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Dangdut: A guide to Indonesia’s most popular music

We kick off your journey into the wild and wonderful world of dangdut.


Published: 18 Jun 2019

Pen 2

Updated: 23 Apr 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

Dangdut pervades the Indonesian soundscape, from everyday streets and nightclubs, to political rallies and televised talent show competitions. Yet, despite its popularity, the music is rarely given serious attention, and is often perceived as a cheap, lowbrow form of popular culture largely associated with working-class audiences.

This cultural class divide is recorded in the very word 'dangdut'—, an onomatopoeic name that began as an insult, mimicking the 'dang' and 'dut' beats of the gendang drum (like saying “thumpety-thump”1). Still, dangdut lovers have since adopted the once derogatory term with pride, and it has remained a powerful musical force in Indonesia and beyond. Here are 10 songs—each representing a different facet of this colourful musical form—to kick off your journey into the wild and wonderful world of dangdut.

1. Music of the people?

Apakah yang dapat menyatukan kita?

Dangdut is the music of my country!

What is the one thing that can unite us all?

Dangdut is the music of my country! 

It is often said that dangdut is Indonesia’s national music. Its longstanding popularity has given it the honourable title of ‘The Music of the People’—as declared by Secretary of State, Moerdiono in 1995, during a dangdut concert celebrating 50 years of Indonesia’s independence2. While the form as we understand it today developed during the 1970s, it was the early ‘90s that saw a move towards promoting dangdut as a national music. Project Pop’s 2003 hit song, Dangdut Is the Music of My Country, expresses this exact national sentiment, and imagines dangdut as a musical force capable of unifying the Indonesian people. But with Indonesia being home to thousands of different islands, people and cultures stretching from Sabang to Merauke, what exactly does a national music sound like? And does it truly unite all?  

2. Goyang grooves

Sulingnya suling bambu

Gendangnya kulit lembu

Dangdut suara gendang rasa ingin berdendang

Pinggul bergoyang-goyang rasa ingin berdendang

With its bamboo flute
And its cowskin gendang drum
The sound of the gendang makes me want to sing
Hips swaying to and fro, it makes me want to sing

Rhoma Irama, who is often regarded as the King of Dangdut, walks us through the key features of the genre in his song Dangdut (1974). Most dangdut bands are set up like regular pop or rock bands (keyboard, electric guitars and bass), but it is the bamboo flute and most importantly, the gendang drums that give dangdut its signature sound. By playing the low “dahng” sound with the right hand followed by the higher-pitched “du-ut” with the left hand, the gendang drummer produces the iconic ‘dang-dut’ pattern, imitating the sounds of the North Indian tabla. Dangdut is also vocal music, focusing mainly on the singer, but above all, the music is meant to be danced to. A word that often pops up in dangdut is the term ‘Goyang’—to dance, shake it, or sway. It’s easy to dance to dangdut and there are no rules—except to move with and be moved by the music.  

3. Converging cultures

Ini musik Melayu berasal dari Del

Lalu kena pengaruh dari Barat dan Hindi

This Malay music began in Deli (North Sumatra)
Then was influenced by the West and India

Rhoma Irama’s Viva Dangdut (1996) neatly documents the genre’s history. He traces dangdut back to Malay music that developed in the Deli region of North Sumatra, with later influences from India and the West. While his adamant emphasis on dangdut’s origins as “musik Melayu” has been debated—and by none other than the Queen of Dangdut, Elvy Sukaesih—what is clear is how dangdut blends Malay, Indian, Arabic and Western music elements. This multicultural mix continues similar cross-cultural conversations from previous centuries3, in musical forms such as Stambul4 Bangsawan5 and Orkes Melayu6. In a country like Singapore where we are so programmed to identify with the strict racial categories of 'Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others', dangdut and its musical predecessors open up an intriguing discussion: What even is ‘Malay’, when Malay music has so often been tied up in a mix of multicultural sounds?

4. Bananas over Bollywood

Ellya Khadam is often called the Grandmother of Dangdut, with her 1956 hit, Boneka Dari India (A Doll from India) regarded as one of the earliest dangdut songs, before the name ‘dangdut’ even came into being. Though perhaps, this song should be renamed as ‘Lagu Dari India’ (Song from India), given how it uses the melody of Samay Hai Bahar Ka (Time of Spring) from the Hindi film Ashiana (1952). Reusing pre-existing melodies from Indian films and repackaging them into an Indonesian context was very common practice—particularly amongst musicians of the Orkes Melayu Jakarta tradition (which Ellya was a part of). From A. Rafiq’s Pandangan Pertama (based on Pyar Ka Saaz Bhi Hai) to the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai Bollywood craze sparking famous dangdut covers, it appears that one can ‘dangdut-fy’ anything. While this has made many question the Indonesian-ness of dangdut, others argue that its hybrid character is precisely what makes it Indonesia’s national music. 

