appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

Want to stay for good? You can but for a price. There is no immigration path and you must renew your Visa forever regardless of your situation. See my budget below.

Health care as I mentioned before is by western standards generally questionable (better or worse depending on where you are) as an expat you can buy the Indonesian public health service called BPJS but don’t expect too much except a long line and if you’re lucky you will be okay. Keep in mind that Indonesians who can afford it go to Singapore for their health care needs. I was misdiagnosed twice for skin cancer and the Doctor/University Professor recommended that a plastic surgeon fix it. The dentist took several trips but they finally got it right. A crown cost me $75 USD. In America, it would be $1,000 USD. If for no other reason than health care, Indonesia is a questionable choice for expat retirement. Moving to Indonesia without International health insurance is extremely risky.

I hope whatever is wrong with you, they have the experience and technology to handle it. If you call an ambulance it will take an hour or longer depending on the time of day and where you are before they arrive and then there’s the journey to the hospital. The traffic does not yield to emergency vehicles sometimes they can’t. There is no place to go. If you call the Police they’ll maybe show up at some point and want to be paid.

Appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

After three years in Ubud, Bali I moved to Yogyakarta aka Kota seniman, (the city of artists). Yogyakarta, (central Java) is a place where more than 3,000 artists and 300,000 University students call home. Jogya for short is considered to be the heart of Indonesian culture. I was anxious to see what it was all about. I packed up a motorbike with my few material possessions and strapped on all the years of my life. There was space and a place for everything, and nothing too burdensome to carry. All of my experiences had brought me to this remarkable starting point, and I could not leave them behind in some pile of unclaimed baggage. I sold my villa and went exploring with my wife, Tuti in tow.

Besides the horrible traffic, Jogya is everything Bali is not. It’s quiet, low key, and the locals are halus (soft) in manner. The hustle and bustle of tourists were gone. The ones seen were not the same drunken, obnoxious, selfie tribe that litter many of Bali’s beaches. Jogya (the city) is an urban experience filled with art galleries and artists to go with them. I befriended many. The housing was cheaper than Bali and overall I liked the vibe and able to walk for much of my needs was a bonus. Living on a remote Bali rice field had its meditative moments but it grew tiring. I itched for mingling, conversation, company, a sense for being “here” and a new leaf to turnover. Jogya was predominantly Muslim but if not for the women wearing hijabs I noticed no difference from the Balinese Hindu except there was a Mosque versus a temple. If there had been underlying bad feelings between the two religious groups in the past it appeared that tolerance replaced it.

Reading from Guitarlo at a Javanese arts festival in Jogya called "Gila (crazy) Days" (video)

I was envious of the expats who appeared content with their businesses and settled into their new home. Regardless of my ongoing sense of rootlessness, my list of Indonesian friends grew into the hundreds and I felt more connected. I visited every temple, theatrical, musical, and beach the area had to offer. In addition, I was making regular trips to Jakarta to hang out with Indonesian music celebrities. One experience that was alarming was witnessing a Balinese family squabble that got physical but I had never experienced a riot. One day, a short distance from my villa was a riot between the Islamic Defenders Front, (FPI) an Indonesian Islamist political organization and a group of students. The police and military showed and broke it up. I didn't see it happen again. Jogya and Jakarta are headquarters for the FPI and what they’re all about is beyond this essay. Two years passed, I felt I accomplished a lot in Jogya but I saw the end of the road. And my wife was tired of being in tow of my wandering and wanted a home. The compass pointed to her home town called Pandaan in East Java Timur. The worst thing that happened in Jogya was for unknown reasons the ATMs went offline and I could not access any money for a week.

Pandaan is a small town nestled between two mountain ranges and a place that employs many of the locals in factories. About two hours to the south is the active volcano Mt. Bromo, Malang and Batu, and to the north, about two hours is Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya. Another two hours to the east lies the ocean and the heart of Javanese magic, the Dukun Santet in Probolinggo. The nearest good hospital and market are also another two hours away.

Outside the town, the mountains are pristine and feature quaint villages. Next to poverty are two professional 18 hole golf courses, resorts with horses, and an abundance of hotels. Many are located about 10 minutes from my wife’s village on top of the mountain tourist resort area called Tretes. In Tretes, a handful of expats congregate daily at a local restaurant and drink beer. Are expats on Java any different from Bali? In general I found most expats on the surface friendly, aloof, hard to pin down, and they come and go. There is a rumor expats on Bali are the most disreputable in all of SE Asia? After nearly 10 years living in Indonesia, I can count my solid expat friends on one hand and half of them died.

