The Life and Works of Theresa Zen


theresa zen, iwan zen, lita zen, karen idol, savoy homann, ismail marzuki, sabda alam, asian african conference

Too often, national heroes don’t get the respect, recognition and honor they deserve. In the music world the case is just the same. Peole tend to forgot the contribution of many artists who had done so much for the life of music we live in today. It’s ironic, since they still sing the song but they don’t want to pay attention to the composer, or the singers/musicians who have brought it for the first time, those who made the song remain timeless. As Indonesia celebrated Kartini Day several days ago, a day to honor a national female heroine “Raden Adjeng Kartini” (April 21, 1879 – September 17, 1904) who fought for women’s equal rights especially in education,  we think it’s the time to bring up a female singer that time forgot. She’s Theresa Zen.

It may be only a few that still remember Theresa Zen. She was a fabulous singer that’s gifted with sweet heavenly voice. She was a brilliant natural born singer back then with many achievements. She even got attention from Doris Day, who loved her voice so much and sent her vinyl LP all the way from US to Indonesia along with her autograph specially for Theresa.

IMG_2904_resizeIn her 75 years of age, she still has a crystal clear memory from the past. We visited her along with the music director of Melinda Hospital’s Grand Jazz  events, the pianist/vocalist/accordionist Imelda Rosalin. She gave us a warm welcome together with her son, the jazz singer with a golden voice Iwan Zen. She’s weak now but still well. “I’d still sing if I could, but I can’t do it anymore.” she said. That’s too bad, because she had such a beautiful voice in her heyday. Now we can only hear her singing voice from her vinyl collections that would be very hard to find today. Thank God there’s a vinyl of her in good condition, well preserved by Yongki Nusantara, a jazz elder who also owns Mara Radio in Bandung. From his collection we could still hear the prime voice of Theresa when she was active almost half century ago.

About Theresa Zen

IMG_2876_resizeShe was born as Theresa Amanupunnjo in Larantuka, Flores in January 6, 1935. Her father Eferandus Amanupunnjo was a Sergeant Major of KNIL (the Nederland-Indische soldier). During the Japanese invasion her father got caught and was jailed in Bandung. Theresa and her mother, Dortje Soselisa moved to Bandung as well. She was lucky enough to get well education. From Europe Legere School (ELS) she continued to Melania Junior High School and then worked as in the administration office of a Dutch workshop on Jl. Gudang Utara. It was before she realized her calling to be a singer.

We might wonder where Theresa Zen got her voice from. “It was from my mother..” she said. Through the mother, Theresa and her sisters inherited the singing voice. But it was shaped from the church. Being a church singer together with her sisters slowly her voice was built in form. Her smooth alto vocal style was soon discovered by many. From there she just knew that she was meant to be a singer.

The Beginning of Her Singing Career

She worked as a singer at the historical Savoy Homann hotel in the early 50’s with the band named Rino Gasparini and His Combo, led by an Italian pianist Rino Gasparini. There were two Indonesian joined the band while the other one came from Hungary. She sang variety of songs in different genres in there to entertain the guests, including pop, hawaiian and also jazz. Theresa got married in 1953 with Raden Mohammad Zen from Palembang, the brother of Sadak, the owner of Savoy Homann at that time. They got 5 children: Lisye Zen, Zeni Zen, Lita Zen, Iwan Zen and Syailendra Zen.

Theresa Zen and The Asian-African Conference

Theresa-Zen-and-Eddy-KaramoyAs the singer of Savoy Homann with the band, she got a very special experience in 1955. That was the time when Indonesia held an international conference, the Asian-African Conference. It was such an important conference to promote Asian and African economic and cultural cooperation to oppose colonialism. At that time, the Savoy Homann hotel was chosen to be the venue for this occasion, and Theresa was selected to be the singer to entertain all the leaders of participated nations. “I must be ready anytime for a week, no matter what to entertain all the presidents and kings that were stayed at the hotel.” She recalled. She met some of the very important leaders of Asia and Africa that attended the conference such as India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesian President Soekarno, China’s Prime Minister Zhou En Lai and others. “Eventhough they were the most important person in their nations, they were all very nice.”  she said. One of the admirer was Norodom Sihanouk, the king of Cambodia that kept on asking her to sing Nat King Cole‘s “Answer Me” that was released a year earlier and still very popular at that time.


