JAKARTA: With great precision and agility, Seto Noviantoro’s fingers glided across the strings of an Indonesian musical instrument, while his right arm moved the bow back and forth.
Despite its distinctive sound, not many people know the name of this two-string bowed fiddle, even in Jakarta where the instrument originated centuries ago. Those who know how to play the instrument are even rarer.
Noviantoro, 23, has been showcasing his kongahyan skills for the past five years on Instagram and YouTube, creating his own renditions of anything from contemporary pop songs to jazz improvisations and Mozart’s Turkish March.
The musician has also been updating traditional Betawi songs, rearranging them with modern beats and using both the kongahyan and contemporary instruments like keyboards and electric bass to perform them.
“People think of traditional instruments as something old fashioned and irrelevant with today’s time. I want to use social media to reintroduce kongahyan to the masses, so people are aware that the Betawi (community) has an instrument called kongahyan,” Noviantoro told CNA.
“I get people interested by playing hit songs of today. People are intrigued and realise that this instrument is suited for all kinds of genres. Eventually, they will want to know more about the instrument, what it is and where it’s from.”
His endeavour soon 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 records.
A NATURAL TALENT
Although his father was a traditional Javanese gamelan (ensemble music) player, Noviantoro said he never expressed any real interest in becoming a musician as a boy.
“The only reason I enrolled for a traditional music major at my vocational school was because my grades were not good enough for regular high schools and other majors at the school,” he said.
Tourism Vocational School Number 57 in South Jakarta had just opened a new major in traditional music by the time Noviantoro graduated from junior high school in 2012. There was not much interest in the new programme and the then 14-year-old was accepted easily.
“My class was the first batch. The programme was so new, we didn’t have a teacher until the fourth day of school,” he recalled.
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The school eventually brought in Firman Jalut, a multi-instrumentalist and son of Betawi music maestro Babe Jali Jalut, to serve as one of the programme’s first teachers.
The first thing Firman did in Noviantoro’s class was to show a humble-looking wooden instrument about 60cm long, with a sound box made from dried coconut shell covered in goat’s skin on one end and two tuning pegs at another. A curved bow is permanently wedged between the instrument’s two strings.
Like many others in Jakarta, Noviantoro had never seen such an instrument in person, let alone played one. Most pupils in his class did not even know the instrument's name.
“My teacher stood in front of the class, rested the instrument against his waist and began to play. It produced the most beautiful and smoothest sound I have ever heard in my life. I was immediately hooked,” he said.
Noviantoro proved to be a natural talent. His teacher Firman was so impressed by his pupil that one year later he began bringing Noviantoro along 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 major jazz festival later that year.
“During the rehearsal, I was told to improvise a kongahyan solo. I didn’t know what to do. I had only been learning kongahyan for a year back then,” he said, adding that eventually, Firman stepped in and took Noviantoro’s place in the band.
Although he did not get to perform at the jazz festival, the experience made Noviantoro realise that the kongahyan is a versatile instrument which can fit into a wide variety of musical genres.
“I also realised that as a musician you have to be versatile in adapting to changes on the fly, be mindful of what other players are doing and be prepared to improvise,” he said.
A year after his encounter with Dharmawan, he eventually got his second chance to collaborate with the jazz veteran and perform in big concerts and festivals. Today, Noviantoro works as a full-time musician.
KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE
No one knows for sure when kongahyan was first invented – some historians believe it first emerged in the 15th century while others believe that it had been around for much longer.
However, everyone agrees that kongahyan, along with its bigger and lower-sounding siblings tehyan and sukong, were modelled after the Chinese erhu brought to the archipelago by merchants from mainland China.
The erhu was also the inspiration for another instrument called rebab, which is found in Sundanese and Javanese communities in other parts of Java.
While rebab is relatively well preserved, the same cannot be said about the Betawi stringed instruments.
“Perhaps it is 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 reasons, we don’t have that here,” Noviantoro opined.
“To be honest, I am quite jealous of the other provinces.”
The musician believed that the traditional music of Jakarta is facing a chicken-and-egg situation. “No one is teaching people these instruments because no one is interested. No one is interested because no one is teaching them about it,” he said.
Noviantoro aimed to change that through social media.
“I want to use social media to reintroduce kongahyan to the masses so people are aware of the kongahyan instrument and that the Betawi (community) has instruments called kongahyan, tehyan and sukong,” he said.
Noviantoro said he noticed many people his age are starting to show an interest in the instrument. “I don’t want to say that it happens solely because of what I am doing on social media. Other musicians are also working hard to promote kongahyan in their own ways," he said.
"I hope more and more people are picking up kongahyan for the first time. Nothing would give me more joy.”
“I want the Betawi culture and music to be more well known, not just in Indonesia but also internationally. I believe that the Betawi culture can get the worldwide recognition that it deserves. But before we can do that, we have to start with ourselves first. We must be the ones who appreciate it and preserve it.”