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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.

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Published: 18 Jun 2019


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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!

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?

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 (suling) and most importantly, the gendang drums that give dangdut its signature sound. By playing the low “dahng” sound 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 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 Deli
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 always 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, in the early 2000s, East Javanese dangdut singer Inul Daratista made headlines with her goyang ngebor (drilling 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 feature 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, driving other female dangdut singers to devise their own signature dance moves. While shocking to some, there is undoubtedly a raw honesty and openness found in dangdut, from highlighting social issues to unapologetically being yourself, that is rarely found in other Indonesian popular music.

7. Regional remixes

Following "Inul-mania", the early 2000s saw the emergence of the exciting new subgenre of dangdut koplo, particularly in Central and East Java. It features a distinctive "koplo" drumming pattern (named after a local hallucinogenic pill), played at a faster tempo. It 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. As with most dangdut koplo songs, it also showcases a more sensational and sensual style of performing easily disseminated to the public through VCDs7.

8. The next generation

Today, a new wave of dangdut 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 younger audiences. Their approach is vastly different from previous generations, dropping Inul’s sensuality for a K-pop-infused cuteness. Via’s hit Javanese song Sayang (My Love) is more like a pop song, with the gendang koplo beat (now electronically produced) only playing during the chorus and bridge. Unlike before, the gendang here takes a backseat, 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 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

This clip showcases the opening ceremony of dangdut talent competition D’Academy Asia season four. It features singers of different nationalities performing Via Vallen’s 2018 ASEAN Games Theme Song, Meraih Bintang (Reach for the Stars) in various languages. The show, with contestants hailing from Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Timor Leste, is testament to the popularity of dangdut beyond Indonesia. In fact, the form has travelled even further afield, with a new dangdut craze growing in America. The status of dangdut has been elevated through these television networks, which have sought to attract more viewers by repackaging the genre with a middle class touch. Contestants are dolled up as divas on big stages with flashy lights, creating a more sophisticated image of the musical form, enabling Inul herself to be a judge on D’Academy where the once-controversial Goyang Inul has been performed numerous times.

10. Here to stay

Siapa suka boleh dengarkan
Yang tak suka – I don’t care!
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 – I don’t care!
For all musicians who don’t like Dangdut
You can hate it but don’t sulk
Just let us sing our songs

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 survived the test of time. Perhaps Rhoma Irama says it best, in the chorus of Musik above, with his 1970s version of "haters gonna hate"—which captures the gloriously brazen and unabashed spirit of dangdut.

References

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 currently completing her Masters in Global Creative and Cultural Industries at SOAS, University of London, where she graduated with a BA in Ethnomusicology. She is also the Assistant Station Manager at SOAS Radio, where she has been producing her radio show, Songs from Southeast Asia, since 2016.


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