Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Eternal Classic Kroncong: Bengawan Solo


Today is a happy day, celebrating Hari Raya Aidilfitri. It is befitting today that I present "The Eternal Classic Kroncong: Bengawan Solo".

As a preliminary, before scrolling down the page, you may like to preview the 4 Teasers that I posted earlier, by clicking :
Teaser#1, Teaser #2, Teaser #3 and Teaser #4.

I hope you enjoy this presentation.

Bengawan Solo (Solo River)
(Klewer Textile Market and Kraton Gate)
Surakarta (colloquially Solo)

A few days ago, I was at a CD shop buying "learning Mandarin" VCD for my 3 yr old daughter. I haven't stepped into CD shop for a very long time. I tried to avoid going in because I would end up buying a few CDs. This time it was no difference. I casually asked the attendant whether there were any krongcong CDs, and ended up RM50 poorer, but 3 CDs richer!!

Kroncong??!! Yes, kroncong has ever been my favourite! When I was the Manager of the quaint little Penang Hill Hotel in the 70's there would be batches of foreign tourists visiting the place. I would without fail change the music to kroncong. So much so, the staff would know of incoming business once the kroncong was played!

Kroncong is such a soothing, rhythmic and relaxing musical accompaniment that one never gets tired of listening for long sessions. I leave it to the expert to describe what kroncong is all about. This is from Wikipedia:

"Kroncong, is an onomatopoeic approximation of the sound of the rhythmic background to the music created by the interlocking of instruments playing on or off the beat. This background rhythm runs faster than the (often) slow vocal or melody, and is created, typically, by two ukuleles, a cello, a guitar and a bass." (my addition: "and a flute and a violin.")

Undoubtedly, the most famous kroncong piece is Bengawan Solo. Below is also from Wikipedia:

"It is about the Bengawan Solo River, which flows through central and eastern Java, Indonesia and is that island's longest river.
The song describes the legendary river in a poetic and nostalgic way, that it is surrounded by mountains, its sources are near the city of
Surakarta (nicknamed Solo), that it ends in the sea, and that the merchant class always makes use of it.

Written in 1940 by Gesang Martohartono. The Japanese, who occupied the country during World War II, brought the song with them to Japan after returning from the war. There, and also in the rest of Asia and later worldwide, the song became very famous.

Gesang Martohartono (born 1 October 1917) is a renowned Indonesian singer-songwriter from central Java. He is most commonly known simply as Gesang.
Gesang was born in the central Javanese city of
Surakarta (Solo). Gesang, a self-taught musician who was however illiterate in musical notation, supported himself and his family by writing songs and singing at local functions such as weddings and other formal occasions.
In 1940, the impoverished 23 year-old musician composed a tune (using a
flute) in the popular urban local style known as kroncong,. For the lyrics, Gesang turned to the city's river for inspiration. The Bengawan Solo River is Java's longest river and most important waterway for trade and agriculture, and seemed to Gesang to symbolise the durability of Javanese culture in those troubled times. "

I particularly favoured the rendition by female vocalist, especially one with a very soft, mellow and haunting voice and a sultry look to boot. Let me present to you Tuti Trisedya :

Tuti Trisedya -Bengawan Solo

Now let us relax with a Chinese musical rendition:

Performed by Harmony Chinese Music Group Bandung in Kroncong Style.

I have with me for many years already, the CD version sung by the one and only The Original Gesang. This CD was recorded at the JVC Studio in Tokyo on 1 April 1994 following Gesang's Tokyo Concert. At that time he was already 76! I think he is still alive today! The pictures of this treasured CD are shown at the bottom of this page.

But right now let's listen from the You Tube version.

Presenting the maestro, the one and only, Gesang Martohartono!

Gesang: Bengawan Solo

And from You Tube again, the latest of the elderly Gesang:

Below are pictures of my treausred CD "Bengawan Solo"

Gesang Martohartono at the JVC Studio (1994) Age76

Nuning (Gesang's niece), Gesang, and Waldjinah

Waldjinah's son ----------------Nuning's younger brother

I must confess that although Bengawan Solo is one of my favourites; my most favourite song is "Jembatan Merah" also composed by Gesang.The three videos below are three different renditions of Jembatan Merah. The first piece below is by the beautiful singer Sundari Soekotjo.The second, equally beautiful, Tuti Trisedya. The third was by the maestro himself.
Please sit back, relax and enjoy the soothing music.
Jembatan Merah by Sundari Soekotjo

Presenting Tuti Trisedya : Jembatan Merah !!

