Los Morenos: “Borondong Garing” (Indahnya Cinta, 1982)

Sometimes when I’m surveying my listening habits as a continuum, it strikes me that a lot of my seemingly disparate impulses are actually facets of the same impulse. I think this is most clear in the way I’ve always been drawn both to music recorded before I was born and to music from places I’ve never been to.

I get asked often why I like music from parts of the world I have no personal connection to, but pretty much no one ever asks why I listen to music from before I was born. But isn’t it really the same thing? In both cases, you’re going somewhere you haven’t been, somewhere you can only know second-hand. 

I know why I get asked about one and not the other. Most people listen to at least a little bit of music from before their own time, or are at least exposed to some of it. The same can’t be said of music from other countries, particularly ones that don’t speak English. But really, I go to both places looking for roughly the same thing: people with experiences and worldviews different to my own or at least born of different backgrounds. Also, sounds that are different from what I hear around me. 

This Los Morenos song wasn’t recorded before I was born, but I was only two years old at the time, which is almost the same thing. The band was from Indonesia, and formed in 1957, a little less than ten years after the country’s independence. And when I listen to this recording, I hear a band with from halfway around the world that nevertheless shares some of my same curiosities.

This is exotica, in pretty much the same way the music made by Martin Denny is exotica—from their name on down, Los Morenos looked to the music of Latin America for inspiration, and the sound they arrived at was a hybrid of Latin and Indonesian music, with congas bumping along under vibraphone as the singer delivers a melody that is very much rooted in local Indonesian music. 

I gather that the band was often called upon to entertain international visitors, so this South Hemisphere-spanning fusion might have seemed like a sensible way to appeal to a broad clientele. Their Mexican-style costumes, though, suggest that their study of Latin music might have been fairly surface-level:

Los Morenos in their Mexican gear 

Still, I think it’s a lesson worth learning that Westerners have no lock on exotica, and that people everywhere share fascination with each other’s cultures.  

Lilis Surjani - Gendjer Gendjer (Indonesia, 1962)

Gendjer (also spelled genjer) is a type of edible weed that grows on the island of Java. It’s usually translated as something like Velvetleaf, and varieties apparently grow across much of Asia. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia from 1942-1945, it became central to the diets of many poor Indonesians, who were simply trying to stave off starvation under the oppressive rule of Imperial Japan.

In 1962, when Lilis Surjani (also spelled Suryani) recorded this song, gendjer was still on the menu, such as it was, for many in Gang Kelinci (Rabbit Alley), the part of Jakarta that Surjani grew up in. “Gendjer Gendjer” is a song of pity for the poor—I haven’t been able to get a good translation of the lyrics, which are sung in Bahasa Indonesia, but I’ve been able to gather enough phrases like “half-dead people” to know that the words match the ache of the music.

It’s amazing to think that Surjani was just in her mid-teens when she recorded this as part of her …Ia Tatep Dias LP. Her delivery is unhurried, and no one should sound that world-weary at that age.

The song was picked up by the PKI, Indonesia’s Communist party, as a sort of hymn, a fact that would come back to haunt the singer when Suharto took over in 1965 and destroyed the PKI, leading a campaign in which half a million Communists and suspected Communists were killed over the course of about two years. “Gendjer Gendjer” and in fact the whole LP it came from were banned.Not that Surjani had ever intended it as a pro-Communist song.

Surjani nonetheless maintained a career that lasted until her death from cervical cancer in 2007 at age 59.

My favorite mini-story about Surjani’s recording career comes from an incident in 1965, when she was reprimanded by the government of Indonesia’s anti-Western first president, Sukarno, for playing rock and roll-ish music. By some accounts, she issued an official apology, then turned around and recorded “Pergi Perdjoang (Depart Warrior),” a song that was clearly rock and roll, but that also couldn’t be reasonably banned by Sukarno, on account of the fact that it was strongly supportive of his low-level war against Malaysia.

But anyway, “Gendjer Gendjer.” This is a gorgeous, perfect song whether you understand the lyrics or not.