In 1969 I bought a used book at the Portobello Market in London, Two faces in Borneo, written in 1928 by composer A Safroni-Middleton.
Safroni-Middleton, who had spent some time in what was then the Dutch East Indies, mentioned a kind of music he despised, which he called “Sumatran Jazz”.
I later realized that what he was talking about was the music that became known as “Melayu“then transformed into”dangdut”. In 1973, I came to Bandung to work at ITB for two years. Here I have encountered several forms of local music.
These included Cianjuran, that hauntingly melancholy traditional expression of the Sundanese with an outward smile; the delicate harmonies and range of vocal styles, including “Qasidah modern” by Trio Bimbo and their sister, Iin Parlina; the powerful but rather pitying voice of singers like Broery Marantika; the melodic teenage pop of Koes Plus, imprisoned by President Sukarno, who saw their music as an example of Western decadence; the rockin ‘Rollies with their eccentric singer Gito; and the glorious harmonies of Batak groups like the Mercys and the 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 am no expert in music, but it seems that “Melayu-dangdut” relies on minor tones, appoggiatura and vocal embellishments. Many explanations for dangdut cite its origins in Arabic and Indian music, but this is not entirely true. If you listen to all three styles, they are definitely distinct. What they do have, however, is a similar, fast and galloping rhythm, and the music is meant to be danced, erotically, or at least influenced, with devotion, in a reflection of certain Islamic movements.
In Bandung in 1973, the most popular song of this genre was Hitam Manis, sung by Mus Mulyadi, who was also a popular singer of kroncong, a traditional Javanese form popular in Dutch times. Melayu was usually played by an OM, or Orkes Melayu. One of my favorite tracks was Boulou Boulou, by Rustam Nawawi and his OM.
Now do you know that the famous song by Paul McCartney Yesterday was originally called “Scrambled eggsAs Paul received the melody before he could create the 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 beautifully haunting melody, but the lyrics are like being sung by a man selling feather dusters or mattresses on the street. In addition, the words “bulu bulu” can mean “hairy” as well as “feather”, so they can have a rather raunchy connotation.
Elvy Sukaesih Confused Terms “Melayu” and “whore” separated, “Melayu” being reserved for the slower, more traditional music of West Sumatra, while “whore” accelerated, and the late 1970s saw the rise of its first big star, the dreaded Elvy Sukaesih. Her strong, enthusiastic voice was often ignored in preference to her intimidating, erotic, swaying hips, which although it encountered some clerical opposition and even stoning, on the whole, drew the admiration of a growing fan base. She made several dangdut themed movies and some memorable recordings, like teasing Gula Gula, Colek-Colek, Cubit-Cubitan, Bisik-Bisik TetangGeorgia, the poignant Tiada Berdaya and the dramatic Bumi Semakin Panas. Elvy rightly became the Queen of Dangdut.
Meanwhile, a ‘king of DangdutEmerged in the person of Rhoma Irama, who with his group Soneta did more than anyone to pioneer popular acceptance of dangdut in Indonesia. He is a brilliant guitarist and composer of several beautiful songs, many of which have 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.
Colombian singer Shakira is deservedly popular around the world with her songs like Hips do not make Lthat is to say, and her hips really don’t lie. However, I think Inul’s “hips” are even more “truthful” than Shakira’s. Its remarkable “ngebor“ (named after the spinning action of an oil drill) revolutionized and embellished popular dance. She has a decent voice, a sense of humor (something some of her critics lack) and obviously enjoys what she does, so we appreciate her too. Her popularity has spread to Japan, and she is now a respected diva and expert in her genre.
In recent years, what appears to be an offshoot of dangdut, “Dangdut koplo” recently emerged, originating in the “pessir“, the north coast of Java from Indramayu, through which new cultural movements usually enter the island. This is usually performed by female singers against a rhythmic background, sometimes dangdut, sometimes pop-rock, sometimes techno. The examples I have seen range from simple, charming, and pastoral, to the rudeness of busty and full-bodied sirens presenting their breast blessings into which equally rude old men insert crumpled banknotes. Whatever the latter variant, it’s not about the music, it’s about the money.
However, it’s a pleasure to end this tale by mentioning my favorite dangdut singer, Erie Suzan, whom Elvy Sukaesih referred to as the singer with the vocal gifts closest to herself. Erie is a dynamic singer with the classic swaying attributes of the best of dangdutters. Her bright smile while singing shows how much, like Inul, she loves what she does. In addition, Erie is a lady, a real class number, and is never vulgar.
I apologize, especially to the Indonesian aficionados of dangdut, for the many errors that must have crept into this article. And I want to thank all the dangdut performers who have given us such pleasure since the 1970s.
SONNET FOR INUL
The disastrous fumaroles predicted by Joyoboyo
Thrust manifests head-on with the best of intentions.
A villager with Venusian dimensions
Bold flows that unfold tantalizing tomorrow.
Emerging from East Java’s Dangdut Sweat Belt
To soften hearts in Durian’s perfumed operas,
She shoots up like an accordion cobra
To drill, refine raw geysers filled with the finest Brent.
Supercharged critics laugh at “duty”
Demonize her charms and bind her booty.
“Why should such a ‘boring’ dance be so exciting?”
Lynch Elvis, suffocate Sukaesih, suffocate lightning! “
Hang in there, Inul, dance free for men, women on
Your ravelength as a national rock phenomenon.
NOTES ON SONNET FOR INUL
History repeats itself with accusations of vulgar movements that have been leveled against a series of rhythmic singers from Elvis to Shakira. Inul Daratista is known for her curvy and spectacular booty “piercing”. The total enthusiasm and integration of his performances, which include a decent rock voice, reminds me of the early Elvis. She is, in my opinion, the most original, exciting and phenomenal music performer to ever come out of Indonesia. I have little time for the dozens of cheap imitators who think it’s just about jerking their ass off, but less time for the hypocritical hypocrites of Inul who should throw a few stones in their own direction.
Joyoboyo: a 12th century king of East Java who made some doomsday prophecies about the future of Java.
All the songs and artists mentioned are on YouTube, even “Bulu-Bulu” by Rustam Nawawi. For those looking for a more in-depth and 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)