Jembatan Merah by Kesang, the maestro himself

Jembatan Merah by a Caucasian


(Breaking News : 20 Nov 2008)
Below is the comment made by one of the readers:

Harmony said...
Hi, All. We will attend the International Keroncong Festival in 4-5-6 Dec 08 Solo / Surakarta the Gesang's Hometown. It's about one hour flying from Jakarta. Gesang is still alive and was celebrating his 91 birthday on 1st Oct. The keroncong group from Malaysia will come also. The situation for chinese now is much better than before.

November 20, 2008 9:23 AM

( A sad day, today, Thursday, May 20, 2010 :  Gesang passed away at the ripe old age of 92.  May he rest in peace! )

JAKARTA: Gesang Martohartono, a folk music maestro and composer of the evergreen "Bengawan Solo" song, died today after failing health since May 12.

Gesang, 92, died at 6.10pm at the PKU Muhammadiyah Solo Hospital here, where he had been admitted since May 12.

According to doctors who treated him, though he had been a fit person despite his age, his heart progressively weakened before he breathed his last.

Born on Oct 1, 1917, he was one of Indonesia's most famous musicians and well-known throughout Asia, particularly Japan.

"Bengawan Solo", which he composed in 1940 at the age 23 and is about the river of the same name and the longest on Java island, became a monster hit and has been translated into many languages.

In 1983, as a tribute for his contributions to music, the Japanese government built a park in his name by the same river and is maintained to this day by the Gesang Fund, that it set up in his honour.

Gesang also received many accolades from all around for his musical works, including from Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1992 and the Bintang Budaya Parama Dharma medal from Indonesia's president.

- Bernama News


A true Malaysian said...


You are indeed a person of multi-talents and am proud to know you.

I read through your teasers again and found out that 'cilipadi' got the answer 'Begawan Solo' right, whilst Dr. Hsu dare not guess due to apparent reason that all of us aware. I take this opportunity to congratulate cilipadi on getting the correct answer and hope that this Hari Raya will be the time for us building bridges (Jembatan?) among us in blogsphere.

The just concluded Ramadan has many happenings that tainted political scene in our country and hope this beautiful song of Begawan Solo brings goodwill to all of us.

Congratulations to you also for sharing with us your wisdom.

A true Malaysian said...


Justin Choo said...

A True Malaysian,

Thanks for compliments.

Justin Choo said...

Yes Cilipadi, congratulations you got it right!

I did not comment on it before bec hoping that more will participate, but what a let down.

monsterball said...

I have been to Solo more than 10 times. Very sad....when the Indon Chinese were attacked...Solo suffered much so..most Indon Chinese have moved elsewhere...and the economy of Solo is very bad now.
So many houses are one have money to buy.
Yes..I go to the Solo river...and was many activities...tourists took rides on decorated small boats...big ones...filled with tourists...exactly like Bangkok famous boat rides..all gone!!
Ask any Indonesian...they will tell you...Gesang wrote that famous evergreen song.
He is National treasure to Indonesia. he is very old...dead or alive now...not many knows.
I go to Indonesia 3 times per year..and must land at Solo or Jokja...take a almost 3 hour slow taxi ride to Perakan....where my soul mate lives.
I simply love the simple....yet modern clean lifestyle of villagers in Parakan.
I did not know Justin works at Penang Hill hotel!!
That was my father's favourite place to go every year...especially 70's!! We used to eat the delicious fried meehoon.....and local kopi-oh..stay there for few hours..then take the train ride down.

Dalbinder Singh Gill said...

romerz, monsterball, justin, dr. hsu are all my teachers, thanks you for the wonderful bunch of teachers romerz, not like pak lah's so called 4th floor stupid advisors,, lol .. and all the others too, dont think i forget you all, all of you are wonderful people with the right objective, morally as well, dr.hsu, i invite you to join DAP,

cilipadi said...

Thank you Justin and A True Malaysian. Bengawan Solo is nice in song and significant in Java Island.

Li Li said...

Hai ya Justin,

Some of us are not from that era. How to guess it is Begawan Solo song ? Ha, ha, ha...

I think our Dalbinder Singh Gill have not even been born yet !

By the way, I am happy he just grew up a bit wider in his thinking for the past few days of brain storming :-)

All the while, I was thinking that you are hinting something about Tsunami....

