Mention tarling and immediately the mind and the heart flies to Cirebon on West Java’s north coast.
Tarling, an acronym for gitar (guitar) and suling (flute) that are the main instruments for the performance, was born in and has grown from Cirebon’s creative, indigenous artists.
“Tarling has thus become identified with Cirebon,” said 66-year-old Abdul Adjib, dubbed as the maestro of tarling.
For him, it is the breath of his life. Since the early 1950s he has dedicated himself to developing this traditional music.
His persistence and creativity in its preservation has earned him high appreciation among local artists.
“He’s one of the few Cirebon figures who still consistently boosts tarling’s popularity. He’s the real maestro,” said Ahmad Syubhanuddin Alwy, chairman of the Cirebon Art Council.
Many people are still familiar with his Warung Pojok (street-corner stall) song which he created in 1967. The song’s popularity reached as far as the Netherlands.
“It was introduced to Holland by a classical singer (the late) Pranajaya. His vocal group sang this song at The Hague in 1978. I was proud to have it popularized abroad,” Adjib said.
The song is about a jolly coffee stall with pretty and friendly servers, he said. He recalled how it had become popular thanks to a famous quartet of comedians called Kwartet Jaya. In 1968, the quartet — comprised of Bing Slamet, Edy Sud, Iskak and Ateng — performed in Cirebon. As he was a big fan of Bing Slamet, Adjib watched the event.
“Unexpectedly, when the show was over, I was asked to present a tarling song. I seized the opportunity to introduce Warung Pojok. The response was overwhelming and the quartet asked me to describe the story behind the song. I even took them to the coffee stall that had inspired me,” Adjib recalled.
His other hits include Penganten Anyar (Newlywed) and Sopir Inden (Indent Driver) although he can’t remember how many songs he has composed.
It was because of National radio station RRI that tarling became a part of society, Adjib said.
In 1951, RRI Cirebon head, Fadjar Madrazi, wanted to present the city’s traditional music. “The program was initially called Melodi Kota Udang (Shrimp City Melody). But later it was renamed Tarling, possibly because of the dominant guitar and flute sounds,” he said.
Adjib kept improving and developing tarling so it became more than just a musical art. Along with his Putra Sangkala troupe established in 1964, he turned tarling into a stage performing art by combining music, dance and drama. He created a number of plays to be staged by his 40-member troupe.
According to Alwy, Adjib is also recognized by Cirebon artists for his theatrical skills and his ability to improvise. “Adjib also has a special voice and is capable of creating traditional Cirebon-styled poetry by referring to his well-preserved classical tarling,” he added.
With its growing popularity, invitations came flooding in from all over. Adjib had already toured most of West and Central Java’s northern coast. Groups of a similar kind were mushrooming.
“Beginning in the 1970s, many artists formed tarling troupes,” he said. Today, groups along Cirebon-Indramayu’s coast have combined tarling with dangdut (an Indonesian music genre which mixes Indian, Arabic and Western music styles), creating what is now popularly known as tardut.
The trend, however, has concerned him as he fears tardut will eliminate tarling’s characteristics.
“Cirebon’s music is identified with tarling, not dangdut.
“Gamelan (Javanese orchestra) has existed in Cirebon since the Islamic Sultanate reigned in the area. It’s from gamelan that tarling was originally derived. It’s for this reason that tarling has become Cirebon’s identity,” he said.
Adjib expressed his greater concern that tarling is slowly disappearing, especially since the 1990s.
“Since the early 1990s, tarling is rarely performed at community events. It’s sidelined by dangdut. If the situation continues, I’m afraid tarling will disappear,” he said.
One of the main reasons for its demise is because of its cost. A tarling performance that will last seven hours will be at least Rp 30 million (US$260). By contrast, a solo organ dangdut show costs less then Rp 5 million.
“Only a few people can afford to invite a tarling group for their family ceremonies, such as a wedding.”
Adjib said the high rate might be due to the large troupe. “A complete troupe has no less than 40 artists, from pesinden (female singers), wira swara (male singers) and drama players, to nayaga (musicians).” In addition, it needs to be passed onto the next generation. “It’s difficult to find young people today who are willing to learn this art. They prefer pop genre, with its soon-forgotten favorite pieces. This phenomenon only hastens tarling’s disappearance,” he continued.
Adjib said government help was needed to preserve this art. Sadly, it seems to have turned a blind eye to the issue. “Tarling artists in Cirebon have often approached the government, with no response.”
“Now we’re pinning our hopes on companies who are willing to serve as foster parents of Cirebon’s tarling. With their help, this art may be able to survive,” Adjib said.