There were four of us, sophomores in Yogyakarta who had just spent our night attending a music concert at our university’s old hall in 2000. After three hours full of grunge and heavy metal, headbanging and all, we decided to return home and stopped by a liquor store for a few bottles of Topi Miring (local liquor) to take away.
I forget who started it, but during a chit-chat on our rented house's porch, one of us started talking about a classmate with whom he had desperately been flirting but was apparently playing hard to get. He then sought our advice.
Aware of this mood shift, another friend played some rock ballads on the MP3 player on his computer. One and a half Topi Miring bottles later, the play list hit a folder containing Didi Kempot’s ballads.
Didi’s old time hit Layang Kangen (Love Letter) really did the trick as my love-struck friend started to cover his teary eyes. He let it all out, telling us that he was frustrated in fighting for his love as he had to face a one-sided competition with a rich guy.
The potion, the right combination of some cheap liquor and Didi’s songs, worked well as my friend told us about his fledgling love life that night. A few weeks later, when we regrouped at the campus cafeteria, my friend told me he had lost the fight but could face the reality. He said Didi’s tunes had encouraged him to accept defeat.
“I may have lost the fight, but I feel relieved,” he said.
Didi Kempot, born Didi Prasetyo, whose death on May 5 received front-page headline coverage in the country’s largest newspaper Kompas, was already a phenomenon at the time. I remember him as one of the big names in Javanese pop music. His hit love songs like Layang Kangen, Stasiun Balapan (Balapan Railway Station), Ketaman Asmoro (When I Fall in Love), Sewu Kuto (A Thousand Cities), Tanjung Emas Ninggal Janji (I Left My Promise at Tanjung Emas Port) were heard everywhere, particularly at angkringan (night roadside food stalls).
Some of my friends did not like Didi, saying the singer simply cashed in on people’s miseries through cheap lyrics and melodies. I almost agreed. A part of myself acknowledged that the baritone voiced Didi was a good singer but the other side of me said his songs were just a repetition that exploited the theme of love. Didi never offered any consolation; he just cried with his audiences.
But then, through my experience, I began to understand that crying other people’s tears is a form of solace. Through his love ballads, Didi offered his shoulder to many brokenhearted people to cry on. His songs send the comforting message of “I know how you feel”.
My respect for Didi grew after learning about his past. He arrived in Jakarta in late 1980s for a big dream, only to spend tough years as a street singer (actually Kempot stands for Group of Roadside Singers). But even when he reached the stars, he remained a humble soul who sided with the marginalized and unfortunate.
Just a few weeks ago, Didi performed a charity concert at his house in cooperation with Kompas TV station and raised Rp 7.6 billion (US$493,506). The money went to those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evidence of his humility also came in 2011 when he turned down the Suriname citizenship offered to him due to his popularity in the former Dutch colony, where the Javanese ethnicity accounts for 30 percent of the population. Didi preferred to live in his hometown Surakarta, Central Java, surrounded by his longtime friends.
An interview with famous announcer and YouTuber Gofar Hilman became a stepping stone for Didi’s comeback last year. Social media allowed Didi to greet his new batch of fans, the millennials, who had not been born when he started his career. Many of these new breed of fans do not speak Javanese either. At the peak of his fame, Didi performed in more than 20 concerts a month, music commentator Bens Leo said.
Didi’s old melancholic songs like Banyu Langit (Water From the Sky), Kalung Emas (Golden Necklace), Suket Teki (Grass), Cidro (Cheat) and Pamer Bojo (Show Off a New Wife) became new hymns among his new army of fans, who proudly call themselves Sobat Ambyar, which refers to people whose hearts are broken, and named their idol Lord Didi Kempot, Godfather of Broken Hearts.
Aside from the new music arrangements, Didi added encouraging narratives to his collection. From the stage he often shouted: “It’s okay to cry for your failing relationship now. But promise me that you will wake up in the morning feeling fresh and move on.”
At another time he asked his fans to dance their sorrows away.
Many of Didi’s songs tell stories of failure, but for him, this was not the end of the world.
“Be strong, that’s the sole formula to live your realities. No matter how hard life will get,” he said.
From one stage to another, Didi taught his fans to laugh at their misery. Even COVID-19 failed to stop him from performing, but cardiac arrest did on Monday.
Just like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died during the final completion of his Requiem composition, Didi passed away as he was preparing for a big concert that would mark his 30th anniversary in music, sometime in November.
Thank you Lord Didi Kempot for reminding us that no matter how complex and frustrating life can be, it is still worthy of gratitude, to be experienced with joy and laughter.
Staff writer at The Jakarta Post