Category: Stories

Obituary 1: Suangsih (193? – August 22, 2016)

Kami biasa memanggilnya Wa Acih atau Bi Acih atau terkadang Wa Aceu. Ia adalah kakak lain ibu dari ibu kandungku. Walaupun berbeda ibu, hubungan wa Acih dan ibu kandungku sangat dekat dan wa Acih sangat menyayangi adik-adiknya. Sejak menikah, wa Acih memutuskan untuk tinggal bersama suaminya di Kecamatan Majalaya, Kabupaten Bandung. Setidaknya dua minggu sekali, wa Acih selalu menyempatkan diri untuk mampir ke kota Bandung menengok keluarga adik-adiknya.

Sejak dulu sampai terakhir bertemu beberapa bulan lalu, wa Acih adalah salah satu anggota keluarga terlucu dalam keluarga besar kami. Kemampuan dan staminanya dalam membanyol, terutama dalam Bahasa Sunda, sulit ditandingi oleh anggota-anggota keluarga lain. Inilah yang membuat wa Acih sering dirindukan, terutama ketika beberapa tahun terakhir wa Acih didera diabetes dan tidak bisa lagi terlampau lincah bepergian ke kota Bandung.

Kabar kepergian wa Acih saya peroleh dari sepupu saya lewat grup WhatsApp keluarga sepulang kuliah hari pertama di semester pertama saya di University of Kansas, Amerika Serikat. Sungguh malam itu adalah malam yang hampa, tidak ada yang bisa dilakukan selain berdoa seorang diri selepas sholat Isya yang terlampau malam. Tidak ada kesempatan untuk berkunjung, mengantar ke pembaringan terakhir, dan berdoa bersama sambil berbela sungkawa dan menghibur anggota-anggota keluarga yang ditinggalkan.

Saya sempat banyak melamun di hari berikutnya dan sedikit kurang focus belajar di hari kedua kuliah. Akan tetapi, keesokan harinya saya teringat salah satu banyolan terlucu Wa Acih, yang sulit untuk diceritakan kembali di sini karena alih kode yang sulit dijelaskan dari Bahasa Indonesia ke Bahasa Sunda. Saya pun tertawa-tawa sendiri sepulangnya ke apartemen dan bisa mengenang Wa Acih pada saat terlucunya. Dalam ketiadaan pun ia tetap lucu, dan saya yakin Wa Acih akan tertawa-tawa bahagia sesampainya nun di sana. Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rojiun.

It is unfortunate that I should begin my updates on my first month in Lawrence with the sad news of the passing of my aunt. We usually called her Wa Acih or Bi Acih (lit. Aunty Acih) or less commonly, Wa Aceu. She was my mother’s half-sister from my grandfather’s previous marriage. Despite coming from a different mother, she loved her half-sisters very dearly. Since getting married in the early 1970s, Wa Acih decided to live in Majalaya, a suburban district of Bandung regency. At least once a month, Wa Acih went to Bandung city to visit the families of her sisters.

At least until several months ago, when I met her for the last time, she was one of the funniest family members in our extended family. Her ability and stamina to create jokes, especially in Sundanese, is hard to be matched by other relatives. This is what my relatives missed the most about Wa Acih, especially since in the past couple of years, she could not visit Bandung city at will due to diabetes.

The news of Wa Acih’s passing was relayed by a cousin through the family WhatsApp group, in the evening of the first day of class in my first semester at the University of Kansas. The night suddenly turned hollow, nothing else to do except for praying alone after the Isya prayer late at night. There was no opportunity to visit the internment and pray together in a congregation while expressing condolences and consoling the surviving family members.

I spent the following day pensively and even became less focused on the second day of class. The next day, however, I suddenly remembered one of Wa Acih’s funniest jokes, which is difficult to tell here because it involves code switching from Indonesian to Sundanese. I laughed all by myself once I got to my apartment and I was glad I could remember Wa Acih at her funniest. Even in her absence, she remains funny, and I am sure she will laugh happily once she gets up there. Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rojiun.

Sebulan di Lawrence – First Month in Lawrence

Sebulan lalu (sudah lewat satu hari sebenarnya), saya berangkat dari Tanjungsari, Sumedang menuju Lawrence, Kansas, Amerika Serikat. Saya akan tinggal cukup lama di Lawrence, karena saya terdaftar sebagai mahasiswa purna waktu di program doktoral Sastra Inggris, Department of English, University of Kansas, yang artinya saya akan tinggal selama 4-5 tahun hingga program saya selesai. Hidup di sebuah kota kecil di tengah Amerika Serikat tentu berbeda dengan hidup di sebuah kota kecil di Jawa Barat, Indonesia, dan tentu terasa semakin berbeda karena sebulan ini saya hidup sendirian, jauh dari keluarga (istri dan anak saya akan menyusul nanti), sahabat-sahabat, serta kolega-kolega. Akan tetapi, saya berusaha menyesuaikan diri dengan lingkungan baru, kawan-kawan baru dan cara belajar baru. Karena saya tidak harus bekerja di sela-sela kelas, (sepertinya) saya pun akan punya waktu untuk menulis dan mengunggah sesuatu di blog saya yang sudah cukup berdebu karena lama ditinggalkan. Selamat membaca!

