9 pm Sunday 22 March 2015, HAMKRI Sriwedari.
The sound system crackles and thumps at full volume but the keroncong orchestra can barely be heard above the amplified dangdut and amusement park rides. The musicians strum valiantly and the small crowd in the pendopo leans forward to listen to the weekly latihan. I’m talking to Mackhulan (Max) Baihaqi about his life as a performer but the acoustics are against us. We move behind a pillar out of direct range of the speakers and I hold my small voice recorder closer to him.
Max has always enjoyed performing. When he was very young he saved his pocket money to buy a bamboo flute from a toy hawker and taught himself to play while he was herding goats. He then learned guitar from street musicians and truck drivers who played outside their cheap lodging houses.
‘After high school I went to UNS to study teaching. My father, an Islamic teacher, wanted me to focus on religion and further education because he believed this would offer better prospects than music but I soon connected with the artistic community in Solo started to learn traditional music, theatre and dance. I also began to play keroncong. Initially I tried double bass but it is difficult for a beginner because its role is to hold the tempo. Luckily lots of people were happy to help.’
In 2002 Max and a few friends formed Orkes Plasu Minimal (OPM)
‘We’re all concerned about the social issues, like poverty and shortages of basic commodities, that affect villagers. We try to spread the word and own these issues, to smile than to get angry. We use strong language but soften it with humour so it’s more easily understood. Our main idea is to have fun. Things don’t usually go as planned but because we’ve known each other for a long time it’s easy to improvise. ‘
OPM plan their shows around a theme. They work out skits; compose songs that include familiar elements of village songs, Pak Gesang’s songs, rhymes and traditional stories; set them to keroncong, hip-hop, dangdut, reggae and other rhythms – ‘because it’s important that people move to our music’; then Max arranges the music for keroncong instruments.They dress up as doctors, policemen, prisoners, dancers, villagers, etc. ‘They’re not uniforms but a way to portray a role.’
Max likes free, humorous and dynamic keroncong so has introduced some changes to this traditional music. ‘Some of them weren’t well received, especially when we replaced the cello with the kendang, but we persisted because we wanted a specific sound.’ He recalls how keroncong changed when Gesang created ‘Bengawan Solo’, how ‘this led to growth and development. Alternative keroncong is one way of preserving keroncong.’
Max clearly enjoys performing: he laughs and jokes with fellow musicians and audiences; performs in several groups; comperes; teaches singing and mentors young musicians. ‘I like to be involved with the young. We ask OK Suara Delapan to perform with us, so they get experience and we get to see the keroncong spirit emerge and grow.’
It’s nearly midnight when I thank Max for his generosity and we move back in front of the pillars to join the keroncong fans.