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  • Fiadhira Rasyah

Auditory Memoirs of Indonesia: Listening to Kerontjong

(Insulinde kroncong group, formed by students from the Dutch East Indies in the

Netherlands, circa 1942 [Source: @potretlawas on twitter])

We may all be familiar with traditional Indonesian music through its instruments, including gamelan, kecapi, kendang music, etc., but we never really pay much attention to Indonesian music genres. Kerontjong, or kroncong, is one of the first Indonesian popular genres that went through constant evolution from the year 1900 until today. By the early 1900s, it was considered low-class urban music. This began to alter in the 1930s, when the soon-to-be-booming Indonesian cinema industry began to use kroncong. It became closely linked with the struggle for independence in the mid- to late 1940s. Lastly, in the 1960s, kroncong was the prima donna of the era. The development of music production created a hybridity of music elements; this era can be described as the experimental section of kroncong.

The History of Kroncong

The origins of kroncong began in the 16th century, when Portugal had a prominent naval power. They established their headquarters all around Asia, which include Goa, South India, as their primary trading center and Melaka (Malay Peninsula) as their multicultural hub, where imported art and music are circulating. This calls to the emergence of kroncong, initially known as Fado, brought by Portuguese sailors through the Malay peninsula through eastern Indonesia (through Maluku). In the 17th century, the Dutch East Indies Company took over most of the Portuguese strongholds in southeast Asia, although the local residents had already embraced and integrated Portuguese folk music, instruments, and melodies.

Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies) was just one of the many regions where people are coming to terms with forced separation and impending loneliness. Kroncong gathered people with diverse backgrounds. The simple, self-made music kroncong acted as a tool to revive the longing for home and offer temporary comfort. Thus, the main theme in kroncong music is mostly about fate, self-pity, and sob stories.

Kroncong can be categorized into three stages: Kroncong Tempo Doeloe, Kroncong Abadi, and Kroncong Modern. Kroncong Tempo Doeloe, which emerged between 1880 and 1920, is characterized by the use of the ukulele at the beginning of songs. This variant of kroncong has its geographical roots in the Tugu village area.

Kroncong Tempoe doeloe also has various derivative forms, known as Keroncong Stambul I, Stambul II, and Stambul III. Kroncong Abadi developed from 1920 to 1960; it represented the advanced development of the prior genre. This type of kroncong has great influence from western pop music; this is evident through the incorporation of more modern instruments such as guitar and cello. Notable figures such as Ismail Marzuki, Gesang, and others contributed to the popularity of this genre; one of the most notable songs is “Juwita Malam'' by Ismail Marzuki.

After being followed by Kroncong Modern, which was popularized from the late 1960s until the early 2000s, this segment of Kroncong development focused more on modern representations and post-colonial themes. The music moved away from traditional musical conventions. Instead, it started to embody the more universal conventions of pop music. Kroncong music also began to incorporate elements of Dangdut, Koplo, Campursari, Javanese/Chinese Pentatonic scales, and even elements of rap music, moving away from the traditional stambul forms. Derivative forms of kroncong in this period include Langgam Jawa, Keroncong Beat, Campursari, Keroncong Dangdut, and Keroncong Koes-Plus.

Musical Instruments in Kroncong

It is quite easy to identify krong aurally; the prominent sound of the cuk ukulele can be the signifier of kroncong. The cuk ukulele is a three-nylon-stringed ukulele that originated in Hawaii and was brought by the Portuguese with the main notes of the G, B, and E chords. Cuk ukulele produces the “crong crong'' sound, thus the main origin of the name kroncong.

The second-most important instrument in kroncong is the cak ukulele. The cak ukulele has four steel strings, and it is used as the accompaniment of the main ukulele with strumming technique. The aforementioned were the core instruments of kroncong, and as the music genre evolved, more instruments were added to amplify the musical dimension. The later addition of instruments includes: acoustic guitar, violin, flute, or suling albert (kroncong tempo doeloe), suling bohm (kroncong abadi), cello played in a pizzicato technique, and lastly, the contrabass.


The night bazaar (pasar malam) was a key aspect of the port cities' economic activities. The pasar malam in Jakarta and Semarang always had a band stand that was alternately occupied by a kroncong ensemble or a boxing fight. Furthermore, Javanese musicians and dancers aspired to appeal to the relatively rich urban middle class, which appreciated traditional arts such as kroncong but desired them in a more modern form.

Kroncong as Auditory Memory and (Colonial) Nostalgia

Since decolonization, Indonesians have clung to the concept of 'tempo doeloe' as a nostalgic motif, idealizing a vintage way of life. These memories are still preserved and handed down through generations through music, in this case through kroncong. Despite its warmth, this is dissatisfying nostalgia. Tempo doeloe nostalgia is inextricably linked to the more violent history of colonization. The colonial past has long been suppressed in official Indonesian history as a humiliating experience that must be erased from the landscape of national memory.

Even today, the harsh realities of colonialism are still systematically downplayed. Though, due to globalization and new technologies, we are living alongside our pasts. According to Andreas Huyssen (a comparative literature professor who wrote a book about historical trauma, a unique power in generating art), technology has facilitated us to experience the globalization of memory cultures through the quick reproduction of popular forms of memorial representations. Hence, kroncong allows us to experience the unique sentiments of the past, intertwined with the lived experience of the colonial era.

With this way of thinking, connection between then and now encourages exploration of the past that can be utilized to empower and intensify the present. By recollecting the auditory memoirs of Indonesia, nostalgia can become a valuable means and a new way to engage critical awareness in our society. Music can serve as a medium for expressing collective identities, a distinctive boundary between east and west, us and them. However, in some contexts, it can also foster socio-cultural cohesion. Therefore, music can be a platform for initiating dialogue as a way to heal colonial open wounds.



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