A rare skill: Sukimin’s adept fi ngers pluck siter strings.Four veteran sinden (traditional singers) and a siter (zither) player sat at a low table in front of a food stall, facing customers having lunch.
Zainah, 70, Sri Mulyati, 60, Suparmi, 61, and Kamiyem, 48, all wore kebaya (long-sleeved blouse), long batik wraparound skirts and red-and-blue shawls over their shoulders, with their hair tied into a bun.
Sukimin Prawirorejo, 72, the only man in the group, wore a white long-sleeved shirt.
Sukimin’s thumbs were adeptly plucking the strings of the traditional Javanese guitar in slendro and pelog (five-tone and seven-tone) high-pitch melodies.
Kamiyem and Suparmi were singing Caping Gunung (Broad Bamboo Hat), a popular Javanese folk song. The other two, Zainah and Sri Mulyati, sang senggakan (brief shouts) at intervals.
The five old-timers belong to Suka Laras, a traditional music group mainly singing Javanese poetry or tembang in Solo, also known as Surakarta, Central Java.
They make a living by performing at weddings and circumcision ceremonies.
“People call us sinden keliling as we’re indeed roving from one place to another, depending on where we are invited to perform. We’ve been as far as Klaten, Boyolali, and Wonogiri,” said Zainah.
When the group doesn’t get invited to perform at special ceremonies, they sing at the food stall known for its pecel (vegetable salad with groundnut dressing), on Jl. Supomo, Surakarta.
The nomadic musicians get tips from customers buying food from the pecel stall.
“People don’t ask us to perform as often as before, yet we still need to make ends meet,” said Kamiyem.
In the 1950s, Zainah was quite a famous sinden. She remembers being in high demand, when she was a slim girl with a beautiful voice. Shadow puppet players or dalang would fight over her. But she was eventually sidelined as she got older, losing out to younger singers.
Along with the other four sinden, Zainal set up the group six years ago.
“Unlike the sinden of my time, today’s traditional Javanese singers are well paid and perform on television,” said Zainah at her house in Pringgading, Banjarsari, Surakarta.
Zainah keeps on spotting young and celebrated sinden on TV like Sruti Respati, Peni Candrarini, Soimah, and Rina Sinden.
In the past, sinden only sang with gamelan orchestra, positioned behind their dalang.
Nowadays, they sit beside the dalang, and sometimes take center stage.
Still, according to the grandmother of eight, today’s sinden not only appear in wayang kulit (leather puppet) shows and karawitan (classical music) concerts, but also in pop music gigs and ketoprak shows, a humorous version of history-based Javanese theater.
Some Javanese and Sundanese traditional singers have kept up with the changes in the entertainment industry. They have also been known to perform at international concerts and festivals, turning into celebrities earning big money.
But the veteran Suka Laras sinden are not earning the same kind of money from their traditional music.
They’re singing every day at the Pecel Solo food stall from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., each earning Rp 20,000 a day on average.
“After meeting various needs, I can set aside Rp 7,500 to Rp 10,000 a day. I take the money to Ngawi [East Java] ever two weeks to help pay my grandchildren’s school expenses,” said Suparmi.
Suparmi pays Rp 1,500 a day to rent a 5-by-4 meter room, where a few other members of Suka
“It’s cheap and we only pay for the time we stay,” she added.
Suparmi said her career began when her friend asked her to join the group in 1970. In her home village in Ngawi, Suparmi used to work on a sugarcane farm.
As a child, she was already fond of singing Javanese poetry. She later became a waranggana (the other name for sinden), touring from Ngawi to Pacitan, Madiun, and finally Surakarta, where she also occasionally worked with Wayang Orang Sriwedari (classical dance-drama theater).
These traveling singers are in high demand during Idul Fitri holidays, earning as much as Rp 75,000 a day each.
Not an easy life: Two of the five Suka Laras members sit at a low table at the Pecel Solo food stall to earn a living.While most locals visit their family during Idul Fitri, Zainah returns to her Sragen village a week after
the holiday, so she can buy her grandchildren new clothes and shoes with the money she earned during Idul Fitri.
“My grandchildren live with their mother there. Their father left with another woman,” she said.
Kamiyem, a mother of three, learned how to sing when she joined a karawitan group in her village, Joyotakan, Surakarta.
Before basing herself at the foodstall, she also toured and performed at ceremonies. However, Kamiyem was mostly invited to sing for the deceased.
“It’s weird. I was always invited by bereaved families. It was always a special request from the people who had passed away. They would ask for a special tembang to be sung at funeral ceremonies, Uler Kambang [slow-drifting worm in a stream],” recalled Kamiyem, who says she never went to school.
Meanwhile, zither player Sukimin started off as a siter maker. Not only does he perform with the group, the elderly man living in Sambeng, Mangkubumen subdistrict, Surakarta, also gives private lessons to foreign tourists.
“Unlike the guitar and violin, few people like siter. There may be no buyers for a month, while a siter costs hundreds of thousands of rupiah to make. So I use the instrument to perform while traveling around, to preserve traditional music,” said the father of six.
All five members of this group know they can never rely on a regular income from their music. But their performances are perhaps not only about making money. Suka Laras also contributes to conserving Javanese traditional music.