April 15, 2009

2. The Jazz Man of East Java (1935-1939)

Emma Samethini's dance school show group (Malang, 1935)
Class pianist "Hanny" Samethini sits front and center.
In the back row stand Emma (4th from left) and Frank (5th from right)
Photo Source: Moesson magazine / www.onzeplek.nl

At age 18, Han returned to the East Indies as a fully trained musician. But home was no longer the rural plantation in Bondowoso. The once mighty sugar industry on Java had dwindled in the Great Depression and the family had moved to Malang. [1] Whether Henri Sr. lost his plantation management job in the widespread layoffs, or resigned to pursue a different career, we cannot say. Han's prospects as a young classical pianist can be guessed from his abject employment in his mother's dance studio. There he played the monotonous class music to which ballet students repetitively practiced their steps. His creative spirit chafed at this dull work:

He totally hated it. Accompanying dance classes is the worst that can be done to a true artist, as you have to play to a strict beat, strict measures. [2]

Han had greater ambitions and different aims than those envisaged by his parents. The classics he loved, but the jazz and swing music radiating across the Pacific from America fired his imagination. He began experimenting with these new musical forms, to the exasperation of his father. His rebellion found an outlet when the family relocated to Surabaya, the great port city and naval base of East Java. Here there was a vibrant jazz scene. Han secretly joined a semi-professional combo, John Kiliaan and His Band. They played at various night spots and had a regular gig at the Centrum, a restaurant and dance hall located on the Tunjungan. [3]

John Kiliaan & His Band at the Centrum, circa 1936  
Top Row (L-R): Joseph Haniff - drums, violin; Bert Zorbag - guitar, banjo, vocal;
Jan van Ligten - bass, piano; Hanny Samethini - piano, bass, vocal
Bottom Row (L-R): Karel Imam - tenor sax, clarinet; John Kiliaan - leader, alto sax, clarinet;
M.M. Djoeki - trumpet, trombone, violin; Emile van der Hartt - violin
(Musicians identified by Indonesian jazz scholar Alfred Ticoalu)
Han Samethini Collection

Closeup from same photo

 Advertisement for a costume party at the Centrum
 De Indische Courant, December 24, 1936
Koninklijke Bibliotheek

Kiliaan and his men formed a compact but versatile group. Nearly all of them were adept with two or more instruments. As a sideman Han learned to play the saxophone, string bass, drums, and accordion. The earliest group picture we have shows Han standing, unsurprisingly, at the grand piano. But he was to became a virtuoso on the piano accordion. The difficulties for a pianist in mastering the latter instrument are outlined by American accordionist Alan Sharkis:

The two instruments share a keyboard (or part of one) but the similarity ends there. There are stylistic differences, differences brought about because of the relative advantages and disadvantages of the two instruments, differences in notation, differences in the way musical expression is achieved, differences in the position of the player with respect to the instrument, differences in the care and feeding of the instruments, and so on.

Let's start with the bellows. Pianists vary dynamics (loud and soft) by varying the force behind their touch, and with pedals. Accordionists vary dynamics by applying more or less "squeeze" or "pull" to the bellows. Accordion technicians tell me that they know when an accordion brought to them for repair is being played by a pianist! Pianists can sustain a note for just a short time, even with the sustain pedal depressed. Accordionists can sustain a note for as long as they can move the bellows. Related to that, of course, is the problem of phrasing. Think of the bellows of an accordion as related to the breathing organs of a singer. The singer must learn to breathe between musical phrases, and certainly not in the middle of a note; and the accordionist must learn not to reverse the direction of the bellows in the middle of a note or phrase, because for the fraction of a second that the bellows are not moving, the note or phrase will be interrupted.