My village or kampung is called Plintahan, consists of 1,000 locals who are friendly, poor, but resilient and generally happy and kind-hearted. The average income for most Plintahan villagers is about $1-$10 USD per day. There are no social means programs so you are on your own to survive. The family relies heavily on each other. A job is hard to come by. Tuti’s uncle is 111 years old and the rest of her family live in villas connected to each other. With the help of neighbors, she built a nice townhouse-sized home on family property for approximately $15,000 USD.

My house in Plintahan

In Plintahan the community news is announced by loudspeaker from the local Mosque. Guns are illegal. There are rarely arguments between neighbors and relatives but this is human and to be expected. Each family contributes to a community chest to cover the expense of (2) all night guards and trash pick up. To get by many borrow money from the community chest, their employer, and if possible a credit company. In other words, they’re all in debt. I am also the only person who can afford an Internet connection and air conditioning.

One of many village celebrations in Plintahan

I am the first and only white person to live in Plintahan. The locals referred to me in humor as "bule kampung" (white villager). As such the notoriety has made me a local celebrity. I have participated in many weddings and funerals. I think they’re honored that a foreigner wants to be part of their community. Honestly, I did feel cut-off and marooned in this world far from my Scandinavian former home. I had no like-minded community. The reason, for the most part, is language. Not knowing the language will alienate you. To test my theory try and live with a spouse that can't speak English.

Indonesians are polite but I think it’s more of an auto-response. For example, the Japanese bow, it’s an ancient traditional courtesy but that doesn’t mean they’re your new best friend. Making a lasting friendship with an Indonesian takes time and often has to be earned. In America we can cold call or reach out to people we don’t know and try to connect. In Indonesia, you need to meet in person and build a relationship. Something involving money to their benefit always helps.

Where I am there are no libraries and except school books, no one reads. I had my book “Guitarlo” translated into Indonesian and to my delight many Indonesians from other parts of the country liked it. My wife tried to read part of it, stopped in shock, and thought, “Are you a terrorist?”

The prevalent indigenous music is dangdut and it blasts from the speakers of many Indonesian homes, weddings, and celebrations. If you can sing or play guitar learning a dangdut song can help make you popular. Indonesians love humor! If you don’t believe me check out the young, Australian Vlogger, Londokampung. His silly language-based, prank videos made him rich. More examples of foreigners leveraging Indonesian language for notoriety is an American who is known on YouTube as Raja Dangdut. He sings dangdut songs on his cell phone while driving his car in Los Angeles. Doing so, landed him on the Indonesian CNN TV show. Another foreigner who is making good money off the Indonesian language is Vlogger, Sascha Stevenson. Unlike the American, Sascha has been a long time expat and paid her dues as a teacher turned media celebrity. I tried to make a prank video using the Indonesian language. These Vloggers are another example of the power of language. Unlock it and a new world will open to you. The Vloggers could never make money like this in their home country.

Excerpt from the book Guitarlo –

On our auspicious wedding day, I woke up in Tuti’s rickety bed in what used to be her bedroom at Uncle Matt’s. The pink cement walls showed their age by the length of cracks from floor to ceiling. A century-old, black-and-white photo hung sideways above the door. The one low-watt ceiling light cast a pale twilight across the room.

Tuti spent little time there; her only clothes cabinet was stuffed with moldy-smelling shoes. Before she met me, Tuti had dated a Swedish tobacco salesman for seven years and lived in nice hotels. The house vibrated with a dozen women, young and old. Wearing traditional Javanese headscarves (hijab), the women sat in a circle on the kitchen floor. They chopped chicken and vegetables into meticulously assembled gift-wrapped boxes of food. Others cleared furniture and rugs from the living room, to create space for our wedding ceremony. By the time I drank my first cup of coffee, Tuti was off to a salon appointment.

During the early hours, my only morning task was to bathe — with a bucket of cold water. So, I took a stroll through Tuti’s village. I tiptoed carefully down a busted up pathway of chicken poop, and out to the main road. I avoided, as much as possible, the creek of raw sewage that crisscrossed my path. To my surprise, I did not see any wild dogs as seen in Bali. Here, feral cats seemed to rule, and keep down the rat population? In stark contrast to the lush botanical garden of Ubud, the village was made up of small, houses, standing side by side. Flower pots, and colors of red, blue, pink, and green, helped to brighten up the weather-beaten buildings. Terraces and front yards with laundry lines opened to the neighborhood. I felt welcomed here. Children, playing badminton and snapping the ceremonial pecut whip, greeted me with some English they knew: “Gerd m-o-o-ning, Miztrrr.” Women held their babies out to me, smiled, and blushed. I can only begin to imagine what they thought. Who was this stranger, and why was he here? For the first time, a white man came out of their TV set and stood in their village. I got a rock star treatment that I never took for granted. The thought of getting married again did not weigh on my mind. I was too overwhelmed trying to absorb what was happening. When I turned a corner to circle the village, I ran into a pengamen. This is a type of street performer, similar to the street guitar players who sing at taxi windows. Here, the entertainer goes door to door, hoping for a donation. This young man was dressed in drag, singing with a portable karaoke machine in his hand. How, I questioned, did that person fit into this Muslim culture?

