Rest In Peace, Pak Gesang.

Posted on May 21st, 2010 at 11:34 am by Bambang


A group of Japanese tourists were gathering in front of a small hut in Yogyakarta. A group of Keroncong musicians played the legendary song “Bengawan Solo” or River of Solo. I was so impressed when some of them could sing along. I happened to know their tour guide, Mr Effendi, and he said that the tourist had been asking him for days for a ‘Bengawan Solo’ song to be played. And yes, the song is famous in Japan, especially among older generation.

A friend from Malaysia once relate to me the story when she brought her mother for a holiday in Yogyakarta and Solo, where her mother was most excited to see with her own eyes the river which had been famous by the song. To every ‘pengamen’ or street musicians they encountered, her mother would request for ‘Bengawan Solo’ to be played, and she didn’t mind hearing the same song again and again.

Everytime I listen to it, I let my imagination flew the area of Bengawan Solo. When the song was written in 1940, Indonesia was still under the occupation of the Dutch, before they were expelled by the Japanese.

It’s indeed the longest river in Java, and it has been the source of livelihood of many millions of people living nearby. The song describes the legendary river in a poetic and nostalgic way, that it is surrounded by mountains, its sources are near the city of Surakarta (also known with name “Solo”) that it ends in the sea, and that the merchants make use of it.

The composer of the song Bengawan Solo is the legendary Gesang Martohartono, a renowned Indonesian singer-songwriter from central Java, and that tune the composed has become famous throughout Indonesia, Japan and much of Asia, and which is almost synonymous with the kroncong style of Javanese music. He was most commonly known simply as Gesang.

Gesang was born in the central Javanese city of Surakarta (Solo). His father owned a batik-fabric business, which however went bankrupt when Gesang was still in his teens, plunging the family into poverty. Gesang, a self-taught musician who was however illiterate in musical notation, supported himself and his family by writing songs and singing at local functions such as weddings and other formal occasions.

In 1940, during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II, the impoverished 23 year-old musician composed a tune (using a flute) in the popular urban local style known as kroncong, a musical tradition of the region which combined Javanese chord progressions with Westernised vocal stylings, instrumental arrangements and melodies. The style had its origins in the 17th century Portuguese influences on the region, and was at the time associated with the urban poor and as such had somewhat of an unsavoury reputation, particularly among traditionalists.

For the lyrics, Gesang turned to the city’s river for inspiration. The Bengawan Solo River is Java’s longest river and most important waterway for trade and agriculture, and seemed to Gesang to symbolise the durability of Javanese culture in those troubled times. Gesang himself would later remark “I had dreamt since my childhood about writing a song of praise for the immortal Solo River”.

Gesang added the song, Bengawan Solo, to his repertoire, and it soon became widely popular among the local Javanese community. The song rose to national prominence when recordings of it were aired on local radio stations. It also found an appreciative audience among the Japanese occupation forces, some of whom took to singing it with lyrics translated into Japanese. It was popular also among the non-Javanese prisoners (principally Dutch civilians) of the Japanese internment camps, many of whom also spoke Indonesian. The simple but nostalgic lyrics and popular-sounding melody held equal appeal to the long-standing resident and the homesick soldier.

As World War II drew to a close, the returning soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army brought the song back to Japan. In the dark period immediately after Japan’s defeat, the song caught the public mood, and its fame soon spread throughout the country after best-selling recordings of it were released by popular singers, starting with Toshi Matsuda’s 1947 recording. It was to be periodically re-released by various popular artists, and the song soon became almost synonymous in Japan with Indonesian music, many assuming that it was a centuries-old traditional song.

Versions of the song were also released in other Asian countries, and it has since been recorded many times by famous artists worldwide.

Gesang remained in the city of his birth, continuing to compose and sing, his fame spreading through the decades. He became regarded as the leading exponent and senior figurehead of the Solonese kroncong style, which is now regarded as a respectable, even somewhat starchy and dated style, well and truly assimilated from its humble and scandalous prior associations.

In 1991, a group of appreciative Japanese war veterans arranged for a life-sized statue of Gesang to be erected in a Surakarta park, to mark their respects for the composer of the tune that had managed to cross the cultural barriers of wartime.

From 12 May 2010, Gesang was hospitalized due to poor health condition. He was reported to be unconscious and was sent to Muhammadiyah Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit at his hometown, Solo. He was already reported dead previously on 18 May 2010, but his family denied it. His family stated that the great composer passed away 8 days later in the hospital, on 20 May 2010 at the age of 92. He left his entire fortune of some twenty million dollars to the charity ‘Music in Youth’.

Rest in peace, Pak Gesang. You are an icon, a legend, a musical warrior…and your music shall live on forever in our hearts.

Source: Wikipedia

Bengawan Solo (Solo River)

Bengawan Solo (Solo River)
Riwayatmu ini (Thus your chronicles)
Sedari dulu jadi (Have been since earliest times)
Perhatian insani (Of sentient attention)

Musim kemarau (In the dry season)
Tak seb’rapa airmu (Your water is not much)
Di musim hujan, air (In the rainy season, water)
Meluap sampai jauh (Spills reaching far distances)

Mata airmu dari Solo (Your water springs forth from Solo)
Terkurung Gunung Seribu (Surrounded by a thousand mountains)
Air mengalir sampai jauh (Water flows to reach far distances)
Akhirnya ke laut (Eventually to the sea)

Itu perahu (That boat)
Riwayatmu dulu (In your past chronicles)
Kaum pedagang s’lalu (The merchant folks had always)
Naik itu perahu (Sailed in such boats)

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