The period 1970-1980 was the heyday of Joleno, when he appeared daily as a top player of ketoprak, a Javanese folk drama with historical themes, amid clapping and cheering while enjoying a substantial fortune.
However, as the 1980s came to an end, ketoprak was sidelined. Its fans shifted to television shows and movies. With their art increasingly abandoned by the public and rarely staged, ketoprak players felt like they were falling from a terrible height.
“At the peak of ketoprak’s success, I was free to choose whatever I wished to dine on, but there was also a time when I shared my meals with chickens, as ketoprak was no longer marketable,” said Joleno.
Yet he wasn’t deterred. Even when conventional ketoprak was almost forgotten in the 2000s, he set up a new group in Solo, the cultural name of Surakarta, Central Java, along with some fellow artists, called Ketoprak Ngampung, as a shrewd, lighter and humorous version of the original.
“We chose the name because our group performed from one kampung [village or settlement] to another, without a permanent stage,” said Joleno following a show at Sriwedari City Hall recently.
Joleno applies the style of modern theater while maintaining the basics of ketoprak tobong, the traditional drama to which his members used to belong.
He also adopts the comedy form of lenong Betawi (Jakarta folk theater) and the humor of Yogyakarta’s popular jests, as well as martial arts in fighting scenes.
Unlike most ketoprak shows presenting stories from Babad Jawa (chronicles of Javanese kingdoms), his group depicts current events in the daily lives of rural communities, with simple conflicts concerning such things as cattle, modern market construction and village head elections.
“This drama is a small yet real world. By watching this theater one can witness the lives of villagers. In my view, before assuming their posts, prospective councilors, governors and regents should see it,” Joleno pointed out.
Born in Solo on March 10, 1962, Joleno was brought up within traditional ketoprak circles. His parents were players in Siswo Budoyo, a legendary ketoprak troupe from Tulung Agung, East Java.
“An art mainly has to do with feelings. I’m fortunate I’ve been living amid the activity of traditional artists since childhood,” he noted. Joleno understands he has been introduced not only to the traditional art as a form of entertainment, but also to the way the Javanese relate to other people, nature and God.
After finishing junior high school, he followed in the footsteps of his parents as a Siswo Budoyo player. At a very young age, he appeared in various cities along the northern coast of Java such as Gresik, Tuban, Rembang and Pati.
Siswo Budoyo, along with its members, gamelan and other equipment, also moved from one city to another. “My studies were halted as we were moving around. I could only go back to school properly when my parents settled in Solo, joining the Balekambang ketoprak community,” he recalled.
In 1979, he again joined the community, where he met nearly all lead performers of the famous comedian group Srimulat, like Gepeng, Timbul, Basuki and Djudjuk Djuariah. His collaboration with Srimulat comedians enhanced his skills on stage.
“They were remarkable stars. I learned a lot of improvisation and how to make a show more relaxed and always fresh,” Joleno acknowledged. He described how he lived in an idle building at Balekambang Park for decades, until its demolition under the city’s revitalization program in 2006.
All the ketoprak players were relocated to Kampung Kipang in Banjarsari, Solo. Their regular performances at Balekambang were practically discontinued. But the situation just inspired Joleno to carry on his theatrical activities.
“With no more places to perform, we began our road show after gathering our peers and called the group Ketoprak Ngampung,” said Joleno. Since 2007, this group has been playing in subdistrict halls, soccer fields, intersections and even on the edges of paddy fields.
Combined with a modern touch, humor and contemporary music, Joleno’s ketoprak thus offers something different. The group also tells jokes about fuel price increases, corruption, the soaring prices of basic needs, the eviction of kiosk owners and floods.
“It’s our way of preserving ketoprak amid the prevalence of TV dramas, musical concerts, café recreation and other modern entertainment. We want to show that ketoprak still survives in Solo,” he assured.
Interestingly, spectators are not charged any fixed fee for watching his group’s show. They only need to put voluntary contributions into a box according to their capacity and sincerity.
A fee worth Rp 2-3 million is only imposed under an invitation to mark an event. “It’s a small reward but ketoprak lives on,” he remarked.
“Today, traditional artists have to be able to innovate. They should follow current developments and be smart enough to combine conventional standards and modern elements. Otherwise, they will come to a standstill,” he said.
Joleno has no dream to restore ketoprak to its past glories. He’s just longing for something simple: For ketoprak to live on and to be followed a loyal audience.
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