I didn’t need a watch to know when I needed to head back. Each day is divided into five prayer times. The ubiquitous mosque speakers remind everyone of the time to wake up, eat and break for prayer. I got the message, loud and clear.

My knowledge about Islam was none, however. All I knew was Indonesia was the largest Muslim nation in the world with 90% of the population being Islam. Most Muslims are either of two denominations: Sunni or Shia. The overwhelming majority in Indonesia adheres to Sunni Islam. Honestly, I have no idea what that means. I can't read or write Arabic and unfamiliar with the Koran. My wedding was Javanese, Islam. A unique, ancient cultural tradition filled with beautiful ceremonies, music, art, folklore, magic, and mysticism. These people hated radical Islam terrorists more than Americans. There are Islamic extremists just like there is Christian extremist. I can share after the many years I lived in the heart of this Islam that the xenophobic hatred that is promoted against Muslims in America is bogus. So deep runs the anti-Muslim American propaganda that my sister looked at me in fear that I might have converted to Islam. In some people's minds, I married the "enemy,"

Hour by the hour, Uncle Matt's house slowly filled with family and relatives. They had only one new name to remember: mine. I could not remember or properly pronounce all of theirs. I greeted them in the best way I knew how. They arrived in their best sarongs, peci hats, and colored hijabs. Each smiled courteously, gave a slight bow, then took their place on the living room floor. Tuti wanted to forego the groom’s traditional “Aladdin-looking” attire. Instead, she asked Uncle Matt to outfit me in one of his business suits. Had I known, I would have bought an affordable new, odor-free suit that fit. Instead, I squeezed into a jacket and pants that smelled like Tuti’s musty old shoes. Uncle Matt sprinkled me with cologne, which did not enhance my scent. I did have a pair of new black shoes and socks, and a gold-colored tie. I wore a traditional Muslim hat, edged with golden leaves.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw a new me. Not a sorrowful man defined by his relationship failures. I straightened my tie and hat, and said to my reflection, “You’re a lucky man.” Mr. (Pak) Modin, the elderly holy man arrived. He greeted me and asked me to recite my vow. When I said it, he shook his head. I memorized the wrong vow, so he wrote a new version. Tuti’s English-speaking cousin said, “You have a few minutes to get the new one right, or recite it in front of everyone until you do.”

No pressure. Here’s what I practiced: Saya berjanji, dalam kejujuran dan ketulusan, menjadi bagi anda suami yang setia dan membantu. Roughly translated: “I, Arlo, take you, Tuti, to be my lawful wedded wife.” The mixup occurred because wedding vows, ceremonies, and rituals vary from region to region. Somehow I had been told to memorize a vow not customary in this area. At 4 p.m., Tuti — in a white, lacy wedding gown called the kebaya — made her gala entrance into the living room. We sat before Pak Modin, and in the presence of her admiring family. Lacking a wedding rehearsal, I must have looked like Mr. Bean goes to the Mosque. I misplaced the ring, handed the dowry at the wrong moment, and, to the delight and amusement of her family, reversed our roles. Everyone laughed, lovingly. After my first attempt to recite the new vow, Pak Modin smiled in approval. Tuti’s older brother, Kamid, stood in for the ceremonial role of her father. When her turn came, Tuti glowed like a goddess (widodari ) and happily recited her vow.

Click to watch the Javanese, Islam marriage vow video

We could now share Tuti’s old bedroom without shaming the family. The ceremony was followed by a prayer and a reception line. I touched each person’s hands to my forehead in honor of the almighty, Mohammad. We then relaxed into the reception. Tuti’s family sat on the floor, passed rice, made small talk (I was told), and shared gifts. I bought ice cream for all the children in the village, cranked up an old karaoke machine, and passed out modest gifts of money throughout the clan. We hired a photographer, who turned the living room into a photo studio. First, he took formal photos of the kids, brothers, cousins, uncles, and aunts. The sessions lasted for hours. They were eager to pose because it was the first time they had ever been photographed. I was thrilled for Tuti that her family gathered for this occasion. But I pictured one more witness — my daughter, Danika. I wanted to see her and hear her say, “I am happy for you, Daddy.” The women (of course) cleaned up, while the men went outside to play cards — until 6 a.m. About 3 a.m. I spotted Uncle Matt 100,000 rupiah so he could stay in the game.

