A merging of a Javanese and Sundanese gamelan orchestra, Gambang Kromong has a unique sound and distinct timbre. This comes from the various music instruments originating from the acculturation of Indonesian and Chinese traditional music.

Gambang Kromong

A synergistic relationship between ethnicities will produce a beautiful harmony in life. That’s the moral that can be taken from the origins of Gambang Kromong in the Betawi community, a type of music that has long historical roots and reflects the fusion of several cultures.

Etymologically, Gambang Kromong refers to the two percussion instruments used: the gambang, a xylophone-like instrument; and kromong, a set of small gongs. A gambang consists of 18 wooden bars that have a soft sound when struck and the Kromong is made of bronze or iron composed of 10 pieces with notes arranged in sequence. 

This orchestra was popular among the Peranakan Chinese community. According to Pantja Warna, June 1949 issue, Chinese people in Java enjoyed listening to gamelan and tried to play it. But in Batavia (Jakarta), gamelan playing was less refined so the Chinese people prefer the yang-khim orchestra, consisting of yang-khim (a type of zither), su-kong (large rebab), teh-hian (two-stringed instrument), kong-a-hian (small rebab), ho-sian (two-stringed instrument), pan (similar to tambourine), bangsing (flute), sam-hian (three-stringed instrument), and ningngong (a musical instrument made of two metal discs). 

But yang-khim was hard to find and the Chinese people in Jakarta replaced it with a xylophone that was found in Javanese gamelan. Meanwhile, sam-hian and ho-sian were removed without reducing the value of the presentation. Because they performed Chinese songs, the orchestra was better known as gambang Cina (Chinese xylophones) until the early 19th century. It was only in the first decade of the 20th century, songs was created in Betawi. Since then, the Gambang Kromong orchestra has been recognised.

Gambang Kromong only uses five tones (pentatonic) that have Chinese names, namely liuh, u, siang, che, and kong or in order sol (G), la (A), do (C), re (D), mi (E). Gambang Kromong is performed by 8-12 players plus several dancers, singers, and sometimes theatre artists (lenong). Generally, the songs performed are humorous, happy, and ridicule or satirise each other between male and female singers.

There are three types of songs performed: pobin, derived from traditional Chinese songs, is usually played at Chinese weddings and funerals. Because it requires the ability to read notation in Chinese characters, pobin songs are now rarely played. The dalem song, which is sung in the form of rhymes in the Betawi-Malay language. And lagu sayur, created for ngibing (dancing). Some of the artists who popularised lagu sayur include Benyamin Sueb, Bing Slamet, and Ida Royani in the 1960s.

Over time, the Gambang Kromong has evolved to include modern instruments such as rhythm guitar, bass, organ, saxophone and drums. This combination caused a change from pentatonic to diatonic tunings. The addition of modern instruments created pros and cons among artists and connoisseurs of Gambang Kromong music. However, this change doesn’t influence the distinctiveness of this Betawi traditional music.

By the Betawi people, Gambang Kromong functions as a means of enlivening traditional ceremonies or rites of passage, such as a marriage or circumcision. In its performances, this orchestra is used as an accompaniment to Betawi traditional theatre (lenong), cokek dance, and other typical Betawi entertainment. 

Sari Widiati

Sari Widiati

Sari has been an arts and culture enthusiast for many years. She has written extensively on the arts, travel, and social issues as Features Writer at NOW! Jakarta.