What is keroncong?

Keroncong (pronounced ‘kronchong’) is the name of a small ukulele-like instrument and an Indonesian musical style. The word keroncong comes from the chrong-chrong-chrong sound made by strumming the instrument and from the kron and chong sound that occurs when a pair of these instruments interlocks

A keroncong ensemble consists of an orchestra and a vocalist. The core orchestra consists of flute, violin, two ukuleles, cello, double bass and guitar. The vocalist sings the melody with slow sustained notes, often in vibrato style; the flute and violin carry and ornament the melody; the three string ukulele (cuk) emphasises the on-beat; the four string ukulele (cak) emphasises the off-beat; the double bass, played pizzicato, punctuates the melody; the cello, played rapid pizzicato, adds rhythm and tone; the guitar augments the rhythm and plays melody.

Keroncong songs take different forms, but usually have an introduction, 16, 28 or 32 bars and a regular chord progression. One of the characteristics of this music is that it adapts and synthesises new musical sounds into its form and so has a constantly expanding repertoire.

Keroncong is believed to have Portuguese and Indonesian origins. In the sixteenth century, sailors on Portuguese ships played small long-necked guitars and sang songs, similar to the Fado, the Arabic-pitched Portuguese folk song. This music was then played in the communities of freed Portuguese slaves in areas such as north Jakarta and Manado, which later became part of Indonesia. Over time it adopted local Indonesian features, particularly in Solo, central Java, where it fused with elements of gamelan music and Javanese language.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century keroncong was taken up by street musicians: groups or single men who roamed the streets singing protest songs or wooing young women with their romantic ballads. They were nicknamed ‘buaya darat’ (crocodile on land), a reference to their playboy type behaviour.

During the Big Band era keroncong became popular in the hotel ballrooms of the middle classes. They added extra violins, piano accordions, pianos, drums and brass to the small bands and called them orchestras; they also included popular songs in their programs, which led to the emergence of Keroncong Cha Cha, Keroncong Tango and Keroncong Foxtrot. This trend has continued with the incorporation of western, jazz, rock, hip-hop and other popular songs into keroncong repertoire.

Keroncong reached the peak of its popularity in the 1960s but interest has waned since then. Dubbed ‘the music of old people’, it has struggled to attract new performers and followers and has been in danger of dying out. However experienced musicians are now mentoring the young, encouraging them to innovate and incorporate their modern music into keroncong, and there are signs that this adaptive music will continue to evolve.

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