Diagram of accordion bass buttons, Stradella layout
(Click image to enlarge)

Second, let's consider the keyboard and bass buttons. The largest piano accordions have 45 notes in the treble (most have 41) as opposed to the possibility of having nearly all the 88 notes of piano for use in the treble, even if most selections don't call for that. But the bigger difference is in the approach that the accordion student must take to learning the instrument. The treble keyboard (right hand) of a piano accordion is vertical and can only be seen by the player if the player bends their head down to look at it (not recommended). But the bass buttons of an accordion cannot be seen by the accordionist at all! There are various layouts of those buttons...but let's assume that the layouts are logical in a musical sense. There has to be some kind of tactile clue, and all accordions have either a depression carved into the C bass button, or a rhinestone, something that the accordionist can feel. Let's assume that the layout is the one called Stradella, the most common layout. This layout gives the accordionist both single bass notes and ready-made chords, but not the variety of chords that he'd get using his left hand on a piano keyboard. So, while the system is easy for a pianist to learn, it does have limitations and the pianist-turned-accordionist must find ways around those limitations.

Most accordionists today, if they read music, read lead sheets (the melody line is in a staff in treble clef and chord symbols are printed above that staff). Some accordionists are trained to recognize the chord in the bass clef of a piano score, and there are definite advantages to that system. However, there is a system of accordion notation (AAA notation) that treats the bass clef differently from that of a piano score. A pianist would find it very strange....

An accordion of [Samethini's] era, like the one in those pictures, would have been heavier than a modern instrument. He'd have to have that weight on his shoulders while playing, something he wouldn't have to do with a piano. So, the sitting and standing postures and positions would have to be learned.... [5]

Costume ball at the Cercle Hellendoorn dance hall in Surabaya (August 30, 1936)
 The John Kiliaan Band stands in the back row under the "CH" logo.
Han Samethini Collection

Closeup from same photo

Below: Five photographs of a John Kiliaan Band promotional appearance at a car dealership in Surabaya (circa 1938). Kiliaan poses with his clarinet. Samethini bears his piano accordion with pride. The two Studebaker models shown are the 1936 Dictator (or 1936 President) and the 1937 President. [6]
Han Samethini Collection
Closeup of Samethini from Photo #5
Han Samethini Collection

Modern photo of a well preserved 1937 Studebaker President 4-Door Cruising Sedan
Photo Source: Oldcarandtruckpictures.com

Whether playing for dance parties, at the Centrum or on a car dealership lot, young Samethini honed his skills until he was ready to become a band leader in his own right. Henri Sr. by this time had conceded defeat in the contest of wills, it being evident that Han was going to make his own way in the world. Like most musicians, Han worked at a day job, being employed at K.K. Knies, a seller of musical instruments. We can only speculate on his duties there, but certainly his training and varied experience would have made him an ideal salesman, able to demonstrate his wares as well as talk up their virtues.

At intervals Han was compelled to exchange his accordion for a rifle, under a law requiring all fit Dutch males to serve in the colonial militia. He'd reported for basic infantry training in December 1935, and proved himself a competent soldier by the relatively unexacting standards of a reserve force. The record shows he was assigned to the artillery and promoted to the rank of corporal before going on extended leave in May 1936. He would be called up again for one-month hitches in 1937 and 1939. [7]

Two aerial views of Surabaya as it appeared in the late 1930s
Photo Source: Skyscrapercity.com

Map of Surabaya
(Click map to enlarge)

Image Source: ferdinandus.com

The Kali Mas
Photo Source: skyscrapercity.com

Tanjong Perak, the harbor of Surabaya
Photo Source: malang.endonesa.net

The Samethini home in Surabaya was at Brantasstraat 35, so named for the nearby Brantas River that flowed, like its conjoined twin, the Kali Mas, through the town and into the Madura Strait. A portion of the house served as Emma's dance studio. In 1936 or 1937 the family was riven by divorce. The bitterness of the separation can be guessed by Emma's destruction or mutilation of every photo of Henri Sr. in her possession. Han and Frank sided with their mother, largely shutting their father out of their lives. In the settlement Henri Sr. left the house to his ex-wife.