I framed my favorite photo of Tuti and me. For our honeymoon, we returned to Bali, ordered pizza delivery, and snuggled up to our favorite dangdut singing contest on TV. A year and a half later, when we returned to her uncle’s place, Tuti was told by the village authorities that we were not legally married. Due to improper paperwork, we did not have the official buku nikah (marriage book) and were not allowed to live together?

Our requisite marriage book traveled through a labyrinth of government offices, ending up in the Department of Religious Affairs. There we faced the director, Mohammad Bejo, a stocky, middle-aged man wearing a batik shirt, and a black peci. While Tuti went into a lengthy explanation of our story, I crossed my legs and spaced out on the ceiling fan. When the attention focused on me, Tuti slapped my leg to uncross them. I later was aware that crossing one’s legs in a business meeting is considered to be impolite.

“I’m from Hollywood, USA. You know, Tom Cruise, President Obama, ” I said. Bejo nodded approvingly. Tuti roughly translated that he wanted to wear my sunglasses. “Those are Ray-Ban, American,” I commented. He put them on and smiled, “Are you a movie star?” Everyone laughed except me, I didn’t get it.

Because my permission to marry an Indonesian from the US Embassy lacked an American flag stamp on it our marriage application had been denied three times. Saved by the Ray-Bans they tipped the balance in our favor, and he “legalized” us. My marriage book was green and Tuti’s book, red — like a couple’s passport to Christmas. The photo looked like me, but the name of my dad, my birthdate and birthplace were misspelled. The documents claimed that we were Muslim. I did not designate that. Nor was I asked. Technically, I followed no organized religion and neither did Tuti. I supposed that our previous wedding suggested that we are Muslims. I hoped this squared with the authorities now. Tuti and I signed the buka, shook the director’s hand, and thanked him. We quickly set up a new wedding date, auspicious or not.

For marriage #2 we dressed up in traditional Javanese costumes, and I got to look like a sultan. The 'new' holy man who married us complained about my lack of Javanese and the time required to conduct the ceremony. The holy man said, “I could marry three people in the time it takes to marry you!” Uncle Matt and the gang kept with their tradition of all-night poker. Would we receive new wedding gifts? Did we have to return the ones we’ve been using?

An upside to all the craziness was a change in my visa status, which reduced my fees by nearly half. Our holy union, however, did not grant me any civil rights to property, employment, or a process of dual citizenship, no matter how long I lived in Indonesia. Besides tradition, what was the legal point of marriage? Our marriage is not legally recognized in the United States. If we ever decided to live in America, I would have to file a marriage petition for Tuti through US immigration. I do not know whether we will marry yet a third time.

Over the course of years, during our marriage, Tuti took good care of me. Eventually, we learned each other's language. After moving around Indonesia we finally settled in her family's village. The topic of religion never was never raised. If this is what it's like to marry the enemy then I highly recommend it.

Tuti and I wedding photo

Appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

Do you want (3) wives? Yes, it’s legal if you claim Islam as your religion but you need the blessing of your first wife.

How much does it cost to live in Bali/Indonesia?

My lifestyle is based on my retirement pension, $1,665.00 USD per month. You can Google the current exchange rate. With that amount of money, I can afford the items listed below. My villa will be paid off soon. Needless to say, budgets vary according to lifestyle and always changing. If you have a major health disaster it can wipe you out without International health insurance. The left column is rupiah and the right is USD. As you can see I have an estimated disposable income without calculation of all the prescription drugs, a trip to America or elsewhere, as well as my Visa expense, which is a spousal, sponsored Visa called a KITAP. The cost for a KITAP is approximately $430 USD for (5) years (East Java Timur price). On Bali, I was paying nearly $1,000 USD per year plus a trip to Singapore for a retirement VISA. However, I still ended up broke every month before payday. By common Indonesian standards, I am well off financially.

I suggest that you do have more money than me!

Other perks? I can get a 90-minute full-body massage in my house for less than $5.00 USD. Great haircut for less than 50 cents. Almost anything can be repaired for cheap. Local restaurants are also inexpensive. My motor scooter aka “rice rocket” costs $1,200 USD new and barely uses (1) tank of petrol per month. Train, bus, taxi, pacek or plane domestic transportation are low-cost.