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Sorry for the eyesore! In front of the Kansas Union, a hub for students of KU and Lawrence community.

A month ago (a month and one day, to be exact), I left Tanjungsari, Sumedang, Indonesia for Lawrence, Kansas, United States of America. I am going to stay for quite a while in Lawrence, since I have been enrolled as a full-time student in the PhD in English Literature program, Department of English at the University of Kansas. This means that I am going to live in Lawrence for the duration of my program, which usually takes 4-5 years. Living in a small city in the middle of the US is certainly different from living in a small city in West Java, Indonesia and it is even more different since currently I have been living alone, far from my family (my wife and son will catch up soon), friends and colleagues. However, I am adjusting to living and studying here, while making new friends along the way. Since I don’t have to work in between classes (except for homework, that is), I can allocate time to write something and get this blog up and running after gathering dust for several months. Enjoy reading!

Janto, the Unsung Hero

L-R: Soman Lubis, Bhagu Ramchand, Sammy Zakaria, Janto Diablo, Benny Soebardja

L-R: Soman Lubis, Bhagu Ramchand, Sammy Zakaria, Janto Diablo, Benny Soebardja

Janto Diablo just added me as a friend on facebook and we had a short chat afterwards. And my heart leapt up. He sang lead on two songs, shared vocal duties on two more songs, played bass and flute and provided backing vocals in Shark Move’s only album, Ghede Chokra’s, released in perhaps 1970 or 1971. His outstanding contribution to the album is often overshadowed by the fact that the band was directed by prog luminary Benny Soebardja, who would go on to break new grounds and scored longer success with the proto-prog-metal outfit Giant Step.

The songs that he sang, the bluesy and improvisational “Harga” (in which Janto also played a wicked flute solo) and the anti-drug song (!) “Madat” are perhaps two of the best rock ballads ever to grace my life. The bass guitar riff and solo of “Evil War” will be forever etched in my mind. His high-pitched, bluesy vocal work is tinged here and there with Sundanese intonation and inflection, making his voice all the more unique.

Janto Diablo (born Janto Suprapto) hailed from Bandung and has been living in the city ever since. He started his career in music in the 1960s. Later in the decade, Janto formed and performed with Diablo, a rather tenacious yet short-lived rock band. Shortly thereafter, he became known as Janto Diablo. The nickname was carried over to his next band, Shark Move, after Diablo folded in early 1970. Shark Move folded too only over a year later, after some of the members left, including keyboardist Soman Lubis who later joined aspiring God Bless. Benny Soebardja eventually called it a day for the band and moved on to form Giant Step. After Shark Move, Janto was involved in a number of musical projects before settling on working for Aktuil production house, as well as having a long backstage career as a stage manager and later as a concert promoter. One of the concerts that he managed early in his career was the bustling Deep Purple Concert in 1975 in Istora Senayan, Jakarta.

35 years after they called it quits, Shark Move reunited in a tribute to the late Gito Rollies, former lead singer of fellow Bandung band The Rollies and a legendary artist on his own right. Shark Move went on to perform in a full-scale reunion concert, titled Shark on the Move (a reference to Giant Step’s album, Giant on the Move, and the fact that the reunion featured also several songs by Giant Step) featuring a fixed Shark Move line-up along with performances from former Giant Step members and Benny Soebardja’s sons playing an expanded repertoire of Shark Move and Giant Step songs. Shark Move still performs occasionally up to this day with revolving line-ups, with Benny and Janto as the mainstays. Amazingly, Janto’s voice has changed very little after more than forty years. He still sings “Madat” with the same bravado found in Ghede Chokra’s:

Kini telah kuniatkan

Persetan dengan goda dan rintangan

Segala omong kosong tentang kasih dan sayang

Persetan dengan cinta dan perdamaian

‘Kan kuserbu musuh biar seribu

‘Kan kubunuh, ‘kan kubunuh, ‘kan kubunuh…

THE MERCY’S

The Mercy’s are a pop band formed in Medan, Sumatera Utara, Indonesia in the late 60s. They were one of the bands that gained considerable popularity after the wake of Koes Plus. During their heydays in the 70s, they were considered among the top five bands of the era, along with Koes Plus, Panbers, D’lloyd, and the Favourite’s Group. Much like the other four bands, they continue to enjoy lasting success and recognition through a number of hit songs, re-released and remastered over the years by their record label, Remaco. Some of the members of the band have been elevated to legendary status as they charted lasting impact in the history of popular music in Indonesia.

