Friday, December 3, 2010

Betawi Music and Arts

The Betawi culture is composed of a unique blend of the Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese and Arabs. Thus it can be easily understood that the Betawi culture is very much colorful and unique.

One of its culture influence are the Javanese. The Javanese presence since the 17th century has left its mark on the Betawi music, dance and theatre.

Lenong, is an example of a traditional Betawi theater in Jakarta. This traditional art used to be performed from village to village in the 1940s till the 1960s. With the element of comedy in its play's plot, it used to be an all night long performance accompanied by music of the xylophone music Kromong with musical instruments such as the xylophone, gongs, drums and flute in the past. There are 2 types of Lenong perfomance; Lenong Denes and Lenong Thugs. Lenong Denes is the original type of lenong that plays an empire story, which are taken from the fable stories, with empire costume and uses high level of Malay language. Lenong Thugs on the other hand tells about the daily life of the people or the world champ. Lenong Thugs uses the everyday conversational Betawi language in they play.

However, this traditional art theater is now under crisis as its survival in Jakarta is being questioned.

Quoted from a veteran Lenong Dene performer, Jali Putra, he explained that “Every lenong performance contains specific messages that are very useful for life because the objective of lenong is not only to entertain people but also to give some guidance for both the audience and the actors in their real life."

Due to modernization, a new form of Lenong was introduced in the late 1970s known as Lenong Preman. This new form of Lenong plays a daily story, such as: love story, robbery, authority, and other social issues, using daily Betawi traditional clothes, and Betawi dialect. Lenong Preman was given more recognition on Indonesia national tv channel, TVRI, and as a result people who were oblivious of Lenong, assume that there is only one type of Lenong - The Lenong Preman. Till now Lenong Preman is still prefered among audiences as compared to the other 2 types of Lenong.

Based on Betawi tradition, Lenong used to be performed as part of the wedding ceremonies to entertain the guests. However, it is now rare to see this traditional performance in the wedding ceremonies in Jakarta. The decrease popularity of this particular art in Jakarta may be as a result of modernization and globalisation in the country. Emergence of modern entertainment in 1990s, and the lack of efforts of parents to pass down this tradition and culture to their children may be one of the reasons for the fall of this traditional art. Lenong used to be the only form of entertainment for the people in the past. Now, emergence of other forms of entertainment in Jakarta has caused Lenong to be isolated.

Cultural expert from University of Indonesia, M. Yoesoef, said that it is very
hard now to find local people who appreciate their own traditional arts. He also
commented that “We are losing a cultural wealth because the community is moving
in the era of globalization, who feel no need to bring their heritage,”

It got me wondering then, is globalisation and modernization truly the main culprit for the decreasing survival of Jakarta's culture and traditon, or in fact in other countries in the world too?

Before I get the answer to this question in mind, let's take a look at the other Betawi music and arts!

1. The Gambang Kromong

The Gambang Kromong is a native traditional music of Jakarta. Hearing this traditional music, we could hear the influences from Chinese elements, namely the use of stringed instrument in the form kongahyan, tehyan, and skong. The vocals are a mix of Chinese and Indonesian elements, but the dialect used is pure Betawi, and the lyrics are humorous. Cokek dancers usually perform to gambang kromong music.

2. Ondel-ondel

One of the important icon of the Betawi culture is the ondel-ondel. Ondel-ondel is a form of folk performances which involve large dolls about 2 meters tall that it is trusted as a symbol of their ancestors who guarded the child-grandchildren who are still alive. In other words, ondel-ondel is also believed to drive away evil spirits at every feast. Ondel-ondel depicting men painted their faces red, and a white or yellow-faced depicts women.

Today ondel-ondel is usually used to add vibrant folk festivals or for welcoming guests of honor, and also at the inauguration of the completion of a new building. It is said that no matter how swift currents of modernization, ondel-ondel still survive and become a trimmer face to metropolis Jakarta.

