The performers entertained the audience, delighting them with their repertoire. Carried out in the traditional Betawi, or native Jakarta, dialect, their interaction describes the traditional courtship of men and women during the capital’s colonial period — the coquettish flirtation by the woman, and the ardent advances by the man, both in their traditional garb.
This was a performance of Gambang Kromong, a traditional Betawi art form popularized by the late Benjamin Sueb, who brought Betawi performance arts to prominence in the 1970s and ’80s.
Like Benjamin, the performing duo highlighted the characteristics that made Gambang Kromong renowned, namely the natural feel from its improvised dialogue and the amusing slapstick acting, which was at once amplified and emphasized through the fiddle, tanjidor drum and flute, as well as the other instruments that make up a Betawi orchestra.
The performance also satisfied the audience’s yearning and nostalgia for Gambang Kromong, an increasingly rare spectacle only seen during festivals, weddings and other major occasions, amid the tide of cultural globalization swamping Jakarta.
Highlighting local identity
The Gambang Kromong performance was one of the highlights of the inaugural edition of the Setu Babakan Festival, an event set to be held every year in the Jagakarsa area of South Jakarta. Held in the traditional Betawi village and reservoir of the same name since the start of the month, the festival imparted on visitors an energy, vibe and sense of communal pride that promised to make it a major highlight in Jakarta’s tourism calendar.
“The Setu Babakan Festival stems from last June, when it was one of a number of events to mark Jakarta’s 487th anniversary,” says Ukar Saputra, the head of the South Jakarta Tourism Office.
“The public enthusiasm was so great that we decided to give the full festival its test run this August, ahead of Independence Day on August 17. We were concerned that turnout for the festival would be low because of the Idul Fitri holidays. But on the contrary, the number of visitors has been higher than we expected.”
Opening to the pomp of a traditional Betawi wedding, followed by the palang pintu or door-stop ceremony, marawis or religious music, and lenong plays, the sense of something new is obvious to all who saw the spectacle.
“Like Setu Babakan itself, the festival seeks to preserve Betawi culture and affirm the identity of the Betawi people. The event also has the added benefit of drawing tourism revenue, ideally to keep it self-sustaining,” Ukar says.
“The Setu Babakan festival also shows Jakarta’s awareness of its roots, even as it constantly changes with the times.”
Rediscovering identity through art
For Andi, one of the brains behind the Gambang Kromong and other cultural highlights at the festival, the event is a valuable opportunity to enlighten the public about Jakarta’s rich cultural heritage.
“Keeping traditional arts like Gambang Kromong alive in the face of globalization is challenging but necessary, because it’s quickly losing ground, particularly among young people, who seek out other cultural media such as foreign movies, pop music and video games,” he says.
“To make an impact, one has to be multitalented and know more than one facet of traditional arts, which is exactly what I’m trying to do with Gambang Kromong,” he adds, noting that he has performed it for the past five years, having first studied it in 2002.
“I also teach Tari Topeng [Masked Dance] and Gambang Kromong here at Setu Babakan twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays. I’m happy to say that many of my pupils have managed to teach these art forms to their own students in institutions like Jakarta State University and the Jakarta Arts Institute,” he says.
“I took a while to get the hang of Gambang Kromong because my art founding lies in Tari Topeng Betawi, which I’ve been performing since 1974,” adds Andi, a third-generation Tari Topeng dancer whose grandparents began performing the dance in 1918.
“The music for Tari Topeng and for Gambang Kromong is slightly different in how we use it. The former is filled with improvised dance moves to the music, while in the latter we improvise the lyrics. But regardless of which medium one opts for, it’s important that we retain arts like Gambang Kromong and Tari Topeng for their artistic merits as well as the sense of identity they bring.”
And true to his claim of being multitalented, Andi also practices silat, or traditional Indonesian martial arts, in its ritualized dance incarnation as well as its more practical form.
A pleasant aftertaste
No cultural festival would be complete without a culinary offering, and the Setu Babakan fest didn’t disappoint, presenting a rich variety of Betawi foods, including daily staples such as gado-gado and ketoprak (vegetables smothered in peanut sauce), mie ayam (chicken noodles), bakso (meatball soup) and chicken satay.
But there were also special treats that are becoming increasingly difficult to find, such as bir pletok es, an iced herbal drink; es selendang mayang, an iced dessert with all kinds of sweet treats; and the perennial favorite — kerak telor, a Betawi omelette made with shallots, shrimps and burnt rice.
“I’ve been making kerak telor on weekends for the past decade,” says Maman, a Setu Babakan resident.
“The festival’s a good way to expand my market and make more money than usual, though business is fairly brisk because more and more people are visiting Setu Babakan these days.”
He says he sells each omelette for Rp 13,000, or $1.10, if it’s made with a chicken egg ,or Rp 15,000 with a duck egg.
“But selling kerak telor is challenging, because it’s not as well known to consumers as mie ayam, bakso or gado-gado,” Maman says.
While kerak telor’s popularity has been on the wane in recent years, it still pops up at annual events like the Jakarta Fair or the Java Jazz Festival, and appeals to visitors out to have a good time.
“One of the reasons I go to festivals like the Setu Babakan Festival is because they’re an emporium for rare, inexpensive delicacies like kerak telor and bir pletok,” says Emma, a visitor from Depok, south of Jakarta.
“As for the traditional entertainment, I like to see lenong plays, as their spontaneity and improvised banter never get old. The Setu Babakan Festival and others of its kind are also a cheaper, more authentic alternative to malls or places like the Ancol amusement park, which is far and costs a lot to get in.”
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on August 13, 2014