Remembering Didi Kempot

This week, we lost Didi Kempot, an important figure in Indonesian music. He was an important figure not only because of the time he spent working in music but also on the cultural and personal impact he had on Indonesians, particularly on Javanese people. Didi Kempot’s songs are such a staple in Javanese communities; you can hear them in malls, radios, inter-province buses, and even in the middle of nowhere between mountainous areas of Central Java. Every Javanese person must have a story or a memory related to a Didi Kempot song. This is my story.

I hold this belief that I was named based on a Didi Kempot song. My last name, Kusumaningtyas (Catholic Javanese names are conventionally baptismal names followed by given last names), follows Didi Kempot’s song “Kusumaning Ati”—both my name and the song means “flower in heart.” Every time “Kusumaning Ati” plays on the TV, my parents would call me and say “Ini namamu loh dek” (“This is your name”).

Didi Kempot and his work resonate with my direct identity—my name. But besides that, his songs gave me a connection to the land I am from. Being a Javanese person born in suburban Jakarta, I am detached from my Javanese identity—I’m not versed in niceties, I’m not as trained in filial piety, I barely speak Javanese. However, Didi Kempot brought me closer to Java in so many ways.

He wrote music in the campursari genre. “Campursari” literally means “a mixture of essences”—it is a Javanese folk genre of primarily kroncong music (traditional Javanese music marked by a ukulele-like music instrument—kencrung—playing 8 strums in a 4/4 beat) and dangdut music (Indonesian & Malay folk music driven by the gendang drum, influenced by Hindustani and Arab music). Campursari is as Javanese of a genre as it gets, and with Didi Kempot as the male vocal pioneer of the genre (Waldjinah being the female voice), his music is close to the Javanese consciousness. I grew up with his music playing in my household. My dad comes from a humble family in Semarang, and now with our life in Jakarta he still plays the campursari music he holds dear from his childhood and adolescence. 

Didi Kempot’s music gave me a sense of important places for my relatives who live/have lived in Java—a connection to a land that is so far away from me. Didi Kempot’s song mostly deals with locations and positionality—“Stasiun Balapan,” “Tanjung Mas Ninggal Janji,” “Parangtritis,” and much more. Say, I’ve never known where Stasiun Balapan was before I went to Solo for the first time. I’ve always heard it from my dad, who always sings this song every time we go on karaoke sessions. I can easily recall the first line of the song all throughout my life: “Ning Stasiun Bapalan, kuto Solo sing dadi kenangan, kowe karo aku, naliko ngeterke lungamu” (“In Balapan station, Solo becomes a memory of you and me, as I watch you leave”). On my first trip to Solo when I was in middle school, I passed by the real Stasiun Balapan with my dad. “That’s Stasiun Balapan. You know, from the Didi Kempot song,” he said. 

When I left for college in the United States, I started listening to Didi Kempot again. During this time, Didi Kempot’s name is not only known in Javanese communities; a number of musicians inspired by him brought his name to the national stage. Among them is Abah Lala, who would often perform a cover of “Pamer Bojo” with an added chant in the middle of the song centered on cendol dawet (a Southeast Asian dessert drink made of pandan rice flour jelly with coconut milk and palm sugar). The energetic chant added a new layer of meaning to the once-tragic song. Rather than dwelling in a broken heart, audiences are drawn to dancing above the tragedy—take your broken heart, make it into art, as Carrie Fisher said. Didi Kempot’s popularity skyrocketed and is now a household name—not only for Javanese people. 

At the same time, I felt how my identity as a non-upper class Javanese person is more and more exemplified during my time in college. I felt the need to represent my identity among my American and international peers, and I felt a pull to home among Indonesian students detached from their sense of identity. I started listening to Didi Kempot on my own time and I discovered my own revelations. As much as I hate how diaspora poets exoticize their heritage cultures, I can understand Didi Kempot’s pain and the longing he expressed to his listeners, even though I barely understand his lyrics. In “Sewu Kutho”—one of my favorite songs—he sings about not being able to forget his past lover:

Sewo kuto uwis tak liwati (I have passed a thousand cities)
Sewu ati tak takoni (I have asked a thousand hearts)
Nanging kabeh podo rangerteni (But they can never answer)
Lungamu neng endi (Where you went)
Pirang tahun anggonku nggoleki (For years I’ve searched for you)
Seprene durung biso nemoni (Still I haven’t found you yet)

The sweeping sounds of the keyboard, the cool background of the kencrung, and Didi Kempot’s own powerful delivery helped me connect to the feelings it’s bringing. College was also the time I was feeling a lot of feelings in my different relationships—friends, family, men—and Didi Kempot’s songs is a great representation of what I was feeling inside. Longing, helplessness, hope, and much more.

Whenever I would go home, my family and I would always have road trips across Java. I told them about how I listened to Didi Kempot in college and we played his songs through our trips. I remember my dad driving through the Trans-Java toll road, windows rolled down, singing “Pamer Bojo” with me. When I met my relatives, we talked about his music and how he’s gaining so much popularity outside of Java. Everyone knew him—his music is what connected us.

Didi Kempot’s death is a loss for his fans around the globe. He wrote traditional music that rises above traditional culture to mainstream pop, and even his music has affected lives even before he rose to the mainstream. His melancholy gave rise to a group of loyal fans called “Sobat Ambyar” (“Heartbroken Folks” in my best effort to translate) because his music portrays the messiest, most melodramatic chunks of the human experience. Most of all, he became a marker of identity for Javanese people and their music—from farmers in Boyolali, young adults in Jakarta, to members of the Javanese diaspora abroad and displaced Javanese people post-Dutch occupation in Suriname.

No artist is like Didi Kempot, who succeeded in bringing the traditional back to the mainstream. Didi Kempot has made what I am as a Javanese person and has affected many other lives besides mine. His legacy will live on throughout the history of Indonesian music.

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