Indonesia Expat
Featured History/Culture Observations

Dangdut, Indonesia’s “Music of the People” – an Expat’s Take

Inul Daratista

In 1969, I bought a second-hand book in the Portobello street market in London, Two Faces in Borneo, written in 1928 by the composer A Safroni-Middleton.

Safroni-Middleton, who had spent some time in what was then the Dutch East Indies, mentioned a kind of music, which he despised, that he called “Sumatran Jazz”.

I later realized that what he was talking about was the music that became known as “Melayu” and then morphed into “dangdut”. In 1973, I came to Bandung to work at ITB for two years. Here I encountered several forms of local music.

These included Cianjuran, that hauntingly melancholic traditional expression of the outwardly smiling Sundanese; the delicate harmonies and range of vocal styles, including “Qasidah modern” of Trio Bimbo and their sister, Iin Parlina; the powerful but rather self-pitying vocals of singers like Broery Marantika; the melodic teenage pop of Koes Plus, jailed by President Sukarno, who had seen in their music an example of Western decadence; the rockin’ Rollies with their eccentric vocalist Gito; and the glorious harmonies of Batak groups like the Mercys and Panbers. But my greatest love, and that of most of my expat friends, was for Melayu, the continuation of the style so despised by Safroni-Middleton.

As I wrote above, I’m no expert on music, but it seems that “Melayu-dangdut” relies on minor keys, grace notes, and vocal embellishments. Many explanations of dangdut cite its origins in Arabic and Indian music, but that’s not strictly true. If you listen to the three styles, they are definitely distinct. What they do have, however, is a similar fast, galloping, rhythm, and the music is intended to be danced to, erotically, or at least swayed to, devotionally, in a reflection of certain Islamic movements.

In Bandung in 1973, the most popular song in this genre was Hitam Manis, sung by Mus Mulyadi, who was also a popular singer of kroncong, a traditional Javanese form popular in the Dutch era. Melayu was usually played by an OM, or Orkes Melayu. One of my favourite tracks was Bulu Bulu, by Rustam Nawawi and his OM.

Now, do you know that Paul McCartney’s famous song Yesterday was originally called “Scrambled Eggs”, as Paul received the melody before he could create appropriate lyrics? (Check out Paul with Jimmy Fallon on YouTube singing “Scrambled Eggs” to the tune of Yesterday.) Well, Rustam Nawawi’s song has a most beautifully haunting melody, but the lyrics are as if sung by a man selling feather dusters or mattresses on the street. Furthermore, the words “bulu bulu” can mean “hairy” as well as “feathers”, so they can have a rather raunchy connotation.

Elvy Sukaesih
Elvy Sukaesih

Elvy Sukaesih The confusing terms “Melayu” and “dangdut” became separated, “Melayu” being reserved for the slower, more traditionally-flavored, music of West Sumatra, while “dangdut” became speeded up, and the later 1970s saw the rise of its first great star, the formidable Elvy Sukaesih. Her strong keening voice was often ignored in preference to her daunting, erotic, hip-swinging, which, although it did meet with some clerical opposition and even stoning, on the whole, she attracted the admiration of an increasing fan base. She made several dangdut-themed movies, and some memorable recordings, like the teasing Gula Gula, Colek-Colek, Cubit-Cubitan, Bisik-Bisik Tetangga, the poignant Tiada Berdaya and the dramatic Bumi Semakin Panas. Elvy deservedly became known as the Queen of Dangdut.

Rhoma Irama
Rhoma Irama. Dangdut musician, actor, and politician.

Meanwhile a “King of Dangdut” emerged in the person of Rhoma Irama, who with his group Soneta has done more than anyone to pioneer the popular acceptance of dangdut in Indonesia. He’s a brilliant guitarist and composer of several beautiful songs, many with a religious or moral theme. He also positions himself as an ustad (Islamic cleric) and has created controversy over his criticism of the next big dangdut star, Inul Daratista.

The Colombian singer, Shakira, is rightly popular all over the world with her songs like Hips Don’t Lie, and her hips truly don’t lie. However, I reckon Inul’s “hips” are even more “truthful” than Shakira’s. Her remarkable ngebor (named for the rotating action an oil drill makes) revolutionized and embellished popular dancing. She has a decent voice, a sense of humour (which some of her critics lack), and obviously enjoys what she is doing, so we enjoy it too. Her popularity has spread as far as Japan, and she is now a respected diva and pundit of her genre.

In recent years what appears to be an offshoot of dangdut“dangdut koplo” has recently emerged, originating in the pesisir, the north coast of Java from Indramayu, through which new cultural movements generally enter the island. This is generally performed by girl singers to a rhythmic background, sometimes dangdut, sometimes pop-rock, sometimes techno. Examples I have seen range from the simple, charming, and pastoral, to the gross salaciousness of full-bosomed and-bottomed sirens presenting their mammary blessings into which equally gross old men insert crumpled banknotes. Whatever this latter variant is, it’s not about the music, it’s about the money.

However, it is a pleasure to end this account by mentioning my favorite dangdut singer, Erie Suzan, whom Elvy Sukaesih designated as the singer with the closest vocal gifts as herself. Erie is a dynamic singer with the classic swaying attributes of the best of the dangdutters. Her dazzling smile while singing shows how, like Inul, she enjoys what she is doing. Moreover, Erie is a lady, a real class act, and is never vulgar.

I apologize, especially to Indonesian aficionados of dangdut, for the many mistakes which must have crept into this article. And I’d like to thank all the dangdut performers who have given us such pleasure since the 1970s.


Doom fumaroles foretold by Joyoboyo

Thrust manifests abreast the best intentions.

A village girl with Venusian dimensions

Flows bold unfolding tantalised tomorrow.

Emerging from East Java’s dangdut sweat belt

To sweeten hearts in Durian’s scented operas,   

She springs up like a concertina cobra

To drill, refine crude geysers full of best Brent.

The high-horsed hyped crits sniding behind “duty”

Will demonise her charms and bind her booty.

“Why should such “boring” dancing be exciting?

Lynch Elvis, quench Sukaesih, quell the lightning!”

Hang in there, Inul, dance free for men, women on

Your ravelength as the nation’s rock phenomenon.

History repeats itself with accusations of vulgar movements which have been levelled against a series of rhythm singers from Elvis through Shakira. Inul Daratista is notorious for her sinuous and spectacular booty “drilling”. The total enthusiasm and integration of her performances, which includes a decent rock voice, is for me reminiscent of the early Elvis. She is, in my opinion, the most original, exciting and phenomenal music performer ever to emerge from Indonesia. I have little time for the dozens of cheap imitators who think it’s just about jerking their butts, but less for Inul’s hypocritical hypocrites who should lob a few stones in their own direction.

Joyoboyo: a 12th-century king of East Java who made certain apocalyptic prophecies about the future of Java.

All the songs and artists mentioned are on YouTube, even Rustam Nawawi’s “Bulu-Bulu”. For those seeking a more thorough, academic, exploration of dangdut, check out the work of Andrew Weintraub, for example, Dangdut Stories: A Social and Musical History of Indonesia’s Most Popular Music /Dangdut: Musik, Identitas dan Budaya Indonesia (2010)

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