Jakarta Traditions Set for a Comeback
Posted June 2, 2013on:
Jakarta continues to be at the cutting edge of Indonesia’s economic, social and political development, due to its size and standing as the nation’s capital. But its rise to a sprawling metropolis comes at a price.
Some argue the city is losing its cultural soul and with it, the identity of its traditional Betawi people.
One Jakarta tradition losing ground at an alarming rate are Betawi plays that feature the area’s traditional music, Gambang Kromong.
This musical ensemble, which takes its name from the two percussion instruments that dominate its sound, features an eclectic, brash mix of Javanese and Chinese musical instruments as well as improvised verses.
The heyday of Gambang Kromong was during the 1970s and 80s, when it was featured in the films of late Indonesian film legend Benyamin Sueb, particularly the “Si Doel Anak Betawi” (Doel the Betawi Boy) series of films.
As part of Jakarta’s 486th anniversary Gambang Kromong looks set to make a comeback. The IANTA (Abang None Jakarta Association) Theater will perform the play “Soekma Djaja,” as part of the celebrations.
The play, produced by leading Indonesian actress Maudy Koesnaedi, recounts the efforts of traditional Gambang Kromong musician Maman Djaja (Dody Eriandoko), in an attempt to retain the art form before the onslaught of modernization.
“Soekma Djaja” follows Maman’s struggles to make ends meet as a performer of Gambang Kromong, fighting off perceptions the music is out of touch with public tastes, a view shared by his younger son.
Maudy said she is all too familiar with the situation Gambang Kromong musicians face.
“The state of traditional Betawi arts is truly deplorable, as it’s common to see Gambang Kromong musicians and Ondel-Ondel performers plying their craft to beg on the streets,” she explained.
“One of the motives behind the performance of “Soekma Djaja” is to raise public awareness about the plight of Gambang Kromong and their struggles to maintain a form of music that is dying out.”
Renitasari Adrian, program director of the Bakti Budaya Djarum Foundation, the organization sponsoring the play, agreed with Maudy.
“Modernization and the availability of foreign movies and music that come in its wake, has rendered many people, particularly the young, ignorant about Gambang Kromong,” she said.
“The music is also rarely heard, except for the annual celebrations for Jakarta’s anniversary.
The number of Gambang Kromong musicians will also dwindle, as younger people are reluctant to carry on this traditional art form.”
Maudy said the play is part of her efforts to conserve Betawi culture. “[Soekma Djaja] is the latest of a series of plays that I produced, starting with “Nyai Dasima,” “Si Doel,” and “Sangkala 9/10.”
“I first had the idea to conserve Betawi culture when I won the Abang None award 20 years ago. I further developed that idea when I was cast as Zaenab in the show “Si Doel Anak Betawi” alongside Rano Karno, who starred in the title role.”
Maudy said she was particularly touched by the efforts of the cast, none of whom are professional actors.
“All of the actors actually played for free, such was the extent of their dedication, since I started casting for ‘Soekma Djaja’ last January. Setting the schedule was also tricky, as they all had their day jobs. But they stuck it out for the rehearsals, which were held every evening from 7 p.m. to midnight,” she said.
“Previously, our productions featured guest stars like Indra Bekti, Alya Rohali and Atalarik Syach, as they are all well-known actors and former [members of] Abang None Jakarta. This time we departed from this tradition and featured an entirely in-house cast,” she explained.
Maudy added that the cast learned the finer points of Gambang Kromong during the making of “Soekma Djaja.”
The changes did not end there. “Soekma Djaja” is set in a modern context, unlike previous plays like “Nyai Dasima” and “Sangkala 9/10” which were put in a more historical setting,” she said.
“While the plays might have tragic themes, they are presented in a light-hearted, humorous way and to the sound of Gambang Kromong music, as that is the Betawi people’s way of facing challenges. I also hope that the play will place awareness of Betawi culture high on the list of criteria for Abang None Jakarta recipients in the future.”
“Soekma Djaja” will be performed at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta next week.