From jazz to Mozart, the young Indonesian breathes new life into a century-old string instrument
JAKARTA: With great precision and agility, Seto Noviantoro’s fingers slid over the strings of an Indonesian musical instrument, while his right arm moved the bow back and forth.
Despite its distinctive sound, few people know the name of this two-string bowed violin, even in Jakarta where the instrument originated centuries ago. Those who know how to play the instrument are even rarer.
Noviantoro, 23, has shown his kongahyan skills over the past five years on Instagram and YouTube, creating his own renditions of everything from contemporary pop songs to jazz improvisations and Mozart’s Turkish March.
The musician also updated traditional Betawi songs, rearranging them with modern rhythms and using both Kongahyan and contemporary instruments like keyboards and electric bass to perform them.
âPeople think traditional instruments are old fashioned and unrelated to today’s times. I want to use social media to reintroduce Kongahyan to the masses, so people know that the Betawi (the community) has an instrument called kongahyan, âNoviantoro told CNA.
âI get people interested by playing hit songs today. People are intrigued and find that this instrument is suitable for all kinds of genres. Eventually, they will want to know more about the instrument, what it is and where it came from.
His business quickly attracted accomplished musicians, artists and producers like jazz veterans Tohpati Ario Hutomo and budding composer Eka Gustiwana, who invited him for collaborations, both on stage and on record.
Although his father is a traditional Javanese gamelan (ensemble music) player, Noviantoro said he never expressed any real interest in becoming a musician as a child.
“The only reason I signed up for a traditional music major at my vocational school was that my grades weren’t good enough for regular high schools and other majors in the school,” he said. .
South Jakarta’s No.57 Vocational Tourism School had just opened a new major in traditional music by the time Novantoro graduated from high school in 2012. The new program received little interest and the 14-year-old was accepted easily.
âMy class was the first promotion. The program was so new that we didn’t have a teacher until the fourth day of school, âhe recalls.
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The school eventually called on Firman Jalut, a multi-instrumentalist and son of music maestro Betawi Babe Jali Jalut, to become one of the first teachers in the program.
The first thing Firman did in Noviantoro’s class was to show a humble-looking wooden instrument about two feet long, with a dried coconut soundbox covered with goatskin on one end. and two pegs to each other. A curved bow is permanently wedged between the two strings of the instrument.
Like many others in Jakarta, Noviantoro had never seen such an instrument in person, let alone played one. Most of the students in her class didn’t even know the name of the instrument.
âMy teacher stood in front of the class, put the instrument against his waist, and started playing. It produced the sweetest, most beautiful sound I have ever heard in my life. I immediately hooked, “he said.
Novantoro has proven to be a natural talent. His teacher Firman was so impressed with his student that a year later he started bringing Noviantoro with him to perform as a backup musician.
Firman even introduced Noviantoro to jazz veteran Dwiki Dharmawan, who at the time was looking to collaborate with a traditional musician for a big jazz festival later in the year.
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âDuring the rehearsal, I was told to improvise a kongahyan solo. I did not know what to do. I had only been learning Kongahyan for a year at the time, âhe said, adding that eventually Firman stepped in and took Noviantoro’s place in the group.
Although he could not perform at the jazz festival, the experience made Noviantoro realize that the kongahyan is a versatile instrument that can adapt to a wide variety of musical genres.
âI also realized that as a musician you have to be versatile to adapt to changes on the fly, be mindful of what other players are doing and be ready to improvise,â he said.
A year after meeting Dharmawan, he finally got his second chance to collaborate with the jazz veteran and perform at major concerts and festivals. Today, Noviantoro works as a full-time musician.
KEEPING THE TRADITION ALIVE
No one knows for sure when kongahyan was first invented – some historians believe it first appeared in the 15th century while others believe it has been around for much longer.
However, everyone agrees that the kongahyan, along with its larger and lower siblings, tehyan and sukong, were modeled after the Chinese erhu brought to the archipelago by traders from mainland China.
The erhu also inspired another instrument called rebab, which can be found in Sundan and Javanese communities in other parts of Java.
While the rebab is relatively well preserved, the same cannot be said of the Betawi stringed instruments.
âMaybe it’s because no one is teaching them. In West Java and Yogyakarta (provinces), they have schools and institutes dedicated to preserving their musical heritage and teaching the next generation of artists. For some reason, we don’t have that here, âNoviantoro said.
âTo be honest, I’m pretty jealous of other provinces. “
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The musician believed that traditional Jakarta music faced a chicken-and-egg situation. âNo one teaches people these instruments because no one is interested. Nobody is interested because nobody talks to them about it, âhe said.
Noviantoro aimed to change that through social media.
“I want to use social media to reintroduce kongahyan to the masses so that people are aware of the kongahyan instrument and the Betawi (community) has instruments called kongahyan, tehyan and sukong,” he said. .
Noviantoro said he noticed that many people his age were starting to take an interest in the instrument. âI don’t mean to say this just happens because of what I do on social media. Other musicians are also working hard to promote Kongahyan in their own way, âhe said.
“I hope more and more people choose Kongahyan for the first time. Nothing would make me more happy.”
âI want Betawi culture and music to be better known, not only in Indonesia but also internationally. I believe Betawi culture can get the global recognition it deserves. But before we can do that, we must first start with ourselves. We must be the ones who appreciate it and preserve it.