“Keroncong” used to be the pop music of Indonesia. The ukulele-driven, energetic songs were once synonymous with the good life of “tempo doeloe” – the romanticized colonial era when the country was known as the Dutch East Indies.
The history of the music genre is tightly entwined with Indonesia’s colonial history, starting with its invention in the 16th century by freed slaves from Portuguese colonies who were brought to Batavia – the old name for Jakarta.
Named after the sound made by the ukulele – a keroncong ensemble usually also involves a cello, guitar and flute – keroncong became the number one urban folk music enjoyed especially by the “pribumi” (natives) of the colony.
Now keroncong is not exactly the first thing you see on Spotify’s top playlists, its place superseded by EDM, K-pop, hip-hop, dangdut, even jazz.
But with the emergence of a new wave of Indonesian folk pop artists – from Payung Teduh to Silam Pukau – who often play tribute to their keroncong forebears, is the genre set for a long overdue comeback?
Keroncong’s golden years were between the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it became the soundtrack to komedie stamboel gigs (local opera that mashed up European, Middle Eastern and Malay influences) all over Java.
The upbeat and cheerful music, then known as “keroncong Portugis,” used to be played as interlude between scenes. This trend continued until the end of the 1920s.
After the First World War, American pop music played by singers and musicians from the Philippines became the talk of the town’s music ballrooms and started to influence keroncong.
One of the most famous Indonesian songs inspired by this combination of keroncong and American pop music is the legendary “Bengawan Solo” by singer songwriter Gesang Martohartono.
The head of music studies at Jakarta Institute of Art, Damar Siahaan, said what die-hard fans of the music now call “keroncong abadi” (eternal keroncong) developed in Surakarta, Gesang’s birthplace.
“Gesang wasn’t the first one to make keroncong popular, but his Bengawan Solo was such a big hit it helped the music spread all over Indonesia,” Damar said.
During the Indonesian National Revolution from 1945 until 1949, musicians even took advantage of keroncong’s popularity to spread propaganda for the revolution.
Once the Dutch gave up and left Indonesia, keroncong consolidated, adopting new instruments and incorporating more foreign influences.
One of the best proponents of this era of modern keroncong is the crooner Sam Saimun, whose “keroncong morits” often incorporated influences from cha-cha and Hawaiian music.
Later in the 1970s, Indonesia’s equivalent of The Beatles, Koes Plus introduced rock ‘n’ roll to keroncong.
Since then it seems pure keroncong no longer passed muster, always finding itself combined with elements of modern music to gain acceptance from younger crowd.
Recently, Bandung-based Keroncong Merah Putih and Bondan Prakoso’s band Fade 2 Black are known for injecting hip-hop into keroncong.
Jakarta’s Lantun Orchestra took it upon themselves to study keroncong after noticing the music has almost disappeared from the mainstream.
“People only think of keroncong as ‘old-fashioned music.’ What they need to understand is that it’s an original music from Indonesia. If no one plays it anymore, keroncong will disappear,” the orchestra’s producer and composer Chaka Priambudi said.
Chaka said he formed the band in 2014 to learn keroncong songs from the 1950s, including works by Ismail Marzuki, Benyamin Sueb, Lilis Surjani, Oslan Husein and Bing Slamet.
In 2015, Lantun Orchestra released their first demo album containing keroncong classics Keroncong Kemayoran, Surilang, Jali-Jali, Dayung Sampan and an original song featuring jazz guitar maestro Oele Pattiselanno.
Chaka admitted that combining keroncong with other genres is still the best way to revitalize it.
Another musician who has been trying to revive keroncong is 15-year old student and singer Rafa Ramaniya.
Known as one of the finalists in The Voice Kids Indonesia, Rafa said she wants to inspire young people to play keroncong and keep the genre alive.
Rafa considers herself lucky that her father was a keroncong player.
“I’m blessed to have a father who’s very passionate about keroncong. I learn a lot about the history of keroncong and how to be a great keroncong singer from him,” she said.
Rafa often sings her pop songs in keroncong style at her gigs.
“To me there’s no difference between old and modern music. All songs can be played in the keroncong style,” she said.