Han's work with John Kiliaan seems to have lasted from 1936 to 1938. He then started his own combo with a pianist, trumpeter, string bassist, and drummer. This band, Han Samethini & His Spirituals, became well known in Surabaya, performing at clubs, social functions, and possibly on radio broadcasts.

Han Samethini & His Spirituals (circa 1939)
Han Samethini Collection

A trio of articles, most likely clipped from a Surabaya newspaper, shows the progress of Han's career in the period 1938-1939. The second article is fragmentary. Translated into English, they read:

(Click to enlarge)
Han Samethini Collection

Congress is Dancing
Performance by "Culture"

The long and tiring meetings of the 7th IEVVO [Women's Organization of the Indo European Association] had a pleasant interruption of several hours of relaxation and entertainment. The hosting department of Soerabaja organized a party at the Institute of Culture which was a great success.

By 9:00 p.m. the intimate upstairs hall of the Toenjoengan Dance Academy was fully occupied by the IEVVO ladies and their guests. Soerabaja's mayor, Mr. Fuchter, was also present and the IEV [Indo European Association] was as usual represented by Mr. Buurman van Vreeden.

Much of the evening's success was due to dance professor G. Sebok, whose students performed several excellent dance numbers which were previously shown in performance at the Kunstkring in October, so they won't be discussed here again.

During intermission, and after the performance, the dance floor was in good use to the excellent dance music of The Spirituals, led by H. Samethini.

A special attraction was the free lesson in the Lambeth Walk given by Mr. Sebok, which had the entire ballroom filled with dancers executing these happy and merry steps.

(Click to enlarge)
Han Samethini Collection

Boys' Orphanage 80th Anniversary
Party on Embong Malang [Avenue]
Stage Performance and Ball

[First portion of article missing]

Next came a very well presented stage performance, each number of which was proof of excellent rehearsing. There was a Ribbon Dance choreographed by Miss Matimoe, a Tango Fantasy by Mr. Rellum, songs by the JWI Sisters and the Hill Billy Boys, an outstanding piano contribution by Mr. Samethini, and some entertaining one-act plays by Mr. Budding. Every number received a hearty round of applause, and several had to be repeated.

The performance ended at 10:30 p.m. and all participants were honored on the stage by Mr. Scholten. The ladies received flowers and Piet v.d. Hof received a laurel wreath for his efforts. Once this was concluded the stage was transformed into a ballroom, and until the wee hours of the morning the smooth floor was well used to the excellent strains of the well known band, The Spirituals.

The JWI boys orphanage on Jl. Embong Malang 31
Photo taken during the 1950s

Photo Source: YouTube

(Click to enlarge)
Han Samethini Collection

Birthday Celebration for HRH Princess Beatrix

On the occasion of HRH [Her Royal Highness] Princess Beatrix's first birthday, a ball was organized on January 31 [1939] and the Harmonie [Club].

The large ballroom was beautifully decorated for the event, with the color orange as the main motif - but it looked more like an intimate dancing room [i.e., a small public party room, like a cocktail bar with a dance floor] than a ballroom.

The music was performed by the well known H. Samethini and His Spirituals from Soerabaja, and their contribution was one of the main reasons for the evening's success.

At midnight the band played the Wilhelmus [Dutch national anthem] and everyone joined in the song.

The Club's president, Mr. J.W. v. Rijn, then spoke, mentioning the fact that they were all gathered here to mark a joyous event. Even though the government had not deemed the birthday worthy of proclaiming a national holiday, the Club management thought it would be better not to let the occasion pass unnoticed, and therefore this celebration was organized. He wished everyone a great evening and concluded with three cheers for Princess Beatrix and the Royal Family.

The broke the official atmosphere and the party really got underway, not slowing down until 3:00 a.m. It was an old fashioned party with many wonderful memories to treasure.

