For those interested, here's the full version of the story I wrote, and a picture and a couple of video clips to go with it.
By Ari Sharp
When Adelle Neary and Jeremy Stringer came to Jakarta to represent the Australian government, they were both keen to strengthen the ties between Indonesia and its southern neighbour.
What they didn’t expect was to become celebrities in the process.
Neary, a 29-year-old from Adelaide, and Stringer, a 41-year-old from Fremantle, are the singing diplomats who have taken center stage in the television program Asing Star, and Australian Idol-type show that invites foreigners to sing Indonesian songs.
“What’s great about Indonesia is that they just like to see people up there having a go,” Stringer said in an interview at an upscale restaurant near the Australian embassy.
“In other singing contests, people actually want to become famous as a singer, whereas on this one the novelty is that you’re a foreigner who can sing in Indonesian,” Neary added.
Both have won two episodes of the Asing Star (“asing” means “foreign” in Bahasa Indonesia) and are in the running for a possible final planned by private broadcaster Trans 7 in the next month.
When the program launched last year, producers put appeals for contests out to major expatriate employers, including embassies.
Neary, who is in her first year of a three-year posting with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was a little reluctant at first to put herself forward because of a lack of performing experience. She’d had no formal voice training, and hadn’t sung publicly since her days in a school choir.
“I did what I now realise was an audition at their studio whereby they asked me some questions, took my clothes sizes, took a photo of me and then made me sing into a BlackBerry camera,” she said. “Then I found myself standing on the stage in the studio for a run through, and I realised it was really happening.”
Stringer, nearing the end of a four-year stint with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), was a little more enthusiastic because of his years of singing in choirs at home in Western Australia, including one that had sung Indonesian songs.
“I turned a corner and boom, it was the whole deal,” he said of his first day recording. “A singer and dancers on stage, house band playing, celebrity judges sitting out front, the audience dancing, TV cameras and cables and technicians everywhere. My stomach dropped and I just thought, ‘I am supposed to get up there and sing in front of all of this?’ But despite the terror, I did, and it was fun.”
Each episode of the program features five foreigners singing a song each, with a panel of three judges – a sinetron soap opera star, a rock musician and a comedian – casting votes. The winner, or in some cases joint winners, go through to the next week. Each is able to win up to two episodes, making it through to a possible final if they do. Competitors come from all over the world – Brazil, India, Russia and the Ukraine have all had representatives on the show - and many are in Jakarta on short-term modelling contracts.
The show taps into the Indonesian curiosity about Westerners, particularly those who have taken the time and effort to learn the language and culture of the country. The tone of it is relentlessly positive, with contestants lauded for their willingness to have a go, even if they don’t always hit the right note, or choose the right word in a post-song interview.
The contestants each get to choose which songs they would like to sing.
For his first song, Stringer chose Bento, a song by rock icon Iwan Fals that stuck with him from his time in Indonesian in the mid-1990s and sent out a subtle but firm message of protest and social rebellion at a time during the Suharto regime when such things were frowned upon.
His second song was Alusi Ahu, in the traditional Batak language of North Sumatra. “One of the judges on an episode that I won said he was really proud that I could sing one of their national songs,” he said.
Neary’s first song Selimut Hati, was chosen with little thought because of time pressures, but it’s her second song that has really connected with audiences. Bengawan Solo is a popular song about the Solo River from generations ago and is seen by contemporary Indonesians as passe. Neary’s willingness to embrace its dagginess, and breathe new life into it, complete with retro dance moves during the bridge, endeared her to judges and fans.
Stringer and Neary are both realistic about the diplomatic potential of their involvement in the program, although their meeting with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd early this week on his visit to Jakarta and a subsequent video of their brief chat did elevate its significance somewhat.
“It’s a bit of a getting-to-know-you exercise,” Neary said of the show. “It’s like the case in real life. The more you get to know somebody, the harder it is to impose a stereotype. So perhaps in that way, seeing a couple of everyday Australians up on the stage, singing in Bahasa and communicating in Bahasa in a pretty light-hearted and relaxed way, is an unexpected way to portray Australians.”
Stringer agreed, but saw some benefits flowing the other way. “I think Indonesia can seem quite inaccessible to Australians and I think that this experience might show Australians that [Indonesia’s] just like this, with normal everyday pop culture that is entirely accessible, that is entirely user-friendly,” he said.
As for the future, both say this is unlikely to prompt them to leave the diplomatic corp in pursuit of a singing career any time soon.
“Probably Australia’s interests are better served if I stick to my day job,” Neary said with a laugh. For now, though, she’s rifling through her extensive Indonesian music collection for a track to sing on the show’s Valentine’s Day episode.