January 4, 2014
I’m starting off 2014 with what I believe is a pretty exceptional rarity. Certainly it’s one of the earliest commercial recordings of regional music from the highlands of Western Sumatra made by the Minangkabau people, known as Urang Minang in the local language. With most of the local recording industry at the time based in Java and Singapore, we are lucky that music of the Minang, a matrilineal, Islamic culture primarily based in the Minangkabau Highlands, was set to shellac. But more on that in a moment.
Traditional music practiced by the Minangkabau, or the “People of the Plains,” is varied – there are classical songs for the bamboo flute (salung or saluang), gong and drum ensembles (talempong) and numerous other types, and the music varies from the highlands to the coast. This track features the one-stringed rebab fiddle, the salung flute, and the puput or pupuik, a rice-stalk reed instrument. There are three main styles of Sumatran rebab music: rebab pasisie, rebab piaman, and rebab darek. The first two are music of the coast, and the latter is inland rebab music. While I’m not certain which style this is, it’s a lovely example of a kind of insistent and droning nature of Minangkabau music, with ornamented playing by the salung and puput (one of which is very much in the distance), augmenting the string.
For the sake of documentation, I retained the original spelling on the label, though the Indonesian alphabet’s spelling system was changed in 1947, following independence. The female singer, “Rapioen,” would today be spelled “Rapiun.” The title of the piece “Tandjoeng Sani” would be spelled “Tanjung Sani,” which refers to a small village of the same name in Western Sumatra. The label also lists “Boekit Tinggi,” which is the archaic spelling of the small city of Bukittinggi, formerly known as Fort de Kock, and where the musicians hailed from. “Djirek” in parentheses is the name of the 3-instrument ensemble – “Jirek” in today’s spelling.
This piece was recorded in May 1939 by the Tjap Angsa (meaning “Swan Brand”) label – it was recorded during their second recording session. According to the research by ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky, Tjap Angsa recorded most or all of their material in the city of Medan on the northern Sumatran coast, where they were partially based (their other headquarters was Bukittinggi). The label began in 1938 and issued several hundred discs, repressing some of them into the late 1940s. This disc was pressed in China, by the Chinese branch of EMI, who also supplied the engineers for the recording session.
While it would make sense for a Sumatran-based 78 label to record local musics such as those by the Minangkabau, other multinational labels did as well, for local distribution, including HMV, Columbia, and Odeon. Today, the Minang are a thriving culture of over 6 million with a very popular music scene (pop Minang is the name of the current genre). I don’t want readers to exoticize this music to the point that they think the musicians must live in mud huts. That said, Minangkabau music constituted a definitively minor percentage of 78rpm releases when compared to the thousands of krontjong discs released, as well as other popular and traditional styles from the region. Today, in fact most all 78s from Southeast Asia are scarce, no matter what style you’re talking about – even the full-fledged Western-style pop. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon – the tropics substantially increase the 78rpm attrition rate.
And this seems like the perfect time to bring up the recent release Longing For the Past: The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia, compiled and edited by my friend David Murray and recently issued on Dust-to-Digital. I’ve only mentioned it on the ES Facebook page, but I should state that it’s one of the best looking and best sounding archival releases ever produced. I am biased – I provided some of my favorite rare Southeast Asian discs from my collection and did the transfers – but Dave, D-2-D and crew put an extraordinary amount of effort in that release. If you are interested in Southeast Asian music, you will truly appreciate it.
Label: Tjap Angsa
Issue Number: AM 28
Matrix Number: A6808
This post would just be a handful of sentences were it not for the published research of, and my correspondence with, Philip Yampolsky, as well as correspondence with Indonesian music historian Alfred Ticoalu.
