Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Indonesian Keroncong Cellos

An Indonesian luthier working on a Keroncong Cello.  Note there are only three pegs.
An Indonesian luthier working on a Keroncong Cello. Note there are only three pegs.

Some time ago I posted about a style of music in Indonesia called Keroncong.  In the image above you can see that a luthier is working on a Keroncong Selo (Cello), most of have three strings since the instrument is used as a plucked, rather than bowed instrument.  The video I posted in the previous post I’ve come to learn was of what might be considered on of the most Keroncong songs ever written, “Bengawan Solo,” which is about the Solo River which is the largest river in Java.

I’ve probably since listened to several dozen versions of this though the video above probably is one of the best close-ups of the pizzacato style of Keroncong Cellists.  The tune was written by Javanese composer, Gesang Martohartono, in 1940 before the occupation of Indonesia by Japan in 1942.  As Margaret Kartomi describes it1:

The song text describes the historic grandeur of the Solo River, flowing through Central and East Java, one of the most fertile areas of Indonesia, which has supported and sustained human life since prehistoric times. A local trade route, it linked the fertile inland kingdoms of Java in the first and second millennia to the rich spice trade of Indonesia. The text of the song acclaims the river for the way it has supported and enriched the crops and lives of the people. Yet as the song was being completed in September 1940, the people were suffering from the effects of that year’s long dry season (kemarau), and by the time the composer first sang the song in the rainy season (December of that year), the River Solo was in flood, bringing misery to thousands of people whose lives were dominated by the power of the river (personal communication from Gesang). As a symbol of their fortunes, the song spoke eloquently to the people’s condition.

The song is written in langgam keroncong (i.e. 32-, 24-, or 20-bar) form and accompanied in keroncong asli (“authentic kroncong”) style though, as I mentioned, I’ve heard so many versions of the tune in various styles.  For example, this lovely version by the Indonesian Dance of Illinois group from a concert they did at Purdue University in Lafayette, IN:

Kartomi’s paper discusses many of the versions, including several foreign language versions of it.  I’ve heard versions in Mandarin, Japanese, Thai–the tune seems nearly as ubiquitous and popular as, say, “Ue o Muite Arukō” which is much more well known by it’s inexplicable name 0utside of Japan, “Sukiyaki.”  Ironically, this is one of the first songs I learned how to sing in Thai while I was a youngster here in the states–I hadn’t even heard the original Japanese version made famous by Sakamoto until just a few years ago.

The relative paucity of papers written about Keroncong in English is frustrating.  Most of the websites are simply re-wordings or variants of a very general introduction that can be found at the wikipedia entry.  As Judith Becker stated some time ago2:

A history of kroncong, or even a description of the various kinds of kroncong has yet to be written, either in Indonesian or English.  This article is the briefest of introductions to a musical style which has a wider audience and more practitioners than any other in Indonesia.

Ersnt Heins bluntly states3 that this is simply a prejudice that musicologist have against musical forms that aren’t “authentic” (since the instrumentation and style of Keroncong can be traced back to Dutch influence in the late 16th century):

For a long time the unauthenticity of kroncong and tanjidor has been taken for granted, and therefore until now neither has received much musicological attention. This is mainly due to the fact that neither type is ‘beautiful’, ‘high’, or ‘pure native music’ in the sense of earlier ethnomusicology. Jaap Kunst makes only marginal mention of kroncong in his standard work Music in Java (1949, 3/1973:375). It is played, he writes, “with enthusiasm and unmistakable musicality, but without the slightest real musical culture.”

While I haven’t found any Keroncong histories in English, I would highly doubt there haven’t been none written in Indonesian since Becker made the above comment.  I’ve actually come across a 76 page thesis4 specifically on the improvisation technique in Keroncong Cello in Indonesian so I imagine there are several works, as well as histories and descriptions of the music by now.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned–it is in Indonesian and I haven’t had the time to sort through it or to get someone to help me struggle through it.

One thing is clear is that once Keroncong moved into central Java, the style started to incorporate elements of the indigenous art music form, Gamelan.  Here are two videos of the same group performing “Bengawan Solo,” and then a Gamelan styled Keroncong tune, “Gambang Suling” (this latter video I posted in my previous blog).

While I haven’t said too much more than I did in my previous post about this genre, I’ve at least cited a few works which should allow the reader to learn much more than can be found on the interwebs.  And really, this post was just an excuse to start back up my Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello series as it has been far too long (nearly two years) since I’ve made my last entry.

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REFERENCES

1) Margaret Kartomi (1998) “The Pan-East/Southeast Asian and National Indonesian Song Bengawan Solo and Its Javanese Composer,” Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 30, pp. 85-101 <<doi:10.2307/768555>>

2) Judith Becker (1975) “Kroncong, Indonesian Popular Music,” Asian Music, Vol. 7, No. 1, Southeast Asia Issue, pp. 14-19 <<http://www.jstor.org/stable/833923>>

3) Ernst Heins (1975) “Kroncong and Tanjidor – Two Cases of Urban Folk Music in Jakarta,” Asian Music, Vol. 7, No. 1, Southeast Asia Issue (1975), pp. 20-32 <<http://www.jstor.org/stable/833924>>

4) Dwi Kurniadi (2002) “Teknik Improvisasi Cello Pada Musik Keroncong” (Cello Improvisation Technique in Keroncong Music), Universitas Negeri Jakarta (Jakarta State University), <<http://www.scribd.com/doc/4913354/SKRIPSI-2Improvisasi-Cello-Keroncong>>

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