The seductive sultry rhythm of the Dangdut sound
Recently I was reading some Asian newspaper headlines and found a bizarre article that intrigued me immediately. ‘Dangdut singer Irma Bule gets bitten by cobra on stage, keeps singing for 45 minutes before she dies’ What the hell is this all about I thought. Cobras on stage of an Indonesian female singer? Intrigued by the headline, I read on.
Dangdut, the popular Indonesian musical genre is so oversaturated that, as an artist, you have to employ gimmicks to stand out. Unfortunately, it was that gimmick combined with her dedication to showmanship that led Irma Bule to her death. Irma Bule, who’s known to dance with snakes on stage as part of her act, brought a venomous king cobra up on stage during her recent fatal performance in a village in Karawang, West Java. She accidentally step on the snake’s tail during the show causing the snake to bite her. The effects were only felt 45 minutes after and led to her death…
Origin of Dangdut
Dangut always has been a very popular genre for the people of Indonesia since the founding of the country. If you ask any Indonesian what genre he or she thinks is the ‘Music of the People’ the answer will be quite similar: Dangdut. The blend is 100% Indonesian, but because a mix of Arab, Bollywood, Malay and disco it does not sound like pure Indonesian. King of the Dangdut, say Deity and also moviestar is Rhoma Irama. There are many movies with him also on YouTube. I have a tape cassette of Rhoma Irama for 20 years, on which in between the songs he shares all kinds of Islam propaganda with his audience.
Dangdut has traditionally been quite popular within the working classes and lower income groups. The music style emerged in the late 1960’s and reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s. If you travel through Indonesia, you might hear it in public places like the train station or even the bank. The melodious instrumentation and vocals are only a few of the reasons why the genre is so popular. They dance in a similar style as to the ghoomar, a traditional Indian folk dance, but in a much slower version.
Modern Dangdut incorporates influences of wrought up house and disco music. The result of a similar evolution of commercialism, like our music styles. Still, we prefer the basic and sweet sounds of local performances and cracking music tapes.
Visit any working class social event and a Dangdut band will definitely be present to entertain the crowd. Many Indonesians, if they can afford it, hire Dangdut performers to sing at special occasions like weddings. Most major cities have one or more venues that have a Dangdut show, several times a week. The major stars are even broadcasted on national television. It’s not surprising that world’s most populous Muslim nation wants to register this integral musical part of Indonesian life as Unesco heritage.
Pornographic and sexual provocative
But there is an opposite side to his popular genre. As of 2003, several Dangdut musicians became the focus of a national controversy. A growing and vocal group of conservative Muslims are unhappy with the vulgar lyrics and erotic dances over the years. A concern that had his height recently, when ten popular songs were banned in one province for being pornographic. A complaint not unfounded since daring dance moves have always been a part of the Dangdut culture. One of those controversial star artists is Julia Perez, whose entrances are often greeted with loud applause and wolf whistles from her fans. Known as Indonesia’s ‘sex-bomb’, she never disappoints her audience, in a skin-tight leather outfit she leaves little to the imagination. Drilling they call it, the somewhat erotic style of dancing. Basically, it involves rotating the hips in increasingly energetic circles while steadily bringing in the limbs until one becomes a flurry of appendages. You can see it as the Indonesian version of Miley Cyrus’ twerking.
It’s not a first for Indonesian Muslims to protest performances and get them eventually banned. Sold-out concerts of Lady Gaga once caused riots breaking out and their protest was so fierce, they
had to cancel multiple concerts. Dangdut has always been the music of the masses and has, even in the past, had racy and pornographic undertones. One female Dangdut singer was banned in a province because of the racy lyrics, which referred to the sexual positions she preferred. Now, conservative groups feel it has moved too far from its roots and risks corrupting Indonesian society. But the majority of Indonesians are still dancing to a different tune. And they are not complaining.
When attending a Dangdut public performance, it’s not rare to see how the singers get all the attention of sticky local playboys who can get pretty close to the stage in exchange for a few banknotes. For a few moments they can imagine it to be their girlfriend shaking their asses and limbs in their direction.
Politics: Dangdut, a tool to control the mass
Even though the style emerged originally as music with bawdy lyrics and sexually suggestive dancing, this was not always the case. Dangdut was cleaned up in the late 1970s and ’80s when it was popularized by singers like Rhoma Irama, who diversified the music and turned the lyrics safely sweet. A sweet and happy music style that was popular within the mass population? It wasn’t for long until cynical politicians began using these musicians as a way to court the lower classes. “Dangdut has been corrupted for the political campaigns,” says Kompas music critic Bre Redana. In a familiar Indonesian story. “The music of the people became a tool of the powerful.”
But in the present time, the music has become a subject of controversy in Muslim society for being too sexual provocative. A strange argument according to some, since they have no problems with belly dancers or even worse… pornographic VCDs and prostitutes in the street. It’s no wonder that upcoming Dangdut artists are trying to find a way to stand out from the many musicians with gimmicks and bizarre shows. Even if it turns out to be fatal…
When you watch and listen to the video clips, close your eyes and imagine to be in the tropics…
In the mood for more? Discover the roots of Dangdut and other musical delights from Indonesia on
‘Treasures found by an expat living in Indonesia‘ by Henk Madrotter and feast your ears!
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