5. Preach it

Although most dangdut songs are about romantic love, they can also address social issues too, from drunkenness and gambling (Mabuk dan Judi) to human rights (Hak Azasi). Rhoma Irama was famous for using dangdut to convey moralistic messages, with songs such as Mirasantika (Alcohol and Drugs) and Begadang (Stay up all Night). As an Islamic preacher, Rhoma Irama often took the opportunity to convey religious teachings through dangdut, as heard in this song, Laailahaiallah (There is no god but God) from the film Raja Dangdut (1978). While, like many other dangdut singers, he attributes his ability to perform the dangdut vocal style (cengkok) to his training in tilawah Islamic recitation, he was unique as a pioneer in fusing Western rock music with dangdut—citing Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin as his personal influences.

6. Too hot to handle

Jangan heran kalau Inul sedang goyang

Rada panas, agak seksi, ma’afkanlah

Ada yang bilang:

Dangdut tak goyang bagai sayur tanpa garam

Don’t be shocked if how I dance
Is too hot or too sexy, please excuse me.
Some people say:
Dangdut without dancing is like vegetables without salt

In stark contrast to Rhoma Irama’s world of dangdut klasik (classic dangdut), in the early 2000s, East Javanese dangdut singer Inul Daratista made headlines with her goyang ngebor (drill dance) featured in Goyang Inul (Inul’s Dance)—sparking moral panic about the respectability of women’s bodies on stage. Inul was a far cry from Rhoma Irama’s opinions of what women’s emancipation should look like, as expressed in his song, Emansipasi Wanita, from 20 years earlier. It perhaps comes as no surprise that he, along with many others, condemned Inul’s performance style and gyrating dance as pornographic. Even though Inul’s live performances features male audience members front and centre (as is the case with most dangdut shows) she also has a large fan base of women. Inul stands as an icon of female sensuality and has encouraged other female dangdut singers to devise their own signature dance moves, such as Dewi Persik’s Goyang Gergaji (saw dance), Annisa Bahar’s Goyang Patah-Patah (broken dance) and Zaskia Gotik’s Goyang Itik (duck dance)7.  

7. Regional remixes

Riding on the wave of ‘Inul-mania’, the early 2000s saw the emergence of the exciting new subgenre called dangdut koplo, particularly in East and Central Java, of which Inul Daratista was the most prominent performer. Musically, dangdut koplo features a distinctively rapid ‘koplo’ drumming pattern (named after a local hallucinogenic pill), that intensifies the standard dangdut drum rhythms as well as features improvised rhythmic accents by the drummer in conversation with the singers’ dance movements, creating an air of wild excitement often likened to the feeling of flying or being drunk.5. Beyond the music, the great appeal of dangdut koplo lies in the visual spectacle of its live performance, with singers often being playful on stage, as they interact with their audience through telling jokes, collecting sarewan (tips in cash from the audience) and most notably performing an eroticised style of goyang dancing.  

Dangdut Koplo also tends to showcase a mixture of other genres, especially regional elements from local languages to traditional musical instruments (gamelan or angklung), as well as regional dances and musical forms such as the Central Javanese Campursari, West Javanese Pop Sunda and East Javanese Kendang Kempul. Uut Permatasari’s Putri Panggung (Princess of the Dance Floor) features these regional elements as well as her signature goyang ngecor dance.  

8. The next generation

Since Inul Daratista’s reign, a new queen of dangdut koplo has emerged. Along with Nella Kharisma, Siti Badriah, Ayu Ting Ting and more, Via Vallen represents a generation of young female singers responsible for the contemporary renewal of dangdut for newer audiences. Their approach is vastly different from previous generations, dropping Inul’s sensuality for a pop-infused cuteness, and moving away from the cengkok vocal style of classic dangdut, to opt for a more modern aesthetic. Via’s hit Javanese song Sayang (My Love)—which actually started life as the Japanese song Mirai e by Kiroro in 1988, and then the Chinese song Hou Lai by Rene Liu in 2010, before making its way to Indonesia through the dangdut hip hop remix by NDX—more closely resembles a regular pop song. The gendang koplo beat (now electronically produced) only plays during the chorus and bridge, and has been described as “koplo minus goyang6. Unlike before, the gendang here takes a back seat, in favour of a more generic pop sensibility mixed with reggae rhythms and rap sections. By venturing into the popular music forms of today, Via’s generation appeals to audiences beyond the dangdut crowd—perhaps explaining why she is often credited as being responsible for changing the respectability status of dangdut, and why one she is one of the most highly sought after dangdut singers hired by Indonesian politicians to secure more votes at the ballot box.  

