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Guitar Village: Kembangan

By: Ade Tanesia

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

The village of Kembangan, some fourteen kilometers south of Solo, seems like most other villages in Central Java, with its quiet atmosphere, slow rhythm of life and the scent of rice fields in the air. Kembangan is part of Mancasan, in the district of Baki, Sukoharjo (Central Java). To get there, we follow a hilly road lined on either side by fields of sugar cane and rice. When we arrive, the mid-day sun is so strong that everyone is indoors and the village seems deserted. But what’s unusual about this village is that from everywhere comes the sound of wood-cutting machines. In other villages you normally see mats of rice drying in the sun. Here in Kembangan you see mats of half-finished guitars.

This is a very isolated village. It is astonishing to think that since the 1970s, when its people were no longer able to make a living from farming, the village has been producing guitars that are distributed all over Indonesia. While many rural villages lose their people through migration to big cities—some nine million people, or nine percent of Indonesia’s workforce of nearly one hundred million—the village of Kembangan draws workers from other regions, who come to learn to make guitars.

In house after house that we pass, we see people busy at work—sawing wood, painting guitars, putting in frets, spraying guitars with a white plastic melamine finish. Pak Darto, one guitar-maker we meet, is busy as well, painting guitars with the help of his son and his wife. “I didn’t go to school, not even elementary school. But I have always been able to live from making guitars. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I was already working with other people who were making unfinished guitars. Then, little by little, I put together enough capital to try to make finished guitars,” he tells us with a beaming face. Every week he produces five dozen guitars and sends them to Pasar Minggu in Jakarta. He no longer has to go to the trouble of making guitar bodies and necks; he can simply buy them from his neighbor, who specializes in them. Indeed, a number of households in Kembangan specialize in guitar bodies and necks. Others specialize in guitar assembly, and there are yet others who do the finishing and distribution to stores or customers.

Pak Darto says, “The guitars I produce are simple guitars—what people call gitar sayur [meaning something like ‘cabbage guitars’]—the sort that street buskers play. I sell all my guitars for Rp30,000 [a bit over three US dollars]. I buy the unfinished guitar for Rp9,000. Then I sand it, paint it, and spray it with melamine. I have a brother in Jakarta who then distributes it.” Pak Darto tells us that he has put his children through school with the proceeds of his guitar business. The market is steady, especially with ever more street buskers in the cities of Indonesia. It is no surprise the guitars of most buskers in Solo come from Kembangan.

Long before street busking became the career choice of young men who had dropped out of school or were out of work, guitars were the favorite musical instrument among Indonesia’s youth. In almost every corner of a village, you would find young people relaxing in the evenings until late at night playing guitars. A foreign friend of mine visiting Java was amazed to see how many village boys could play the guitar. It was natural, then, that when it became difficult to find jobs, boys would take their guitars and sing on street corners or on buses to earn enough change for food and cigarettes.

Bapak Sidal Hadi, a pioneer guitar-maker in Kembangan, tells us that when he goes into town, he always prepares around Rp5,000 in change to give to the street buskers. “Indirectly, they support the village of Kembangan, so I support them in return,” says Pak Sidal Hadi, who has been in the guitar industry since the 1960s. He says that besides buskers, another market that keeps the guitar-makers going are church groups. It seems that for the guitar-makers of Kembangan—which is in Sukoharjo, the same district as the Ngruki pesantren of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir—difference of religion is no big deal. Although Sukoharjo is associated with this fundamentalist Islamic cleric, his hard-line thinking seems to be contained within three kilometers of Ngruki and has not spread to neighboring villages. The people of Kembangan are grateful for the churches in the district, who indirectly support their livelihood.

