Balapan Beat

The stage at Balapan Station

The stage at Balapan Station

Beneath the neon lights of Platform One at Balapan Railway Station seven musicians are preparing to perform. The ukulele, cello and guitar players tighten strings and check tunings, while the flute and violin players practise a short duet. The double bass is on the ground. One of the vocalists helps the station master fine tune the complicated wiring of the sound system that will broadcast their music across all six platforms, while other vocalists prop nearby on a luggage trolley.

Balapan is Surakarta’s main station. Trains arrive and depart constantly and a steady stream of commuters, carrying large bundles of food and belongings, flows along the platforms and across the tracks. They weave past small food stalls, newspaper and magazine sellers, family groups sitting on the platform enjoying a meal together, and tired students tied to headphones. Luggage handlers push overloaded trolleys to the edge of the platform, then tip forward to charge furiously down the ramp and across the tracks, trying to gain enough momentum to charge up the slope onto the next platform.

It’s very noisy. Trains roar and screech, whistles and horns blast and blow, announcements scream from the PA system, along with the chimes of ‘Big Ben’ which signal the imminent departures of trains. People chatter and laugh; porters, becak and taxi drivers tout loudly and persistently for business. Sounds reverberate and mesh into a wall of noise under the tin awning roof.

It’s against this background that kroncong orchestra ‘Senja Balapan’ and their vocalists perform romantic and nostalgic folk songs. Most kroncong groups play in restaurants or at village ceremonies, so it’s a surprise to find a group at the station. They play for five hours every Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday and are paid from the contributions that appreciative listeners place in their donation box.

‘Senja Balapan’ started when a few station hands, taxi and becak drivers got together to sing and strum their guitars while waiting for the trains to arrive. Within a short time they became popular with commuters, so the Railways then paid for new instruments and a music teacher and the station master provided uniforms, a sound system and storage space for their instruments. They also found an unexpected source of vocalists from among the many commuters, such as a local doctor who works out of town. Most Fridays he alights from the train, props his bag on the platform and sings a few songs before going home.

Night falls and the station lights up. The violinist plays the lively strains of a kroncong tune and, when a male singer takes the microphone, passengers pause, tap their feet and sing along. A young woman wearing headscarf and tight jeans then steps forward. She’s a little nervous so the male singer prompts helpfully by crooning the slow romantic melody.  Priyanto is next. By day he’s a becak driver.  Tonight, dressed in formal black jacket and trousers and black sunglasses, he presents ‘My Way’ in English. Sita, a professional performer, wearing a tight glittery top over a miniskirt and leggings with very high heels, sings and dances to a saucy kroncong number. She’s followed by a young girl, dressed in kebaya and long batik skirt. The crowd claps approvingly when she sings in Javanese. Finally it’s the turn of seventy-two year old Pak Mustar whose voice soars above the din with a romantic ballad full of intensity and passion.

On the great stage of Balapan Station, this small group of musicians provides moments of great pleasure for a constantly changing audience of tired commuters.
© keronconginsolo 2014
Published in the AIAV News May 2012

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