Sun, 21 May 2000

Baki's guitars hit the right note

Text and photos by Ali Budiman

SURAKARTA, Central Java (JP): Guitars have created jobs in the village of Baki.

It's not because the people are talented musicians, even though there is a Senin Kemis keroncong music group in the village.

They do not play guitars in Baki. Instead, they make them.

The guitars produced in Surakarta used to be popular because of their low price and bright colors, even though the quality was very poor.

In the early 1970s, after working for 11 years with a guitar factory with fading prospects in Surakarta, Hadi Wijono decided to produce guitars in his house in Baki village.

Now 62 years old, he developed his business with the help of relatives and neighbors.

In a matter of months the village of Baki became known as the most productive guitar industry center in Central Java.

Currently 80 percent of the 200 family heads in the village, surrounded by ricefields and sugar cane plantations, make their living building guitars, relying on manual skill and simple equipment.

Sutiyem -- who is a relative of Hadi Wijono -- working closely with her husband Sutanto, established their then nameless guitar factory in 1985 when they got married.

With a capacity of 10 dozen guitars a week and a permanent work force of 20, their guitar factory SS (Sutiyem & Sutanto) has become one of the foremost enterprises in Baki.

Sutiyem said that from the very beginning she was looking for a piece of the market where quality was more important to prospective buyers than low cost.

It is dangerous for a company when it becomes trapped in cut- throat competition.

Reduction of production costs from the sector of raw material means a decline in quality. There are factories producing guitars for less than Rp 50,000. They rely on a large turnover.

Her guitars, priced at more than Rp 100,000, have better quality wood, planing, paint, necks and tuning pegs.

Sutiyem, 32, a graduate of an economics junior high school in Surakarta in 1984, claims that her products can hold their own against similar instruments made in South Korea and Taiwan costing Rp 400,000.

The smoothness of the neck, the plucking and the sound of the strings are on par with imported instruments.

She is aware, however, that from the aspect of accuracy and smoothness of the planing of the wood, their guitars cannot hold a candle to guitars from big factories like Yamaha.

Sutiyem has never seen a guitar factory using machinery but she can imagine that big factories make use of sophisticated technology, like computerized cutting, wood planing and automated painting.

Manually it would be a complex process to achieve a product of the highest quality.

When the economic crisis hit Indonesia in 1997 the only real problem for the SS factory was in trying to find imported complementary parts such as string pegs.

The marketing of the products has never been a problem at all.

The Paragon guitar company in Jakarta, which has been an associate of SS for the past four years, exports the guitars to some Latin American countries and Africa.

The SS factory, which is often unable to meet the high demands of Jakarta, must also consider marketing their products in other cities like Surakarta, Yogyakarta and other places in Java as well as Ujungpandang in Sulawesi and Banda Aceh in Sumatra.

The company has come up with a long-term program to expand its business.

Sutiyem said it must remain in Baki because outside the center they would lack the facilities which have so far been provided to a great extent by locals.

For the initial process, such as the shaping of the bar from logs (mahogany, waru or singon), the cutting of 3 mm plywood for the body and the pressing of the ribs up to the joining of those parts, a skilled worker like Pak Manis, the leader of "Senin Kemis" band, is required.

New workers are given abrasion work. Painting with the use of a compressor again requires a skilled and experienced worker. The painted guitars are then hung in a cool place to dry.

Finishing is considered the most important part of guitar making, an abrasion process using the finest sandpaper.

It is called a wet process because water is also used.

The guitar is then cleaned and the neck is installed.

Here Sutanto, the boss, must take the matter in hand. He sprays the instrument with melamine, a transparent layer for coating, making the guitar shine. The coating must be even over the whole body of the instrument up to the string pegs.

Baki village, with its narrow streets, seems to be filled with guitars, especially in the morning and in the afternoon. Piles of semi-finished guitars carried by young men on bicycles are everywhere.

The young men take the guitars from the factories and sandpaper them at home.

They are paid a lump sum for their work. Rp 12,500 for one dozen.

When the number of orders increases, life in Baki village not only revolves around guitars. Orders also come in for violins, cellos even old-fashion basses which are still used in keroncong traditional orchestras.

Unfortunately even today the guitar entrepreneurs in Baki do not feel the necessity to create an organization or a cooperative. The consequence of this is that there is no standard of quality or of cost. In home industrial centers like the one in Baki, unhealthy competition easily occurs and they often have to sell their products at a low price to middlemen.