Sandhy Sondoro Reveals His Soul

Photo courtesy of Sandhy Sondoro

Photo courtesy of Sandhy Sondoro

Sandhy Sondoro the person and Sandhy Sondoro the musician are two very different people. When he tells a story, he gestures wildly, moving around restlessly in his seat. He is halfway through the next story having barely finished the first. 

“I’m sorry. What were we talking about?” he says, losing his train of thought. 

Sandhy is more than happy to give a short performance upon request, carefully removing his precious guitar from its case. As soon as the guitar is in his hands, the transformation begins. When he starts singing, the restlessness vanishes and the vivacious character becomes calm, introspective and serious. He closes his eyes and puts his whole heart into the music, even though his audience is a mere handful of guests on the rooftop in Plaza Semanggi, South Jakarta. 

Wearing a black fedora, a long-sleeved navy shirt and sleek gray pants, the 29-year-old Indonesian soul musician based in Berlin is back in his hometown to promote his debut album, “Why Don’t We.” Having performed two shows here this month, Sandhy’s next gig will be held on Thursday night at the Rolling Stone headquarters in South Jakarta. He will play two more shows in Bali this weekend, as well. 

His songs combine heart-felt soul with elements of jazz. Most of his songs deliver a similar message: “One love, one heart, one world,” a sentiment he expresses in speech and in his lyrics. However, it is his dynamic vocal ability that is most impressive — he can go from a coarse raspy soulful voice like the legendary Bobby Womack’s to a soft controlled falsetto that echoes the smooth R&B singer D’Angelo. 

“I don’t know myself why or how I sound like this,” Sandhy said, laughing. “Many people who hear my music for the first time think that I’m black. They’re surprised to see I’m Asian.” 

Perhaps the sound of African-American music crept into his head as he grew up listening to Curtis Mayfield and Ray Charles, two of his biggest influences. 

Sandhy grew up around Blok S in South Jakarta with a musical family. “I first got in touch with Western music, like blues and soul, when I was very little. I grew up with that kind of music,” he said. 

His parents also played guitar and they showed Sandhy a thing or two about the instrument. Other than that, Sandhy has never had formal lessons and is basically a self-taught musician. 

After he finished high school, he moved to Germany to study architecture. He graduated in interior design, but music has always been his first passion. 

“Initially, I wanted to be an architect, and I still like everything related to it, but I enjoy singing too much,” he said. “I think I want to sing until I die.” 

However, building a reputation in Berlin’s music scene was no easy task, so Sandhy started off in the city as a street musician. 

“I first started playing as a busker because I needed money,” Sandhy said. “I had no job, but I still had to buy food and pay the rent. I saw a street musician one day, he was actually a bit drunk, and I asked him if we could play together — and he didn’t mind. So I brought my guitar. We sang a few songs together, and after an hour and a half, we made 50 euro. The next day, I did it alone.” 

He eventually found gigs in Berlin’s bars and clubs, and also performed at festivals. 

“It wasn’t easy to establish myself in the German music scene,” Sandhy said. “I think it was because I am not black or white — I’m Asian. It was really new to them.” 

Sandhy still returns to Berlin’s metro stations, not to make enough to pay the rent, but to promote his new songs. 

It was not until he entered a talent show on German national TV that people throughout the country really started to take notice of Sandhy. The TV show, with a German name too long and convoluted to mention, poked fun at Germany’s version of “American Idol” and allowed musicians to perform their own songs. 

“Actually, I don’t make music to compete with others or be better than anyone, but after making music for a long time and still having difficulties getting my music out there, it felt like it was the right thing to do,” he said. “If you’re a great musician but you don’t have any connections, you won’t be successful. And it was a great feeling to finally sing in front of millions of people.” 

In December 2007, Sandhy came in fifth out of the 20 finalists, who had been selected from thousands of entrants. Four months later, he released his debut album, “Why Don’t We,” featuring 12 songs in English. His album was produced by the Berlin-based indie label Revolver Records and was generally well received by critics. 

Having found his niche in Berlin, Sandhy is now trying to attract an Indonesian market, as well. “Even though I consider myself an international artist, I am Indonesian,” he said. 

Sandhy also writes songs in Indonesian. “It was only in the last five or six years that I realized how beautiful the Indonesian language is,” he says. “But it is still hard for me to find the right words in Indonesian that fit into the melody.” 

A girl once approached Sandhy at a Berlin metro station while he was busking in Indonesian. “She said, ‘Wow, this is beautiful. Is it Portuguese?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s Indonesian.’ You know, most Westerners think of Asia as China or Japan,” Sandhy said. “They don’t know how different Indonesia and Southeast Asia is.” 

Sandhy has been abroad for a long time, but still feels very much at home in Indonesia. 

“My family is here,” he said. “But I am very happy in Berlin, too. I have my friends, and they have become my family over there. My dream would be to split my time between Indonesia and Europe,” he said. “Living six months here, and six months there.”

This article was first published on June 30, 2009 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.