Thursday, May 17, 2007

The King of the dangdut

In the late 1960s a new popular music called dangdut emerged from the slums and suburbs of Jakarta in Indonesia. The music was performed on an electrified and modernized version of the older acoustic orkes melayu orchestra and combined influences from Indian and Malaysian film music, Islamic popular music and American popular song, primarily rock. The name dangdut is an onomatopoeic reference to the tabla-like pair of drums used in the ensemble that supply the genre with its defining rhythm: DANG dut, in which a heavy, low-sounding pitch off the beat ("dang") is followed by a light, higher pitch note on the downbeat ("dut"). The form was originally characterized by love duets between young men and women.

Oma Irama (b. 1946) began his dangdut singing career performing these light tunes, often with the legendary Elvy Sukaesih, who later became known as the Dangdut Queen. However, beginning in 1976 Oma changed his name to Rhoma (father) Irama (rhythm) and launched a solo career in which he crafted a newer and lyrically more sophisticated style of dangdut. In this new form, Irama downplayed the influence of Indian film scores (although he continued to lift and rearrange melodies from Bollywood) while emphasizing the American (primarily hard rock) and Middle Eastern (primarily contemporary cabaret music) influences. Irama's lyrics began to acquire an unmistakable air of social criticism and Islamic moralizing.
The dangdut audience is overwhelmingly poor, urban and Islamic, and the stir created by Irama's subtle (but significant) recognition of the major economic disparities between social classes in Indonesia and the hopelessness of the Indonesian poor attracted the then dictatorial government's notice. For a short time afterward Irama was banned from appearing on state-sponsored television.

During the 1980s dangdut was synonymous with the on-stage persona of Irama, the King of Dangdut, dressed in a tight black tanktop, headband, leather pants, gloves and boots, and playing a black flying-V guitar, sweatily glistening in heavy-metal dangdut glory—certainly a far cry from the bubblegum, coy flirtatiousness of the heavily made-up teen dangdut singers of the genre's early years.

Today dangdut remains popular through its ability to transform and reinvent itself every five years or so, always incorporating far-flung popular influences. However, with Irama in semiretirement, dangdut has reverted mostly to light flirtatious songs, and today it greatly resembles other forms of more overtly Westernized Indonesian genres of popular music. —Andrew McGraw