Sister-in-law Elisabeth expresses the view from the dance floor in those far-off, blissful days:

Han had his own dance band in Surabaya, and often Frank and I would dance to his music. Frank was so proud of his brother and the crowd loved his music. [9]

Frank Samethini, writing in the evocative present tense, describes the milieu of a Saturday evening in colonial Surabaya:

Day is done, darkness has fallen, the worst of the heat gone. Pastel-coloured lampshades shine gently through a filigree of potted plants and shrubs. In the warm, scented evening we read and talk out in front on the open porch. A thin spiral of grey smoke eddies up from a coil of mosquito repellent burning on a saucer on the floor. A wide-eyed brown kitten stalks, with great display of fuss, an imaginary prey between the magnolias. Back in the house the clock ding-dongs through soft radio music. The light circle of the porch lamp does not quite reach the dark hibiscus hedge at the front gate, where a lone cricket chirps incessantly. It is Saturday evening, after dinner time. All the news is read, all events of the day discussed, bemoaned or laughed about.

Sunset on the north coast of Java (late 1930s)
Photo Source: Zoo Leven Wij in Indie

A drive is then suggested and agreed upon. Soon we have joined the long line of motor cars out on the road for a little cruise to the entertainment district of Surabaya and on to the harbour for an hour of cool, refreshing sea breeze. The hood of the car is let down to make the most of the cool evening air. The motor sings, the wheels fly with a soft burr. Tall arc lights are caught in a dull shine moving along the the gleaming body of our car. Everyone is in the lighthearted mood of a Saturday evening, the whole night in front and all the free Sunday after that. When we enter Palm Lane we spot a burst of red neon of the left side. That's the "Tabarin" bar and dancing establishment, closed now, its opening time of ten o'clock catering to the after-theatre and supper folk. Opposite is the "Shanghai" restaurant, adorned with strings of pastel-coloured Chinese lamps on the open terrace. Munching and drinking people served by wooden-faced Indonesian waiters deftly balancing trays laden with delicacies. At the front of the restaurant a few native boys carry boxes with cigarettes loiter about. They will be there the whole night. On the corner of Palm Lane and Simpang Road, the Maxim Cinema blazes in floodlights, flanked by a file of Fiat Balilla taxis waiting for the end of the first session. The traffic signal switches to red, halting our car with a silent throb of its motor. We are facing the whitewashed facade and marble floors of the Simpang Club, select and suave, its members restricted to a better salaried class of people. Cozy little lampshades glow on small wicker tables on patios in front, where gentlemen with their lady companions are seated, sipping an aperitif or after-dinner coffee and liqueur. Blue cigar smoke and, now and then, a quiet sparkle of jewelry. Tyres crunch on the gravelled drive to the carpeted club entrance. The solid snap of an expensive automobile's door. New guests have arrived.

The Tunjungan
Photo Source:

The signal flashes to green. Our route goes by the park. In the distance strings of orange lights adorn the bandstand from which come muffled snatches of drums and clashing cymbals. We drive through the Tunjungan now with its numerous bars, hotels and theatres. The brilliant shop windows of the newly opened Japanese department store Tjijoda, and the more soberly illuminated facade of Whiteway Laidlaw. High above in the night air, the jumble of multi-coloured neon advertising, motionless or in running flashes. Further down the road, Town Hall Gardens with trees full of red, white and blue lights. Something must be on again there is Town Hall Gardens, where the small-income man finds diversion in word, music and dance. Perhaps a jubilee or congress of sorts, doubtlessly celebrated with endless speeches and a boring play. Then, to top it off, a ball with the inevitable Hawaiian band with its guitars twanging sweet melodies of moonlight and dreams come true in Waikiki and Honolulu. Girls, some in rather garish coloured dress, will try to follow the astonishingly complicated dance maneuvers of their escorts in suits of every taste and shade.

A bar in the Tunjungan
Photo Source:

Entering downtown, the night seems here deeper and still, with myriads of tiny moths circling the globes of tall lamp posts on William's Quay and Red Bridge, strangely quiet and deserted at this hour. An oil wick flutters in the small cabin of a native barge on the dark river. Glowing pinpoints light up and darken again in the porticoes and doorways of the locked up business houses along the quay, where Madurese wharf labourers are smoking their favourite cheroots of clove-saturated maize leaf. Proud and independent, spending the night outdoors on a bed of jute bags, anywhere they may fancy, rather than having to return dutifully to the one and same address.

