Paul Vernon's series on historical recordings takes him
to Indonesia to rediscover the genre the world forgot:
Yodelling Tango Hawaiian Kronjong!
Try to imagine this: a small string band playing a tango rhythm. A sweetvoiced soprano, using a colloquial patois, sharing choruses with a gravel-voiced baritone; they sing of the clear, bright day and the beauty of the countryside. Suddenly, there's a blistering Hawaiian guitar solo. The singers, clearly pleased with the sound, trade comments with each other. The record ends with some rudimentary yodelling. The description on the record label translates as "Sung through the extraordinary medium of Miss Ninja and Victor Tobing's Sweet Java Islanders".
What you've encountered is the Kronjong, Indonesia's century-old urban folk music - its name taken from the fivestring ukulele-like instrument integral to its playing - and it has nothing to do with traditional gamelan. Like the fado, rebetika or tango, it is the province of urban dwellers, and if you thought World Music Fusion leapt fully armed off a WOMAD stage, think again.
Kronjong roots go back to at least the 1880s, while the ingredients that nourished them stretch back some three centuries. Like all urban folk musics, the Kronjong is syncretic - a hybrid that only existed because people were adapting to change.
The people themselves were hybrid also. Kronjong was originally the music of and by a specific sub-group of Eurasians, people with an ethnic background of some complexity. The crewmen and slaves who arrived on trading vessels throughout the 16th century, when the area was a Portuguese colony, where a mixture of Portuguese, African, Indian and Malay.
They were all Lusophone, and many of these so- called 'Black Portuguese' adopted Christianity, settled in Batavia (now Jakarta) and married Indonesian women. By the end of the 19th century, they had melted into the local life sufficiently to be regarded as natives
Dominated by the Dutch, who had ousted the Portuguese in the 17th century and whose colonial possessions sprawled across the East Indies, Eurasians were split into several class strata. The ordinary working people (often clerks, shop assistants or minor bureaucrats) were the ones who first nurtured the Kronjong. Early reports speak of Kronjong parties, where groups of competing musicians, one fronted by a female singer, the other by a male, would exchange quatrainic verses locally known as 'pantrums', in mock arguments or flirtations, cutting or topping each other's verse, operating in much the same way as a Portuguese desgarado. Given the Lusophone origins, this is perhaps unsurprising. This was the benign side of the music.
On a slightly more dangerous - or exhilarating - level, sharp young men would wander the streets at night singing of their longing for the young girls of the area. Most reported exchanges (in ancient colonial literature) are innocuous enough, but applying the 'Damn Tinkers' theory, more raunchy verses must surely have been sung. The reported reaction of parents, to lock their daughters away in fear, would seem to support this. These were the young men who referred to themselves as 'Jagos' (Roosters) or 'Buaya' (Crocodiles), sharply dressed, streetwise young blades with their I testosterone running amok. It really was that specific and, had it not been for the advent of the gramophone, it may not have survived beyond the
However, in 1904, the first entrepreneurs from Europe arrived with recording machines. The newly-formed and aggressive Odeon company sent their engineer John D. Smoot on an expedition to record whatever he could. Among a random collection of popular Dutch tunes he captured the earliest known examples of Kronjong. The tunes were simple, the instrumentation rudimentary, and the performers unnamed.
No evidence remains to suggest how well they sold, but within four years from this first effort, Odeon were competing with three other companies - German Lyraphone and Beka and French Pathé.
Because the events of the 1914-18 war bypassed the area, recording continued uninterrupted and the development of early Kronjong can be documented in some detail. The first recordings were mostly very rural in character, featuring just a trio, most often guitar, flute and violin. At times a small frame drum or lute might be added but in essence it was very much a street level music.
In the 1 920's the bands expanded into small orchestras, adding piano, trumpet, cello, clarinet, banjo, mandolin and sundry other instruments. By the time the electric recording process arrived in 1925 the music had altered significantly in a number of other ways. No longer was it a simple folk music but an urban- syncretic sound increasingly performed by professional artists.
