narcotics

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In our researches for A History of Jazz in Indonesia, we discovered that the first time that the music genre was heard in the country was back in 1919. Naturally, this lead us to investigate both the sound of the music and the nature of ‘society’ at the time.

The music was easy: the first jazz record was Livery Stable Blues by the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band recorded on February 26th 1917. (Listen here.) Note that it’s a foxtrot: jazz was originally intended as dance music, and it was at dances in Jakarta, Surabaya and as far way as Sumbawa that it became popular in the Dutch East Indies.


Further digging gave rise to another thought: those early American jazz musicians smoked a lot of marijuana, and sang about it because it usually made them happy and it got them ‘high’ and sometimes ‘mellow’.

Here is a downloadable compilation of 20s and 30s vocal jazz we’ve put together to demonstrate the fact. (Note: reefer = marijuana cigarette; weed = marijauna leaves; roach = the last bit of the reefer; spinach = a euphenism for marijuana; viper = Harlem slang for a marijuana smoker.)

  1. Larry Adler – Smoking Reefers
  2. Jazz Gillum & His Jazz Boys – Reefer Head Woman
  3. Ella Fitzgerald – When I Get Low I Get High
  4. Julia Lee & Her Boyfriends – Spinach Song (I Didn’t like it The First Time)
  5. Lil Johnson – Mellow Stuff
  6. Bea Foote – Weed
  7. Tampa Red & The Chicago Five – I’m Gonna Get High
  8. Harlem Hamfats – Weed Smokers Dream
  9. Buck Washington – Save The Roach For Me
  10. Cab Calloway – Reefer Man
  11. Fats Waller – Vipers Drag

Fats Waller with a reefer

So our next question was about the libation of choice of the high society folk who had enough wealth and time to dance to jazz music at the prestigious Hotel des Indes.

One may assume that being Dutch their alcohol of choice was jenever (juniper or gin).. But did they also use marijuana to get ‘high’?

To date, we can find no evidence that they did. Our search for ‘marijuana in Dutch East Indies‘ produced only one page and I read that “in the 1600s  … the Dutch imported cannabis from the East Indies.”

It is widely known that marijuana, or gandja as it is known here, is grown in Aceh, and maybe it still is in the hills around Bandung in West Java. However, not only is that irrelevant but it is also confusing because cannabis and hemp are used interchangeably in the article. They are not the same plant genus.

Cannabis is the only plant genus that contains the unique class of molecular compounds called cannabinoids and is high in the psychoactive cannabinoid, THC, and low in the antipsychoactive cannabinoid, CBD. Hemp, however, is low in THC and high in CBD. It’s great value lies in industry. Until the mid-twentieth century hemp fibres were were needed for ropes, especially on the sailing shops of the time.

Another common recreational drug is opium. The following notes have been gleaned from various sources.

– The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie; VOC) was founded in 1602 and enjoyed huge profits from its spice monopoly through most of the 17th century.
– However, the VOC were not good employers, so in order to supplement their incomes, senior officers engaged in “private-account trading”, including opium smuggling.
– Opium was chiefly sourced from Bengal, then in India (now Bangladesh).
– When the VOC collapsed, bankrupt, on December 31st 1799, the Dutch government took over its assets (and debts), and thus began the Dutch East Indies under the administration of the Dutch government.
– In 1928 the law curtailing the use of opium and other narcotic drugs was proclaimed in the Netherlands, though at the same time keeping the opium trade in the colonies of the Dutch East Indies outside of these regulations.
– From then on until 1942, the Dutch government controlled the opium industry. This included a packaging factory on Jl. Salemba in Batavia. This state monopoly was called the opiumregie.


Initially, smoking opium leads to a euphoric state that then quickly turns to a sleepy, sedated state for the user.

Hence, it was not suitable for jazz dancers.