An ensemble of musicians and singers, many of whom can trace their ancestry to Malacca Portuguese mestizos who left as slaves, are back to reconnect their long-lost links to the historical city.
WHEN the Dutch conquered Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641, they captured boatloads of slaves and took them to Batavia (now Jakarta).
In addition to their meagre belongings, these prisoners brought along their unique form of melodious but mostly melancholic music.
With the tweaking of ancient instruments and adaptation of various cultures and influences, the orginal refrains evolved into keroncong, an iconic Indonesian genre of music.
An ensemble of musicians and singers, many of whom can trace their ancestry to Malacca Portuguese mestizos, are currently captivating audiences in the historical city.
The 20-member Keroncong Tugu Cafrinho group performed its premier show at the Panggung Bangsawan in Jalan Munshi Abdullah on Friday night where Malacca Governor Tun Mohd Khalil Yaakob, who played a major role in getting them to showcase their culture in the historical city, was among the guests.
Over the next few days, the troupe is expected to hold several shows, including one at the Portuguese Settlement and another at the open-air stage near the A’ Famosa fortress’ only remaining Santiago Gate.
“It is an emotional moment. I feel like I’m returning to my ancestral home,” said Quido Quiko, 46, the band leader who comes from nine generations of a family which has kept the music alive.
Quido’s home is Kampung Tugu, in Cilincing, north east of Jakarta, near the bustling port of Tanjung Priok.
Container trucks rule the chaotic, noisy and dusty road leading to the hamlet.
There is a sign pointing to the village but it can easily be missed in the unrelenting traffic as I found out while joining Joseph Sta Maria, a Malacca Portuguese who leads a state government committee overseeing minority groups on his delegation’s visit to Tugu recently.
Tugu’s well-kept cemetery is a better marker. A little lane at the edge of it leads to a community hall, a school and a church, which faces the village square.
The original church, built in 1678, was razed and its only remaining relic is a bell, believed to have been brought over from Malacca.
On one corner of the square is a library and beyond that a garden, which serves as a playground for Tugu’s children.
The village proper is located across the dirty Cakung canal via a narrow bridge accessible only to pedestrians and motorcyclists.
In addition to descendants of the Portuguese community, the Christian villagers can also trace their origins to the mixed races from other parts of the Indonesian archipelago, such as Moluccas, Celebes, Flores, West Timor, and also from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and parts of the Philippines.
Like the Portuguese descendants, their ancestors were also known as Mardjikers.
The name was derived from the Sanskrit maharddhika meaning ‘prosperous and powerful’ but in the region, it acquired the meaning of a free or ‘tax-exempted’ person. The original group of former Portuguese slaves, who had served as clerks and subordinate staff of the Dutch, were freed on condition that they abandoned their Catholic faith and became Protestants and also gave up their Portuguese surnames in exchange for Dutch ones.
In 1661, some 150 people from 23 households were offered the land in Tugu to create their own settlement.
It was a harsh area of forests and mosquito-ridden swamps with few sources of fresh water.
In spite of the difficulties, the little enclave has remained intact over three centuries and kept its music, which revolved around the original four-stringed Portuguese cavaquinho (small piece of wood), a forerunner of the ukulele.
The cavaquinho has since been modified into ukulele-like instruments – the prounga, a low-pitched, four nylon stringed instrument and the steel-stringed, high pitched macina.
The characteristic ‘kron cong’ sound comes from the beat of the rebana mixed with the sound of the interlocking off-beat ‘cak’ sound of the macina and the ‘cuk’ sound of the prounga.
The blend of other instruments like a flute, a guitar, a violin, a gut bass and a cello, which is plucked rapidly, creates the keroncong melody.
Quido’s family members, who have been luthiers as well as musicians, carve out most of their own instruments.
‘Papia Tugu’, a form of Portuguese Creole, which could be traced back to Malacca, used to be spoken by the community.
Its last fluent speaker was Quido’s uncle Jacobus Quiko, who died in 1978.
In the early 1930s, the Quiko family led by patriarchs, Jozef and Bernard, set up the first Moresco Toegoe ensemble.
After Jacobus’ death, his son Fernando and his cousin Samuel continued to manage the third Moresco Toegoe group.
Samuel, Quido’s late father, set up the new Cafrinho Tugu group.
Moresco is derived from the word ‘Moors’ which the Portuguese described people of the Far East while Cafrinho comes from the word ‘kafir’ (non-Muslims).
Today, two inter-related families – the Michiels and the Quiko – are preserving keroncong and teaching it to their younger generation.
The Michiels family has kept to using only the local instruments and the traditional Tugu repertoire.
Members of Quiko family’s Cafrinho Tugu group also include professional musicians. Quido, for example, used to be part of a popular Indonesian rock group called Fenomena.
“We no longer speak the language but we still sing the songs in the old language,” he said during our visit.
Quido said he has been singing songs like ‘Gatu Matu’ (Gato Mato or forest/bush cat in Portuguese), without knowing the meaning of the words.
“But we have been memorising the lyrics and the melodies. We are also teaching it to the young,” he said after Friday night’s grand show, expressing hope that the community will forge closer ties with Malacca and maintain the link.
To mark the group’s appreciation of the warm welcome in Malacca, Quido handed over a treasured family heirloom – a macina hand-built by his father Samuel more than 30 years ago to Khalil.
“It symbolises the closeness and value we attach to our links with Malacca,” he said, thanking the Governor and Sta Maria for making their visit possible.