Can’t break your western diet then the food prices will set you back because it’s imported. A cheap bottle of wine will cost $27.00 USD. Not to mention the variety of foods in markets (depending on where you are) is limited. What do the locals eat with an income of $75 per month? Tofu, Tempeh, egg, chicken, Ikan Asin (cheap fish), gado-gado, sayur sop, pezel, nasi goreng, and rice. Plus, add chile sauce! BTW - rice costs 4x more per kilo on Bali.

And those prescriptions? It would be helpful if you could enter a search on an Indonesian web site and see if your medication is available and the dose. Often times the dose is not the same so good luck.

Other items like smartphones, computers, TV, and other electronic gadgets cost the same as where I came from. Automobiles cost the same as 1st world economies too. Therefore, across the board, not everything in Indonesia is less expensive. Housing, labor, motorscooter and locally made goods a definite yes, but anything else?

Other considerations – the expat factor

Familial and friend Dislocation - accepting the fact that not everyone where you came from is going to approve where you went to live. I’ve been called names like “runaway” and subjected to attitudes including what I am doing is irresponsible and somehow bad. I believe much of this response is jealousy and ignorance-based. Ignore it. So many have had dreams that will never come to fruition. When they see the few who have they look for negativity.

Living near a Mosque – consider that Indonesia is the largest Muslim population on Earth and if you have an issue with that better decide to live elsewhere? Except for Bali, there is a Mosque everywhere. (5) Times per day the Mosque broadcasts prayers that can be heard from afar so whatever you do don’t complain. To complain is considered blasphemy and you can go to jail for it or worse. If you listen closely to some of the prayer singers, they are both talented and wonderful to listen to. The din of many praying amplified is quite moving and a fine example of the power and importance of religion in Indonesia.

Change – Indonesia is an ongoing, ever-evolving nation with laws and rules often changing day to day. There is a lot of misinformation online and non-updated Government web sites. Tourist photos can be deceiving. Opinions vary. When you’re on the outside looking in it’s hard to figure out. When you’re on the inside looking out it’s still hard to convey.

Poverty – Indonesia is a poor country. The poverty is agonizing and even with the thickest skin, the pain will sink into your heart. If you are insensitive to the lives of have-nots you really should choose a different new home.

Adjustment disorder – adjusting to an alien culture takes time. Go with the flow or drown.

I ain’t got nobody that I can depend on – self-reliance is a big part of living abroad. Even if supported by many we are basically all alone in the world. This can become magnified in a foreign country when language and cultural differences are to the extreme.


No matter where you try and live the grass may always appear to be greener. Your new life abroad will come down to what you can tolerate, letting go of modern conveniences, ease of access, adaptability, the trial and tribulations of a new set of cultural mores and language, entitlements, and the fact you are now the stranger.

Living abroad will test you to the breaking point and if you survive you’ll remain if not you’ll pull your hair and scream. It’s not easy to live in a place where English is not well known and laws are Draconian. The reality you are familiar with will be turned upside down.

I truly believe in order to survive and find happiness abroad, you must give up some of your beliefs, mores, ways of life. A part of you must be sacrificed as you deal with things you do not agree with but must tolerate. This is not easy to do. It takes a strong will to change. A part of you will be gone...not many can deal with that.

The expat experience has rewards but it’s not for everyone. And remember, appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

Sampai jumpa (see you soon)

About the author - By James Joyce

Regardless of the setbacks and obstacles, Hennings faced in Indonesia, his words can be found in Indonesian media outlets such as the (Bali Advertiser, Tirto, and the Indonesian Expat Magazine.) His music contributions can be found on his own Indonesian Jazz label (Indojazzia), which landed a young pianist from Bali, Eric Sondhy, on worldwide music charts, plus his own critically acclaimed CD Jawa Warrior. In addition, he is the curator for the music podcast show 107.3 2Ser Australia, featuring the latest in cutting edge music from the Indonesian archipelago. Furthermore, he is the first foreigner to participate in the Indonesian music awards (AMI). Hennings also managed the International critically acclaimed Indonesian band, I Know You Well Miss Clara. Finally, he was the Director of Business Development for the Ubud Concert Series and the Indonesian Music Expo (IMEX), and a testament to his newfound popularity with Indonesians are thousands of followers on social media.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Indonesia.

Recommended resources:

A Brief History of Bali, A Geek in Indonesia, Journey Through Indonesia, A Brief History of Indonesia by Tim Hannigan. Island of the Dogs (documentary). Hotel K and Snowing in Bali by Kathryn Bonella. Jakarta Jive, Bali Blues by Jeremy Allan. The photography books found at Afterhours Books.   

© Arlo Hennings 2020