Click on the video below to watch a tradtional ondel-ondel performance accompanied by the traditional music, Gambang Kromong!

3. Betawi Cokek dance

The Betawi Cokek dance shows Balinese influence in the movement of the dancers and the style of playing the gamelan. This style of playing the gamelan can also be observed in the gamelan orchestra accompanying the Wayang Kulit Betawi show. The cokek is usually danced at Betawi wedding parties.

The term cokek originally referred to a female vocalist in a Gambang Kromong group. But, over time, the singers became dancers. Cokek dancers traditionally wear brightly colored shawls. They invite audience members to dance with them by giving them their shawls. It is customary for audience members to tip the dancers at the end of each performance.

4. The Tanjidor orchestra

Another important element of Betawi arts is the Tanjidor orchestra which is quite famous in Jakarta. In addition to the influence of Chinese culture, the Betawi arts are influenced by a variety of cultures from Europe. The Tanjidor orchestra has its origin from the Dutch. In general, each instrument in the orchestra Tanjidor consisting of wind instrument like a piston (cornet a piston), trombone, tenor, clarinet, bass, percussion instruments equipped with a membrane which is usually called a drum or drums.

By supporting community Tanjidor used to enliven a celebration such as weddings, circumcisions, or public parties like celebrating the Independence anniversary. Until the fifties crowds of ordinary Tanjidor performing tour, called "Ngamen". This tour was primarily conducted on New Year's party time, both AD and Lunar. Until now, Tanjidor are still displayed to welcome guests, enliven or accompany the procession of the bride. But the anniversary celebrations in Jakarta usually presented as one of the participants of the festival.

Modernization has also brought about the changing times and tastes of Tanjidor supporting community. As a result, commodification has brought regular Tanjidor to bring about dangdut songs. There is also a special rendition of the Sundanese Pop-song known as "Winingan musician."

5. Wayang Betawi

The wayang Betawi is also known as the puppets of Betawi. It is one of the culture products of the acculturation of the Javanese and Sundanese. Most people are more familiar with wayang kulit, or Javanese leather shadow puppets, then with wayang Betawi. The puppets are almost the same, but the rods of the Betawi puppets are made from rattan, not wood. The story is narrated in Betawi, but the music is usually Sundanese. Betawi puppet musical accompaniment in the same case with the gamelan mask, in the form of Sundanese gamelan music mixed Betawi, with typical tehyan musical instrument (as a characteristic of the Betawi) called gamelan ajeng.

There are in fact many art forms in Betawi's culture with the influences of the other ethnic groups in Jakarta such as Tari Topeng, Topeng Betawi and Kerocong Tugu. These are just some of the common Betawi traditional arts that are dominant in Jakarta.

The Betawi traditional art is developed and accepted well in the city. Not only Betawi people, but also other ethnic groups are fond of this art as it became part of the city culture. As a result certain form of commodification occur as the other ethnic group adopt the culture. In Jakarta you can find well established culture and foreign art centers. These centers help in the promotion of various arts and culture and language by the use of art galleries, learning centers and libraries.

Having said that, globalisation and modernization has brought about the decreasing interest of the Betawi arts since 1970 in Jakarta. As a result non-profits and charitable organizations are making efforts to preserve and conserve the traditional Betawi culture. The culture thrives today due to government policy to enhance the cultural identity of the original inhabitants of the city, and prevent their traditions being buried beneath a tide of modernization and globalisation. There are annual parades and other celebrations in which three-meter tall Betawi mascots (ondel ondel) - are seen delighting the crowds with their large masks and tinsel-sprinkled headdresses. (Information adopted from

In fact, the rise in tourism industry in Jakarta has resulted in a stimulus for these traditional art forms of the Betawi to flourish in the city. Nevertheless, there are often negative outcome to every positive changes to the city such as the issues of authenticity or commodification of its culture.

In my upcoming posts, we will discover Jakarta as a tourist destination and how tourism growth in the city bring about changes to the city and also the culture and traditions of the Betawi.

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