As much as anything, this was due to the semi-formal competitions held regularly at evening fairs and in amusement parks. Growing in popularity from about 1910 these events were judged by panels of 'experts' end bands would be awarded points not only for their music but also for their stage costumes and general professionalism. From the ranks of the winners came the next recording stars, for record company executives kept a weather eye on such events. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Stamboul theatre genre began featuring Kronjong as an integral part of its performances, further promoting acceptance of the music on a national level. These new performers were not exclusively Eurasian any more. Indonesian and Indo- Chinese performers took I increasingly important | roles in developing the | music, bringing their own influences to bear on what was turning into an important and popular local culture.
The form too had altered; the tempo of early Kronjong had almost halved by Miss Eda (picture) the mid-1920s and a
more complex rhythmic pattern including 'walking' guitar had been introduced. Finally, the performers were being named on discs and were singing professionally in cafes and nightclubs in and around Batavia. By the end of the 1920s, Kronjong was the Xpre-eminent popular music of Indonesia.
By 1930 the Lyraphone and Beka companies had folded and Pathé had dropped out of the market to be replaced by HMW and Columbia. Odeon still held the grip it had had since since 1904, partly because of its policy of appointing local agents whounderstood the market to look after its affairs. Until 1931 these companies competed fiercely with each other. Then, as a result of the formation of EMI, they suddenly all became one company, although the logos remained and the record buying public noticed little if any change. Records for the Indonesian market continued to be manufactured in either Dum Dum, India, from which the market was controlled by EMI, or in Singapore where a major factory had been established.
Stylistically the 1930s was an era when the Kronjong was influenced by other musics that the 78rpm record helped expose. Contemporary vogues for Hawaiian guitar and Argentinian tango were warmly welcomed and soon made their influences felt. These new ingredients helped create a dance-band sound 11 popular in stylish nightspots while a sampler, more It identifiably Indonesian style based upon an expanded version of the 1920s sound continued to develop. Interestingly, though, the styles appear not to have split the market by appealing to separate groups of devotees. Records issued at the time often feature both styles, on each side, by the same groups.
With the worldwide spread of sound in films during the early 1930s, the Kronjong took another departure; in 1931 the first Indian film, Alam Ara had turned the Indian music industry around and created an enormous demand for more musical films. By 1935 the Indonesian market was being exposed to sound film musicals also. Within the seemingly innocuous framework of movies like Kronjong Holiday nationalist songwriters began to use the medium as a vehicle for a return to Indonesian values rather than the broad acceptance of western culture that had been the constant by- product of colonialism. As a result, the significance of the Kronjong began to alter also. The rise of Indonesian nationalism that started to gain ground in the 1930s both used the Kronjong as a vehicle and ensured that the style itself became more closely identified with the national spirit.
Western values certainly proliferated. A study of contemporary catalogues shows that popular American records were regularly made available and, moreover, local cover versions were also part of the staple diet. Miss Jacoba, a major 1930s star, appeared to delight in covering American hits like Rio Rita, Bye Bye Blackbird and even Tiptoe Through The Tulips in Indonesian. She also regularly recorded with the Hawaiian Kailola band, as well as interpreting Stamboul popular hits.
Statistically, most 1930s Kronjong singers were women. Always prefaced by 'Miss', and never given second names, Miss Ninja and Miss Jacoba were to be found in contemporary catalogues in the company of Miss Louise, Miss Mira, Miss Tess and Miss Soepia [sic] among others. They performed Kronjong, Stamboul, Blues Kronjong, Slowfox Kronjong, Slowfox Hawaiian Kronjong, Film Hits, Tangos, Waltzes, and even the occasional Yodelling Tango Hawaian Kronjong.
Accompanying orchestras were often listed as the 'HMW Batavia Orkestra', or the 'HMV Hawaiian Orkestra', generic names for the studio houseband, but there were also well known orchestras who accompanied a variety of singers, including S. Abdullah's Orkestra, who accompanied Miss Jacoba almost exclusively.
Throughout the 1930s the style continued to dominate the popular Indonesian market through the media of records, films and radio, but although nationalism was on the rise, the control of the media was still firmly in western hands. In 1941, however, events conspired to alter the path of the region's history.