Cover of The Mercy's second LP. Courtesy of madrotter.blogspot.com

Cover of The Mercy’s second LP. Courtesy of madrotter.blogspot.com

The Story

Depending on the sources on the net, The Mercy’s formed in either 1965 or 1969. The band’s name was said to derive from the popular nickname of Mercedes-Benz cars, the Mercy. It was possible that the band formed in 1965, yet they did not fare well until 1969, when they secured a contract for a string of gigs in Malaysia and Singapore. At the time, a great number of Indonesian bands and singers had been contracted for playing in public places in Malaysia and Singapore, sometimes for months. The first of these bands were The Peels, which included future prog luminary Benny Soebardja on guitar, whose tenure in 1967 resulted in a local best-selling live album as well as a handful of singles, mostly covers on Indonesian traditional and popular songs. The trend of Indonesian musicians touring Malaysia and Singapore started from then on to the early 70s, with a number of these bands and singers eventually signing recording deals with international record labels, such as RCA/Victor and Philips.

The line-up that had been set to play in Malaysia comprised founding members Rizal Arsyad (rhythm guitar), brothers Erwin (lead guitar) and Rinto Harahap (bass guitar, vocal), Iskandar (lead vocal, keyboards) and Reynold Panggabean (drums, percussion). Prior to their departure, Iskandar left the band to concentrate more on his studies in medicine. The remaining members of the band rushed to find the replacement and installed Charles Hutagalung to fill in Iskandar’s spot. Charles proved to be a dependable member and soon became key to The Mercy’s success in both performance and recording. The band’s tenure in Malaysia lasted six months, with the band performing covers of Indonesian popular and traditional songs with originals thrown in here and there for good measure. They enjoyed lasting popularity in Malaysia, resulting in some of their albums released by Malaysian labels in the 70s.

Going back to Medan from Malaysia, with cancelled Singaporean tour dates and Charles becoming a full-time member, the band seek to secure a recording contract. Following in the footsteps of Panbers, a fellow Medan band whose first album had made considerable national impact, The Mercy’s made a move to Jakarta in the early 70s. Rizal refused to move with the band and chose to continue his study in Germany.

After a series of sessions, it was clear that the band’s main songwriters were Charles and Rinto, with few contribution from Erwin and Reynold. However, the “leader” of the band was always Erwin Harahap, as was also stated later on the sleeves of their albums. Charles and Rinto each had a fair share of writing both sentimental, slow songs and more upbeat, rock n’ roll tunes which was showcased in their early efforts, particularly in the first two albums (later re-released by Remaco in 2003 as a single-cassette split album). Seeking to diversify their sound, which was by then dominated by Charles’s organ sweeps and Reynold’s percussive attack, the band asked Albert Sumlang, an aspiring saxophone player, to join in. In the band’s first album, Albert’s expressive, soaring and sometimes wailing saxophone work can be heard on a number of songs. Albert also contributed one song to the first album, “Kisah Seorang Pramuria,” one of the band’s career-defining songs.

The band eventually secured a contract with Purnama Records and in 1972, their first album was released to much fanfare. The upbeat songs, such as “Di Pantai”, showcased what The Mercy’s were made of. It was, however, the band’s slower, more melancholic songs that fared better: “Tiada Lagi”, “Kisah Seorang Pramuria” and “Love.” The success of “Tiada Lagi”, their first single, was interrupted by a fellow Medan band, Judas, claiming that the song was theirs. To this day, however, the song still belongs to the Mercy’s back catalogue. “Kisah Seorang Pramuria” was considered to be their runaway success and perhaps their career-defining song. It was the song that people today identify most with The Mercy’s. It has all the trademarks of the band’s career: Charles’s nasal voice and Farfisa riffing, Albert’s meandering saxophone work and the sense of balladry supported by narrative lyrics told in first person which was to become The Mercy’s lasting style. The band also started their trend of inserting a song with English lyrics in their albums with the song “Love”, known for Charles’s and Albert’s emotional delivery on their instruments.

The second album followed a year later with pretty much the same formula and met with pretty much the same success. By the third album, the band had pretty much established a stable formula: lots of the trademark ballads with a few upbeat and jamming-oriented songs such as “Woman” and “Tak Mungkin” sometimes showcasing their rock n’ roll, blues and hustle roots. During this era, the band accumulated a lot of following and was even voted as the most popular band by several magazines and polls, including the poll conducted by the Armed Forces (!), considered the most prestigious popular music poll at the time.