Winning the “Bintang Radio Indonesia” Competition

She soon participated in “Bintang Radio Indonesia” competition organized by Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI). She became the winner for West Java region and sent to compete nationally. In this higher stage she did it 4 times, competed with some legendary names such as Ratna (a very famous singer in the 50’s-60’s) and the living legend Titiek Puspa. She grabbed the third winner three times, in 1956, 1957, and 1958, and then in 1961 she finally made it as the first winner. We can still see her trophies well kept at her home.  Rino Gasparini urged her to compete in the ‘now-nearly extinct’ Seriosa category and grabbed the runner up.

The Encounter with Ismail Marzuki

IMG_2875_resizeOne day she was approached by a dutchman, telling her that a composer was looking for her. “I asked who, and he said, it’s Ismail Marzuki. I was really surprised.” she said with a smile. Ismail Marzuki is known as one of the most important legendary composer of Indonesia. Then she met Ismail Marzuki after that, and  found out that Ismail had just wrote two songs that were made especially for her. Those songs were the timeless song, one of Ismail Marzuki’s masterpiece entitled “Sabda Alam” and “Kunang-Kunang.” “Sabda Alam” is still very popular until today. We might know this song from the pop version by Chrisye or the classic jazz version by Rien Djamain among other versions, but only a few know that it was brought for the first time by Theresa. “He wanted me to sing those songs, and yes, he made them for me.” she smiled proudly. It’s a pity that almost no one remember the first singer who made this song popular, and it was through the lovely smooth vocal of Theresa Zen.

The End of Her Singing Career

Theresa-Zen-with-Blue-DiamondShe didn’t have long enough career. “It was difficult at that time to find a promotor or sponsor for me.” she said. She appeared in some vinyl compilations, including the one that featured “Sabda Alam” and “Kunang-Kunang”, and soon after she quitted. It was unfortunate since her voice was one of the most beautiful we’ve ever heard. Eventhough she only had a short spanning career we can’t deny her contribution to Indonesian music world. Her daughter Lita Zen and son Iwan Zen emerged as successful singers with good career. Her granddaughter Karen became one of the finalist of Indonesian Idol season one and still raising up her career at present. One of her grandson Bima is also entering the entertainment world right now. “I didn’t ask them to be a singer, but yes, I gave direction whenever they needed one.” she said. And that’s something we should respect her for.

Theresa Zen’s name might have been forgotten, but her contributions remain forever. Through this article we hope to remind you about her, along with the unique life story she had. It’s time for us to give a proper respect to the heroes and heroines who have given many things for us, including in the entertainment world or music in particular. We have found so many stories we might never heard before through the life and works of Theresa Zen. It’s a heritage we should keep alive. While we have got some of the lost history back through the memory of Theresa Zen, there are many part of the history still remain uncovered, and certainly there are still a lot of heroes and heroines that time forgot. There will be a Life Achievement Award to be given to her at Melinda Hospital’s Grand Kartini Jazz next Friday, April 30, 2010 at the lobby of Melinda Hospital, Jl. Padjadjaran 46 Bandung.Let’s be there and give respect to her personally. God bless you, aunt Theresa Zen. Thank you for sharing all the memories and for all your efforts. We love you.

See more pictures including the exclusive ones from the past (courtesy of Lita Zen):

[flickrset id=”72157623805254577″ thumbnail=”square”]

Written by Riandy Kurniawan
Photographer: Eghi Gabred

Special Thanks to Imelda Rosalin, Iwan Zen and Lita Zen


  1. Saya sangat menggemari suara tante Theressa dan lagu lagu 50an. sempat susha cari lagu yang dinyanyikannya dan berharap besar bisa bertemu dengan beliau. apa bisa saya minta nomor telp atau alamat rumahnya?