Fulfilling a promise: Teater Abnon revives Betawi’s ‘gambang kromong’ with ‘Janji Soekma’
Jakarta, Indonesianpost.com – In the spur of the moment, we often make bold promises, not fully realizing their hold on us for many years to come.
Such a scenario unfolded in 1993 when Maudy Koesnaedi, a determined young model, stood before a panel of judges during the finals of the Abang None (Mr. & Miss) Jakarta pageant. With unwavering confidence, she vowed that, if she won the pageant, she would initiate an event that would perpetuate Betawi’s rich cultural heritage to the young generation.
“At that time, I just gave the answer in order to win [the pageant],” Maudy said, with a chuckle, during a press conference at Galeri Indonesia Kaya, Jakarta, on Sept. 21.
And Maudy indeed claimed the title of None (Miss) Jakarta 1993 and embarked on a journey to champion Betawi culture.
In addition, she also played a prominent role in the beloved TV series Si Doel Anak Sekolahan (Doel, the Schoolkid, aired in between 1994-2003), spotlighting Betawi’s people and their culture, as well as its subsequent TV series and movies.
“But [Si Doel] was not something that I initiated,” she said. “It’s not really what I’d promised.”
Fulfilling her promise, Maudy then produced a play based on Jakarta’s well-known legend and enlisted alumni of Abang None from her base in North Jakarta to star in it.
The play Cinta Dasima (Dasima’s Love Story), which premiered at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta in May 2009, garnered widespread acclaim.
“After the show, Bang Foke [then Jakarta governor Fauzi Bowo] summoned me and encouraged me to expand my efforts by involving Abang None alumni from all parts of Jakarta,” Maudy revealed.
This marked the birth of Teater Abnon (short for Abang None), now a legal entity dedicated to nurturing Betawi culture among Jakarta’s youth with its performances.
“Teater Abnon aims to present Betawi culture as something fun and relevant for today’s generation,” Maudy reiterated.
From Friday to Sunday, in collaboration with Bakti Budaya Djarum Foundation, Teater Abnon is set to dazzle Jakarta’s audience with their latest production, Janji Soekma: Langgam Gambang Kehidupan (Soekma’s Promise: The Rhythm of Life) at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta.
This will be the group’s 14th production since its inception.
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Reintroducing ‘gambang kromong’
Directed by renowned stage director Wawan Sofwan, the two-hour play delves into the challenges faced by Soekma Djaja, a gambang kromong (traditional Betawi music ensemble) troupe striving to thrive in contemporary Jakarta.
“Theater performances serve as a mirror that reflects society,” the director said. “In Janji Soekma, Teater Abnon reflects an important element of Betawi culture, [which is] gambang kromong, and the problems that they’re facing these days.”
Today, only a handful of gambang kromong groups remain in the capital, as they receive very few invitations to perform at events or gatherings.
The play’s narrative revolves around Lia, the youngest child of Maman Djaja, as she endeavors to revive her father’s gambang kromong troupe, Soekma Djaja, after a prolonged hiatus.
After her father’s passing and the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the troupe’s members change jobs to survive. Convincing them to return to the troupe, especially with dwindling performance opportunities, is quite a challenge for Lia.
Fitria Aprilia, None (Miss) West Jakarta 2012 and a digital marketing officer at a private financing company, assumes the lead role in this production.
“When my colleagues learned that I’ll take part in a play featuring gambang kromong, many of them asked whether I’d be playing a gamelan instrument,” Fitria said during an interview after the press conference.
“They looked perplexed when I said that there’s actually no gamelan in gambang kromong.”
The traditional ensemble combines gambang (a xylophone-like instrument), kromong (a metallophone), and various stringed and percussion instruments in its performances.
“Gambang kromong falls under the musik pesisiran [coastal music] genre, which is generally more vibrant,” Mia Ismi, None Central Jakarta 2010, vocal arranger and lecturer, said. “It’s also heavily influenced by Chinese culture.”
“People should realize that these acculturations make us Indonesians,” she continued.
Mia is the vocal coach in the play, training the actors and actresses to speak and sing in an authentic Betawi dialect during their performance.
“Our rehearsals are quite draining,” Mia divulged. “All Abang None that participate in this play are either studying or working during the day. So, we can only practice in the evening. But I’m happy that they’re all very positive and enthusiastic during rehearsals.”
Approximately 70 Abang None alumni from various years and regions of Jakarta have been rehearsing for the play four times a week since May.
One of the actors, Luthfi Adriansyah, acknowledged the challenge of juggling rehearsals with his role as an account manager at a digital media company, where he faces tight schedules and performance targets.
“Luckily, we’re allowed to open our laptops during rehearsals to keep up with our work,” he said.
Luthfi also takes time to review his script at the office and before going to bed.
“It’s tiring,” he conceded. “But like Mpok [sister] Maudy, I also have made a promise to my seniors during the pageant – to support Betawi artists and improve their livelihood. I feel that I’m fulfilling it by participating in this play.”
In the production, Luthfi, Abang South Jakarta 2012, takes on the role of Encang Daus, a member of the gambang kromong troupe that is grappling with mounting pinjol (online loan) debts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I even learned how to play the tehyan (a stringed instrument crafted from teakwood and coconut shell) directly from a genuine gambang kromong troupe for the play,” Luthfi revealed.
To help the actors and actresses in the play, Teater Abnon has engaged the help of gambang kromong troupe Tukang Tabuh, which will accompany them with live music in performing seven Betawi songs during the play.
“Betawi songs are so unique,” Fitria reflected. “Their cengkok [pitch and articulation] is very different from dangdut or Javanese songs and can actually be quite challenging to master.”
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Nurturing Betawi culture
During Teater Abnon’s 14-year journey, Maudy admitted there were times when she felt tired as she had to deal with tough challenges in keeping the troupe productive.
“Each production has its own share of dramas, and they’re all so different,” she said, with a sigh. “Lots of unexpected challenges pop up, making me wonder why I keep at it.”
Fitria plans to invite her family and colleagues to witness her performance.
“I don’t harbor any grand expectations that everyone will instantly embrace and practice Betawi culture after the show,” she acknowledged. “However, I do hope that those around me will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Betawi culture.”
Mia Ismi echoed a similar sentiment.
“Perhaps, we won’t convert everyone into connoisseurs of Betawi culture,” she acknowledged. “But the most important thing is to alter perceptions by demonstrating that Betawi culture can be just as fun and entertaining as today’s pop culture.”