BTW, Cilipadi congratulations on getting the right answer.

Li Li said...


It is nice to hear nostalgic stories from you.

Now it is about Solo. What really happened in Solo for 1970 to now, 2008 ? Why suddenly become a dead town ? From the picture, the river, the mountains, the song etc; Solo must have been a very beautiful place.

When I go to Penang, sometimes I saw some Chinese Indonesian in the hotel. From the conversation among themselves, they speak very fluent Bahasa Indonesia and if they speak Hokkien, we cannot tell the difference that they are Medan people and not Malaysian Chinese.

If Medan is still prospering, why is Solo a dead town ?

monsterball said...

Lili....I did not know Solo was a dead city ...since 1970.
I was told it's the recent killing of Indon Chinese..happened..some 10 years ago.
Medan is very much alive....and killings there.
It seems the Solo Indon rich Chinese are snobs and infact ..not behaving like Indons.
Yes...Medan Chinese maybe..more open minded...and generous...sincerely behaiving like Indons.

monsterball said...

Lili..After the Indon Chinese dare to speak any Chinese dialects openly anymore.
Yes..I spoked with few at airports..and they speak excellent Chinese dialects...of their choices.
Leaving out Medan Hokkein...just listen to Malacca and Penang Hokkiens each so rough...and crude..the other is so refine and sometimes..difficult to understand.
I now...Malacca Hokkiens is called.."Eng Choon". I speak well.....hokkien. I was from Malacca..but feel shameful to speak in Penangites...they are so refine. Mine sounds rough.
I guess a real Hokkien can tell us various kinds of their clan.
My mother was hakka and dad was hynanese...and we speak hakka or English at home.
When one is known as a another's idiotic..if you cannot speak hynanese.
I have lived with that label..for decades.
But when I meet a hakka...I can brag..asking what clan he/she came from...
"kai yin chiew"...'hor por".."tai poo hak" name few...and makes me expert...hahahahahaha
But these three groups of hakkas do speak with distinct different styles and tones.

Li Li said...

Dear Monsterball,

I thought Begawan Solo is link to the beauty of Solo River/area. That was in the 1960++.

The killings of Chinese Indonesian in Solo is only in 1998 ? Ten years is not too long ago.

By the way, my grandfather came from China when he was 3 years old together with his brothers and uncles. He was a "Eng Choon" Hokkien from Malacca. Yes, I agree Hokkien can be very rough if they scold or curse anyone. Ha, ha, ha...

But my grandfather prohibit us from using foul words. He was a very strict man. Perhaps, because he lives during the Japanese invasion, a few of his brothers got killed and the nephews came to stay with my grandfather. And bcos my family also got problems, I was left to stay with my grandparents at a young age until I left home to go to a local university.

I dislike the strict rules my grandfather enforce on us when we were young. But what to do ? There were so many kids he needs to feed.

Hmmm...Hakka and Hainanese people are very clever to cook nice dishes. Yummy.

monsterball said...

Yes..LiLi ...I think the river is call.."Solo" River.
Along the banks of the river...there were many small restaurants and hotels.....all gone.
It was such a beautiful place...a must or all tourists......all gone.
I wonder why Indon government does not revive it.
By the way..Ijok and Solo dog and snake meats...openly. My taxi driver urged me to try...which I totally refused.
That tradition must have come from Bali.
Hakka cooking is oily....but very delicious.
My mom was a nyoya from Penang..and she made "pontei" and curry "chicken"!
Chinese NY...not less than 100 visitors will come for her dishes....within 3 days..eating with bread....non stop for more than 15 years.
I used to marvel at her big pots and pans..taken out.....only during Chinese N.Year.
Yes..parents at that time...were strict and particular about their children's behaviors.
It was a shameful thing to them...if anyone complaint about their children.
And we needed respect and behave well and to speak excellent English too!!
But as time goes by...seeing half past sixes can became millionaires and spoke lousy English......or no English at all...I guess...MANGLISH is accepted now.

Harmony said...

Hi, All. We will attend the International Keroncong Festival in 4-5-6 Dec 08 Solo / Surakarta the Gesang's Hometown. It's about one hour flying from Jakarta. Gesang is still alive and was celebrating his 91 birthday on 1st Oct. The keroncong group from Malaysia will come also. The situation for chinese now is much better than before.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Thank you very much


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