When the Japanese invaded and took over control of Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia, which they had achieved by early 1942, they immediately confiscated all European business interests. Further, they openly persecuted anything with Euro- characteristics including the hapless Eurasian community themselves, whom the Japanese at that time saw as racially tainted. Three years of repression followed, but when Japan surrendered in August 1945, President Sukarno, backed by immense public support, Fatimah Jasman / declared Indonesia a republic, and generally dismembered European plans to re-establish colonial dominance. Howls of anguish from Britain made no impression. The Indonesians, after centuries of colonialism from the Portuguese to the Japanese, would now control their own destiny.
In the early post-war climate, however, some western business interests were allowed to continue operating. One of these was EMI, whose local agent, T. Hemsley & Co., based in Singapore, continued to record local artists, and supply gramophones and accessories, but they faced increasingly fierce competition from local entrepreneurs including Canary Records, perhaps the most successful of the new local labels.
Now the sound was much more clearly an 'Indonesian' one. This was partly because the Japanese had banned every possible Western influence during their occupation, including dance- bands, the tango rhythm and American style film hits. Thus what survived was the 'pourer' Indonesian Kronjong which in the light of Sukarno's new republic was judged to be what we would now term Politically Correct. Kronjong had survived the twists and turns of 50 years to emerge in tune with the mood of the new Indonesian federation and it was both accepted and promoted as a culturally relevant art form. \ 006. 4070 During the Sukarno regime (1949-1965) the country remained largely isolated from western influence, allowing Kronjong to develop as a fully rounded national music, again using not only records but also film to promote[topics such as the beauty of Indonesia, the character of its people and the necessity to regard Indonesian culture as precious.]
Thus rock 'n' roll made little, if any, impact right up to the 1965 coup that brought down Sukarno and replaced him with General Suharto, whose ties to the West - during the height of the cold war - pulled the economy and culture out of a fifteen-year isolation.
In the meantime, Dangdut, a blend of Kronjong that incorporated wider influences, had been growing in popularity throughout the decade leading up to the coup. A staple ingredient of 1950s Indonesian cinema, the Dangdut style also preached the virtues of Indonesian culture, although it has to be said that most songwriters were responding to sentiments already in the collective mind rather than attempting to bend national will through propaganda.
With the opening of new trade deals between Indonesia and the West, Dangdut started to absorb further new influences; the old Kronjong style, while far from dead, appealed less to the young Indonesians who found their own expression through the Dangdut and quickly updated it by re- configuring the instrumentation to include electric guitars and basses, drums and, later, synthesisers. Increasingly, Dangdut sounded like western rock sung in Malay or Indonesian.
In the meantime Kronjong continued to be performed in nightclubs, at concert halls and, as it had always been, in local rural communities. Most Indonesian villages supported their own musicians and as a result a great many regional variations Langgam Jawi as they were called - not only survived but were actively promoted. Kronjong was now regarded as a part of the fabric of Indonesian life, something that had entered the national psychology and become part of the cultural history of the nation. In the west it had had little or no exposure, but it is a music of gentle beauty in its simplest form and of wildly bizarre fusion at its most extreme. Its acceptance in, and appreciation by, western culture as a significant world music form is woefully overdue.
Start with Street Music Of Java on U.S. Original (CDOMCD006, cassette OMO701C, vinyl OMO701) - it's an excellent introduction to both Kronjong and Dangdut made in the 1970s.
Currently there is only one isolated vintage recording available, on You Can Tell The World About This (Morning Star 45009, all formats), but if you can track down the semi-private Wayhi tape series from about five years ago, then M32, East Indian 78s is the one to get. Good luck! Try finding Detty Kurnia's Coyor
Panon on Flame Tree/Wave for a modern example of Kronjong [and look out for a Detty Kurnia interview next issue - Ed.J. Elvy Sukaesih's Return Of The Diva (also Wave) is an example of modern Dangdut. Lots of other material exists on Japanese labels - enquire from The Far Side Music Co, 205 Sun City Hikawadai, 4-40-10 Hikawadai, Nerima-ku, Tokyo T179, Japan for mail order details.
Music Of The Gods on Rykodisc 10315 features field recordings made in Indonesia during 1941 - see page 24.
With thanks to Bruce Bastin, Ruth Edge and Janet Topp, and with acknowledgement to Phillip Yampolsky, without question the foremost authority on Kronjong.
This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997