Aside from the church members, the people of Solo themselves are famous for being musicians and performers. There are very many kerongcongcampur sari (Javanese pop music) in the region of Solo. Indeed the founder of Kembangan’s guitar industry, the late Arjo Bagong, was originally from Solo. Some forty years ago, Arjo Bagong taught the people of this village to make guitars—from the raw materials to the finished product. Eager to follow in his footsteps, many villagers returned home from the cities where they had gone in search of work, and put what they learned from Arjo Bagong into practice. One entrepreneur, the late Djito, who lived in the area, founded a business that has run for nearly twenty years. At this point, a natural mechanism developed. There were some craftsmen who said they were interested in making only guitar bodies. There were others who wanted to make only the frets or only the neck. Then there were those who were willing to do the assembly and finishing. The next year, the finishing process itself changed. The older models were varnished, while the new ones used the melamine paint that had been introduced by a paint expert from Solo in 1985. Melamine has the advantage of being scratchproof and quicker to apply.

Bapak Sidal Hadi, who pioneered the way for Kembangan to become a guitar-making center, tells us that before then, the people of Kembangan worked as coolies on construction sites or as becak pedicab drivers in Solo. He himself in 1959 worked at a musical instrument factory belonging to a man named Bardiono. After a year there, Pak Sidal Hadi returned to Kembangan and opened a guitar-making business at his house. “I got my neighbors to work for me. They learned from me, and I encouraged them to open their own businesses. But in the beginning it was very hard to convince the people that they could make a living from making guitars,” he says. Moreover, in 1966, political and economic uncertainty forced his business to shut down. But Pak Sidal Hadi seems to be a man not easily discouraged. His determination to have a business in his home village was very great; and because Kembangan was poor and subject to floods, the inhabitants had become resigned to a fate of poverty. Pak Sidal Hadi wanted to change that fate. He wanted his village to progress. In the early 1970s, his business was already open again and beginning to prosper, and several families followed his example. “At the time, I took the responsibility of selling their guitars for them. Since I got them started making guitars in the first place, I had to be responsible for marketing them.” He recalls how he would take the guitars by bicycle to sell from shop to shop. “Soon a lot of people knew that there were a lot of guitar-makers in Kembangan. Eventually, the merchants came to the village in their cars to order guitars.” Slowly, every household in Kembangan got into the guitar-making business.

Pak Sidal Hadi did not stop there. In 1981, with an acquaintance in the district government of Baki, he set up a guitar factory under the auspices of the community credit union [KUD] of the District (Kecamatan) of Baki. At that point, there were thirty-nine members making guitars. “The guitar-makers needed capital to strengthen their businesses. Working with the kecamatan, we got in touch with the Bank Rakyat Indonesia to get them loans without collateral. With a signature from a government official, the craftsmen could get a loan. Some of them were able to re-pay the loan.”

Now every guitar-maker is able to run his own business. Some, such as IndoMusik and others, have even tried producing guitars under their own brand. “Now the problem is price competition,” says Pak Sidal Hadi, who sells his guitars as far as Bandung and Banjarnegara. “Often the guitar-makers will drop their prices—the merchants buy the cheapest ones, right? I don’t want to see prices go down. What matters to me is quality. What we need is a group of guitar-makers to set the price, so that we don’t have this unhealthy competition. I myself sell gitar sayur at Rp65,000; but there are some who dare to sell as low as Rp50,000.”

Even after decades in the business, Pak Sidal Hadi is not yet able to put out his own brand. “This is a matter of market demand. People want to buy a brand-name guitar, like Yamaha, Arista, Genta. They don’t care if it’s a fake; they just want it to be a famous brand. I’d like to have my own brand, but the stores don’t want it. They say it wouldn’t sell.”

These days Pak Sidal Hadi is mostly filling orders for wholesale guitar sales. He often gets orders from keroncong groups for entire sets of musical instruments: Pak Sidal Hadi also produces string bass, violas and ukuleles. His son is producing electric guitars which he sells in a music studio in Jogjakarta. “My son went to agricultural college, but he ended up making guitars, too. He can already support his family. Imagine: in this village hundreds of millions of rupiah circulate every month. People here no longer have to leave their village to make a living. They can live and here,” says Pak Sidal Hadi happily.

The hum of saws goes on until evening. The young people are still wearing masks as they spray-paint guitars. At dusk, the music in this village it is not the plunking of guitars but the sound of their fabrication, which makes the hearts of the villagers sing.

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