9. Making international waves

Riding on the global K-pop music wave of more recent years, as well as capitalising on the success of longstanding Indonesian dangdut music talent show, D’Academy (Dangdut Academy), Indonesian media company Indosiar premiered their new television programme, Dangdut K-Pop 29ther in January 2024. The show pairs six Indonesian dangdut stars (Lady Rara, Melly Lee, Selfi Yamma, Afan, Sridevi and Filda) with six K-pop singers from South Korea (DK, 10cm, Jaehwan, Yedam, Pentagon Hui and vixx Hyuk), to collaborate on a piece of music together, and in so doing, aims to bring dangdut to the rest of world by keeping up with the musical trends of today. In this song, Indonesian D’Academy idol Filda collaborates with K-pop star Bang Yedam on a new arrangement of the popular song, Gelojak Asmara (Flame of Love) which features both Fildan and Yedam singing in the cengkok style at the end of the track, as well as includes a new verse by Yedam in Korean.   

What is perhaps more intriguing however, is how, without the support of a national television network or collaboration with foreign musical talents, young and upcoming dangdut performers such as Ochi Alvira and Syahiba Saufa have made their own waves internationally, and likely without even intending to. Their 2023 performance of Rasah Nyangkem 3 quickly went viral on TikTok and featured their own signature goyang dance movements. This has since sparked a new TikTok trend amongst Gen Z users worldwide while also generating curiosity about dangdut and Indonesian culture amongst global viewers. 

10. Here to stay

Siapa suka boleh dengarkan

Yang tak suka boleh berlanjut

Bagi pemusik yang tak suka dangdut

Boleh benci jangan cemberut

Biarkan kami mendendangkan lagu

Lagu kami irama dangdut

If you like it you can listen

If you don’t like it, keep moving  

For all musicians who don’t like dangdut

You can hate it but don’t sulk

Just let us sing our songs

Our songs with the dangdut rhythm 

Despite its national status and increased popularity over the years, dangdut has still not managed to shake off its negative stereotypes as an over-the-top music genre lacking in artistry. Still, although not everybody may approve of the ways in which the genre has transformed over the years (including dangdut musicians themselves), it has clearly survived the test of time. Perhaps Rhoma Irama himself said it best, in the chorus of Bicara, with his 1970s version of ‘haters gonna hate’—which captures the gloriously brazen and unabashed spirit of dangdut that is very much here to stay.  

Catch two of Indonesia’s most promising dangdut performers at Dangdut Koplo Extravaganza! on 12 May 2024, presented as part of Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts


1 'Rhoma Irama and the Dangdut Style: Aspects of Contemporary Indonesian Popular Culture’ by William H. Frederick (1982) in Indonesia, No. 34.
2 'Nation, Islam, and Gender in Dangdut, Indonesia’s Most Popular Music’ by Andrew Weintraub (2018) in Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Indonesia.
3 Weintraub, Andrew N (2018b) ‘Nation, Islam, and Gender in Dangdut, Indonesia’s Most Popular Music’ in Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Indonesia. Routledge:
4 Malay comedy theatre that flourished between the 1890s to 1930s
5 A form of Malay opera and theatre during the 19th to mid-20th century
6 Malay songs accompanied by ensembles of largely Western instruments during the 1930s to ‘60s
7 ‘The Sound and Spectacle of Dangdut Koplo: Genre and Counter-Genre in East Java, Indonesia’ by Andrew Weintraub (2013), Asian Music, Vol. 44.

Contributed by:

Almira Farid

Almira Farid is a music educator and multi-instrumentalist, with a background in ethnomusicology and the creative and cultural industries. She is part of the musical collective, Alunan Kampung Gelam, which shines a spotlight on the stories behind songs of the Nusantara and beyond.  

The good vibes continue

Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2024

Celebrate the icons and treasures of the Malay community in its diversity and richness through the best in theatre, dance, and music from the Nusantara (Malay Archipelago).

9 – 12 May 2024
Find out more
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