What is Gambang Kromong? was the first thought that flash in my mind when knowledgeable peranakans introduce me to this form of music.
Gambang kromong refers to a type of ensemble, based in and around Jakarta, that combines Indonesian and Chinese instruments and styles. Its name derives from two of the instruments played: the gambang, a xylophone, and the kromong, a set of kettle-gongs on a rack. These are combined with instruments originating from China: a two-stringed fiddle and a side-blown flute. The remaining instruments in the core ensemble are percussion (hanging gongs, drums, and a set of clashing metal plates). Male and female singers, who sing lyrics in the popular Malay form of pantun, round out the ensemble. Western instruments may also be added, including electric guitars, trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, and electronic keyboards.
The music is performed and patronized by two groups who live in and around Jakarta (in Bekasi, northern Bogor, and Tangerang): Peranakan, people of mixed Chinese and Pribumi (native Indonesian) ancestry; and Betawi, who are considered Pribumi. Ensembles accompany male-female dancing at Peranakan weddings and other family celebrations. In this context, female dancers are hired as partners for men. Ensembles also accompany a form of popular theater called lenong.
Ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky has identified two repertoires that are part of modern performance practice: lagu lama, older songs oriented toward Chinese musical features; and lagu sayur, newer songs that tend to be based in Malay musical idioms. Lagu lama melodies were probably brought from the Fujian province of southern China to the Dutch colonial city of Batavia, presumably in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At that time, gambang kromong groups played for private weddings and parties. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, as the music became part of a more public sphere, the instrumentation embraced Indonesian instruments, including drums, gongs, and kromong. The lagu sayur repertoire emerged at this time, and in the early twentieth century embraced popular songs in the region around Batavia. The music became even more hybrid in the 1920s and 1930s, as it blended with U.S. and European popular music and jazz. A genre called gambang moderen ("modern gambang [kromong]"), associated with the actor and popular music composer Benyamin S. (1939–1995), is an important marker of Betawi cultural identity in contemporary Indonesia.
Music of Indonesia, Vol. 3: Music from the Outskirts of Jakarta: Gambang Kromong