Finally we reach the Heads and the car is brought to a halt. At the mouth of the Brantas the last ferry boat from Madura eases along her berth with a deep throb of her engines, her green and red lights shining through billows of swirling steam. High above, invisible in the darkness, a night bird cries for its mate. Far out in the Roads a yellow beacon winks slowly with measured intervals across a sea which lies there serene and peaceful. The Western Fairway, between two citadels armed to the teeth, Fort Menari and Fort Piring, their big guns rendering suicidal any attempt to enter the harbour by an aggressor, whoever it may be.

Another car pulls up near where we are. For a while we hear the intonation of its passengers filter through the mild sea breeze. They laugh a little, then fall silent. So pleasingly quiet it is here.

This town, this beloved Surabaya, twinkling its lights, breathing under the stars. [10]

Silhouette cartoon by Mieke Dusseldorp, 1946
Han Samethini Collection

These idyllic nocturnal scenes give no hint of the greater darkness about to engulf the Netherlands and her East Indies colony. On September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Holland, neutral but wary, mobilized her forces and prepared for the worst. In the Far East, amidst the cold waters of the North Pacific, brooded the colossus that was Imperial Japan. The Japanese had absorbed Manchuria, and now their armies were overrunning eastern China.

Han may have regarded these developments with foreboding as the 1930s drew to a close, but he was not a worrier by nature. Moreover, he was about to acquire an interest deeper and dearer to him than any music.

More Photos of Han Samethini and His Spirituals

The Spirituals posing for a photo in a park. Han stands second from right.
Judging from Queen Wilhelmina's royal monogram on the brickwork, this was taken during the 40th Royal Jubilee celebrations in Surabaya (September 1938).

Han Samethini Collection

Photo taken on opposite side of the monument. Han at far right.
Two of the band members have switched places, one to join the group and one to take the photo.
Han Samethini Collection

On the steps of a park building, possibly a music pavillion.
Han stands in the back row, to the left.
Han Samethini Collection



[1] Between 1929 and 1935 the number of sugar factories on Java had fallen from 179 to 45, and the land area planted to cane shrank from 200,831 hectares to 27,578. Figures cited in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 2, Part One, pp. 183-184.

[2] Comment by Margie Samethini-Bellamy, herself a ballet teacher and choreographer (personal e-mail).

[3] Details and location of the Centrum provided by Alfred Ticoalu, based on his study of contemporary sources on the Surabaya jazz scene. The Tunjungan is a street running through the city's entertainment district, lined with shops, clubs, hotels, and restaurants.

[4] Mr. Ticoalu is presently writing a two-volume history of jazz in Indonesia. He requests that anyone with information on this subject please contact him through this blog or via his Facebook page.

[5] Comments posted by Alan Sharkis in the online discussion forum Piano Accordion Players of the World, November 29, 2008.

[6] Makes and models in these photographs identified by Andrew Beckman of the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. The second photo, in which the seven musicians stand "line abreast", shows the Kiliaan Band jacket logo to best advantage. It appears to be a variation of the wapen (coat of arms) of the City of Surabaya: a shark and crocodile surmounted by the crown of the Netherlands.

[7] Uittreksel (summary) of Han Samethini's military service record, drawn up by the Dutch Ministry of the Interior, Pensions Administration Department, on November 7, 1980. Copy of this document kindly furnished by Mr. L.H.G. Belleflamme of Stichting Administratie Indonesische Pensioenen (SAIP).

[8]  Many communities in the East Indies had a Harmonie Club (Societeit de Harmonie).  These were prestigious gathering places for the upper crust of society.  The location of this particular club is unknown, but it was probably a town in East Java.

[9] Christine Chapman, "Thoughts and Recollections of Elisabeth (Lisa) Samethini".

[10] Frank Samethini, The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 2: Surabaya.


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