At the height of the band’s popularity, Albert was fired in 1974 shortly after finishing the band’s eighth album, citing personal and musical differences. The band decided that they could go on without Albert and moved on as a quartet. After Albert’s departure, things got more laid back in the band’s quarter, thus allowing Charles to form a short-lived project called Ge & Ge (Genial and Gentlemen), whose musical output was not drastically different from The Mercy’s. The project, however, enjoyed moderate success with the single “Hanya Satu,” which sometimes finds itself amidst a compilation of The Mercy’s songs, despite being performed by an entirely different band. Rinto traced back his Malay and Batak roots and experimented with traditional music. This was evident later in the band’s three volumes of pop Melayu (Malay pop), released perhaps to cash in on the success of Koes Plus’s pop Melayu albums. Koes Plus were The Mercy’s label mates as The Mercy’s switched labels from Purnama to Remaco from their eighth album onwards. However, being more in touch with Malay and Batak musical tradition, The Mercy’s Malay pop outputs were drastically different from Koes Plus’s. While Koes Plus rejected to release a Mandarin-pop-influenced album, The Mercy’s agreed on releasing a Mandarin-pop-styled album, sometime at the end of their recording career. It was at this point also The Mercy’s re-recorded their early hits without Albert, with Charles’s organ and Erwin’s guitar solos replacing Albert’s parts. The session resulted in sleeker and more polished versions of their songs. The results of this session were later used for many of the band’s greatest hits compilation albums, thus diminishing Albert’s role in the eyes of many late listeners of the band except for a handful of songs.

By 1978, it was clear that the band had become a shadow of their former selves. The balladry formula was no longer tried and true, but rather a tired one. Their ballads have become sappier yet less emotional. The return of Albert and the release of their final studio album, Mimpi, did not save them from calling it a day. By late 1978, the members parted ways and minded their own business. Charles chose to pursue his solo career and did not revive Ge & Ge. Rinto and Erwin became songwriters and producers for other musicians, establishing Lollypop Records, with Rinto becoming a more influential figure in pop music. Reynold ventured into the realm of fusion dangdut with his then wife, Camellia Malik, in an outfit called Tarantula. Albert continued on as a session saxophonist and ventured cafes in the Netherlands at times.

Twenty years after the breakup, the band chose to reunite and tour the nostalgia circuit. The reunion resulted in a live album and a karaoke album with old songs in new arrangements. They toured extensively with great success with Charles particularly in good spirits after recovering from stroke. One of their most memorable post-reunion performances was the televised sold out concert at Ancol, where they shared the stage with their contemporaries, D’lloyd and Koes Plus. The band’s newfound success was cut short, however, by Charles’s death in 2001. Realizing that they could never replace Charles, the remaining band members parted ways once again.

The legacy of the band lives on to this day, thanks to Remaco releasing a number of greatest hits albums and inserting the band’s songs into select compilation albums of Indonesian evergreen hits. In 2003, Remaco also remastered and re-released the band’s first six albums, whose rights were previously owned by Purnama Records, finally giving a chance to the younger generation to grasp The Mercy’s original, rawer sound. In January 2005, the band’s Rinto-penned ballad, “Ayah,” was reworked as “Aceh” and released as a single from the charity album for the 2004 tsunami/earthquake disaster in Aceh. The single was performed by a number of well-known Indonesian singers, including Ariel of Peterpan and Candil (then) of Seurieus.

Rinto hinted in an interview that The Mercy’s were never dissolved, but the band’s reunion is rendered improbable due to the apparent absence of Charles and that, at the time, there was nobody suitable enough to replace him. However, the final fate of the band was seemingly sealed by the death of Albert Sumlang in 2009. Concerts to honor The Mercy’s musical legacy have been held sporadically at times, with the latest held in November 2012, joined by Rinto who jammed with the sons of Albert Sumlang.

It is never an understatement to say that The Mercy’s have lasting impact on popular music in Indonesia. Along with Panbers and D’lloyd, they were the main proponents of Malay music influence in Indonesian popular music, which can be traced in a number of Indonesian bands today. The members of The Mercy’s are also astute in continuing their band’s legacy. The Mercy’s were influenced by Batak pop music and they also, in turn, influenced Batak pop music. This was continued by Charles Hutagalung through his activities in Batak pop music circles, making him a respectable figure in the development of Batak pop music. Rinto Harahap almost single-handedly revived Indonesian sentimental pop in early 80s and brought an unprecedented number of mostly female Indonesian sentimental singers to fame. This move has led him to both fame and notoriety. He, along with other producers following in his footsteps, was blamed for over-sentimentalizing pop music, resulting in sappy and counterproductive songs which were banned (!) by the Ministry of Information in the late 80s. However, to many musicians today, Rinto is respected as a great songwriter and producer and his great contribution to The Mercy’s and Indonesian pop music in general has been honored by two tribute albums by younger musicians.

References

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