October 27, 2010
I’m glad to present another guest post – this time from collector Michael Robertson. It’s a lovely example of a musical style we haven’t yet explored here – more proof of the depths of early recording! – JW
Out of all the great music of Indonesia, from the gamelan groups of Bali and Java to the swaying guitar and vocals of krontjong, the music that has tickled my ear the most has been tembang sunda. Tembang sunda is a genre of sung poetry of the Sundanese people of West Java. It is accompanied by a kacapi, a type of zither, and a bamboo end-blown ring flute called a suling. It seems to have started in the court of the Regent of Cianjur in the mid-19th century, and is still sung today.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any information on Dede Kurniasih, except that she recorded at least seven sides for the Nusantara and Irama labels in the late 1940s, and possibly an LP. As you will hear, she has a very strong and expressive voice. The kacapi is a little far back in this recording, but overall it’s a fine example of the genre.
- Michael Robertson
Lyrics (thanks to Bambang Setijoso)
Daweng ngebang bang areuy dunungan
Bangkong dikongkorong kujang
Ka cai kundang cameti, da kole
Kole mah buah hanggasa
Ulah ngomong samemeh leumpang,
Da hirup katungkul ku pati
Paeh teu nyaho di mangsa
Hirup katungkul ku pati
Paeh teu nyaho di mangsa
Omong oyong oyong urang
pesini kunahu bisi da hate
Hate mah buah narasa ua ngomong samere rinti
Da hirup katungkul ku pati
Paeh teu nyaho di mangsa
Hirup katungkul ku pati
Paeh teu nyaho di mangsa
Issue Number: D. 467-52
Matrix Number: imco 742
April 20, 2009
I thought that, coupled with the previous post of today, I’d post something languid and tranquil, something somewhat relaxed. So, I brought out another classic Indonesian krontjong piece from the mid-20th century, on the local Irama label. “Irama” actually means “rhythm” in English – thus the title of the piece as well as the name of the record label are explained.
I posted a krontjong tune of the same vintage, and on another independent Indonesian label (Dendang), back in May of 2007. This one is similar – it’s the style of krontjong that I quite enjoy, featuring the walking guitar and fiddle player trading runs in between smooth vocals. Krontjong itself is a relatively new type of urban folk music, developing in Indonesian urban areas a little over 100 years ago, with Batavian, Portuguese, Malay, and even African influence. Krontjong had changed dramatically since it was first recorded ca. 1904, and when this record was released (probably the late 1940s or so). The instrumentation was bare bones at first, featuring trios and the like. I’ve heard 1920s krontjong that sounds influenced by Stamboel theater, with a slightly more operatic sound, showing further influences at work. By the 1940s, krontjong was a rage, with whole orchestras and popular singers getting into the act…yet, to me this music is not easily explained. Indonesian-Hawaiian-guitar-and-fiddle-ballads?
As for the singer and band – I’m afraid these are muddy waters. I am mostly sure that “Moh.” stands for Mohammed, and “Kr.” stands for krontjong, but at the risk of being incorrect, I will let the original label stand as the official record.
Issue Number: IRK. 186-145
Matrix Number: imco 233 (on label); JMC 233-1 (on shellac)
October 5, 2008
‘Nasib’ in Malay means ‘fate.’ The Nasib song is an aching, slow lament; a deeply melancholic popular song type which is built around the singer’s misfortune in life. On the surface, this description would make the Nasib similar to the fado, rebetika, or blues, but that would be a mischaraterization. The origins of the Nasib derive, in fact, from Indonesian/Malaysian stambul theater music. Stambul theater (also referred to as bangsawan) developed in the late 19th century and was an urban affair, where theatrical groups would perform musical dramas, many with stories which had origins in India or the Middle East. Stambul songs were most popular from 1920-1935.
The Nasib is sung by a singer who is in fact playing – or at the very least channeling – a character or situation from these classical stories, rather than singing her own blues. Interestingly, much of the stambul music that I’ve heard from that era is quite cultured – operatic, even. However, the Nasibs, although derived from stambul, are a different thing altogether. The operatic aspect has gone out the window, and what we have here is swooning sadness – the Nasib adopted to a bar band setting!
Today’s Nasib features Miss Inah singing “Sesalken Oentoeng” (a Dutch transliteration of the Malay “Sesalkan Untung”), which more or less means “I Regret My Luck.” She is accompanied by her smooth yet lurching Malay Entertainers on harmonium (another Indian connection), saxophone, bass, and percussion.
