‘Keroncong’: Freedom
music from Portuguese descendants

If African-Americans could claim ownership of jazz, Jakartans of Portuguese descent in Kampung Tugu, Koja, North Jakarta could do the same for keroncong.

The forefathers of Kampung Tugu natives, descendants of Portuguese who took over Malacca in 1511, were once down on their luck, and then subjected to slavery by the Dutch colonial government starting in 1641, soon after it took over Malacca.

Their Dutch masters set them free in 1661, only after they disowned their Portuguese traits, including by converting to Protestantism from Catholicism, and changing their names to Dutch-sounding ones.

They were then given a scrap of land, 10 kilometers east of old Batavia, and were then called Mardijkers (free men).

And it was during their internment in this land that these former Portuguese slaves started to play keroncong.

“They brought Portuguese musical instruments called cavaquinho [a four steel stringed musical instrument that looks like a guitar],” said Kampung Tugu native of Portuguese descent Milton Augustino Michiels.

The Mardijkers then began to tweak the sound of the instrument.

“Later, they played the instrument in tune with local sounds, usually those of the rebana [tambourine]. Cavaquinho was then modified into two types of instruments, prounga (three nylon stringed instrument with low pitch) and macina (four nylon stringed instrument with high pitch).”

Michiels said that back then keroncong was protest music.

“The songs written in Portuguese are about injustice, the arrogance of leaders and social conditions,”
he said.

One of the songs, titled “Jan Kaga Leite”, is about a cholera outbreak in Batavia in the 1660s.

Keroncong Tugu is also distinct from the way prounga and macina were played, being strummed rather than picked.

A keroncong band could then be formed with the addition of members who played violin, cello, bass, prounga, macina, rebana (traditional percussion and jembe, a cone-shaped hand drum).

The Dutch grew to like the music, which was then christened keroncong, an onomatopoeic word derived from the sound of the music, “crong, crong”.

“The Dutch learned to play the music and compose songs with Dutch lyrics, such as ‘Oud Batavia’ and ‘Schoon Ver Van Jou’. Some of the songs became hugely popular and the Dutch used to play the songs at their parties,” he said.

In 1942 when the Japanese took over, they banned the music because they considered it as a holdover from Dutch colonialism.

Soon after the country gained independence, the music spread to places like Surakarta, one of the epicenters of Javanese culture, thanks in part to the efforts of a late keroncong maestro.

But as soon as it expanded the music changed.

“In Central Java, it was then influenced by the Javanese court music or gamelan, which somehow made it slow. Some traditional instruments included the gong [round metal percussion instrument] and siter [Javanese zither]. Prounga and macina were played in a stacatto,” Michiels said.

In Tugu, keroncong remained and soon thrived.

Today amid an onslaught of popular music, four keroncong groups remain in Tugu, Krontjong Toegoe, Mardjikers de Toegoe, Keroncong Cafrinho Tugu and Keroncong Kornelis Tugu.

These bands often play at festivals and at religious celebrations.

“The groups also played in the Tugu church regularly,” Michiels said.

In spite of their significant cultural impact, only a small number of people in the neighborhood are of Portuguese descent.

Andre Juan Michiels, the head of the Tugu Family Community (IKBT), said that there are about 50 people with Portuguese blood still living in Tugu.

“They are the family of Kornelis, Michiels, Andries, Abrahams, and Quiko. Others live in some parts of Indonesia, including Papua, and also in the Netherlands.” Andre said.

In recent times, keroncong tugu has enjoyed a kind of status upgrade with the music being performed for official functions.

“We once played for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in his private residence in Cikeas, as well as at the Presidential Palace and during a banquet for the Independence Day celebration,” Andre said.

In spite of the acceptance, these days members of the keroncong bands struggle to make their sound relevant by adding a modern touch to the old music.

“We try to give the music a little modern touch,” he said, before showing a video clip of a keroncong song performance.

Recently, Michiels’ band covered a song by the legendary British band Queen in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.

Andre said he also had been giving musical instrument lessons to local children to try to pass on the music genre.

“With all these efforts, I am 100 percent sure that keroncong Tugu will remain alive.” (aaa)

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