(Bengawan being an old Javanese word for river)
by Gesang Martohartono
Bengawan Solo, riwayat mu ini
Sedari dulu, jadi perhatian insani
Music kemarau, tak berapa airmu
Di musim hujan air meluap sampai jauh
Mata airmu dari Solo,
Terkurung gunung seribu
Air mengalir sampai jauh
Itu perahu, riwayatnya dulu
Kaum pedagang selalu
Naik itu perahu
Solo, the Mighty River (English translation)
by Gesang Martohartono
The mighty river Solo, your legend this,
From ancient times, you captivated people,
In seasons dry, your water is low,
In rainy seasons, the water overflows into the horizon.
The spring of Solo
Locked in thousands of mountains.
Its water flows into the distance,
At last to the sea.
That boat, legend of the past,
of traders, always going
by that boat.
"I had dreamt since my childhood about writing a song of praise for the immortal Solo River,"
Gesang Martohartono (in an interview at his hometown, Solo).
Bengawan Solo (or the Solo River) is a famous Indonesian song about the longest river in Java which flows through central and eastern Java. It rises on the slope of the volcanic Mount Lawu (10,712 feet [3,265 m]) and the southern limestone range (Sewu Mountains). From there it flows in a northerly direction, through the Sewu Mountains. Along its course it is joined by several tributaries. Some of these, such as the Madiun and Brantas rivers are substantial rivers themselves. The river makes an easterly turn through East Java. In the dry season much of the riverbed is dry.
The river flows through the Solo Valley which is the site where Java Man was first discovered. Java Man is the name given to fossils discovered in 1891 on the banks of the Solo River. Its discoverer, Eugène Dubois, gave it the scientific name Pithecanthropus erectus, a name derived from Greek and Latin roots meaning upright ape-man.
Written in 1940 by Gesang Martohartono at the age of 23, then a young, destitute and untrained musician. Although he could not read or write musical notation, he composed "Bengawan Solo" on a bamboo flute. His father owned a factory that produced batik fabric, but it went bankrupt after Gesang finished elementary school. He grew up in the gutter and became a singer of "kerongcong" -- popular Indonesian music originating from Portuguese songs. Keroncong music is a classical music in Java. When listening to the Keroncong music, one's heart will feel calm and peaceful.
It soon became well-known and liked among the local Javanese community. At first he sang it at local wedding parties and other social gatherings in his hometown of Solo (now known as Surakarta). Two local radio stations then broadcast the song, marking the beginning of its nationwide popularity. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It is strongly associated with the period of war occupation and the society of the times. Later, the Japanese, who occupied the country during World War II, brought the song with them to Japan after returning from the war. There, and also in the rest of Asia and later worldwide, the song became very famous.
The tune became a big hit in the Chinese society after a Malaysian singer sang it in Mandarin (Chinese) in 1957. Since then many Chinese singers made their own versions and now the song is one of the best known Chinese oldies.
The folk song-like melody has been etched in the minds of countless Indonesians, former Japanese soldiers, and even Dutch civilian ex-detainees regardless of their age and background.
Today, a statue of Gesang Martohartono erected in a park in Surakarta (Solo) in 1991 overlooks the gently flowing Bengawan Solo, or Solo River. At 92, Gesang still sometimes sings "Bengawan Solo" in public when he is asked to do so.