And what about this tantalizingly obscure and beautifully designed label “Extra” – of which this appears to be the sixth release? From the wonderful choice of typefaces, the baby blue color, the looming image of a mountain (Mount Kerinci, the highest peak in Sumatra, most likely), and the overlapping letters H, M, and V, in a skeleton font – the whole label reeks of mystery!
It turns out that the Extra label was based in Palembang, Indonesia, in the south of Sumatra, and was in operation during the early 1940s, before the Japanese occupation. Right off the bat, this clues us in to the fact that the record, despite the band’s name being the Malay Entertainers, is most likely from Indonesia as opposed to Malaysia (the ethnic Malay group is found in both countries). How many records did Extra make? Collectors have traced only nine releases. There may be more, though I’m betting the number is low. It’s also unclear the relationship between Extra and HMV. The matrix numbers on this record (the numbers separate from the catalog numbers on the record, indicating masters and often takes) are clearly HMV matrix numbers. But, we do not know if these songs were also released by HMV, or if Extra was the sole entity releasing these tracks.
Extra records were pressed in India. Which brings us to another issue: why in the hell does this record, which is in absolutely mint condition, sound so rough?
There are a couple of reasons, familiar to collectors but perhaps not to anyone else. One, the record could have been pressed using a worn stamper. The early recording process yielded negative masters. From a negative master, a positive, metal-coated “mother” was created (these sound pristine). The metal mother was used to make a stamper – a negative version of the mother – and then your store-bought records were made from the stampers. When one stamper wore out, another stamper was made from the metal mother. Sometimes, however, companies let their stampers become wrecked before they replaced them. The result was, as you could imagine, a really crappy sounding record.
Another reason could be that there’s too much garbage in the shellac mix. Again, the bane of collectors, but bears ranting about even if you’re not ensconced in that kind of minutiae. So, those metal mothers I was talking about sounding pristine in the previous paragraph? Well, something else happens between the recording process and the resulting 78rpm record. Since 78rpm records were made to be played on acoustic, wind-up gramophone players, record companies were quite aware that the sharp steel needles used to play 78s wore down the records very quickly. So, they made better needles, right? Er, no. Instead, they added junk into their shellac mix – carborundum, cement, sand – which was supposed to wear down the gramophone needle as it moved through the grooves! This is the main reason why surface noise exists on clean 78s. When I look at this Extra record, I can actually SEE the junk in the shellac on the record’s surface. But, sometimes you gotta take what you can get!
Label: Extra Record
Issue Number: SE-6
Matrix Number: 0MG-6969-1
I am indebted to Philip Yampolsky for much of the information in this post. Mr. Yampolsky is a renowned expert in the music of the region, and the person behind the staggering 20-volume Music of Indonesia series for Smithsonian Folkways.
May 10, 2007
Krontjong (in relatively equal amounts spelled kronjong, kroncong, keroncong, and kerontjong) is slightly over a century old, and is an urban folk music. Ethnomusicologists would call it a syncretic music, as it developed over time from a variety of cultural influences, such as Portuguese, Batavian, African, and Malay – all of which were present in one form or another in turn of the century Indonesia.
Known for its languid rhythm, Hawaiian “walking guitar,” and partially improvised violin runs, the style was first recorded in 1904, but musically hit its stride and popularity in the 1930s. By the 1940s, independent Indonesian labels began to appear such as Dendang (pictured here), Irama, and Serimpi, and hundreds if not thousands more krontjong records were released, joining the large amount already available from HMV, Odeon, and other companies.
In my personal experience, I’ve found it difficult to track down much krontjong on 78 outside of Indonesia, nor has much, if any, early krontjong music been re-released on CD. I’ve always found it unique – it often sounds like two bands playing completely separate arrangements of the same song, and somehow landing on their feet.
For more information on the history of krontjong, take a peek at pages 207-210 of Peter Manuel’s essential text, Popular Musics of the Non-Western World, as well as the always entertaining Paul Vernon, and his article Kronjong Silver.
Issue Number: XBK.007
Matrix Number: IMC.302