Friday, May 3, 2013

Rhoma Irama and the Dangdut Style

In the late 1960s, bands which had for a few years satisfied themselves and
their limited, urban elite audiences with more or less literal translations of hits by
the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the like--one thinks of groups
like Koes Plus, Mercy's, Panbers, and Bimbo--began to make cautious innovations.
Basically, they incorporated select elements of the Melayu-Deli and kroncong traditions
into their work. The effort produced a fairly slick, contemporary sound, and
a number of singers, such as Hetty Koes Endang, Broery Pesolima, Titi Qadarsih,
and Emilia Contessa, showed a genuine flair for it. Although pleasant to the ear,
this synthesis lacked a certain spark of originality its melodies and lyrics exuded
an upper- and upper-middle-class aura. Wags soon dubbed the music "Melayu
Mentengan," after the swank residential district in Jakarta,23 and the lukewarm
public response to a "modernized" arrangement by the DTLloyds group of the title
song from the old movie Serodja seems to have made the point that one could not
capture new audiences simply by recycling old hits, Western or indigenous.
As it happened, at least one young man had come to precisely this conclusion
as early as 1969, when he sat in the then less-than-fashionable Jakarta satellite of
Tebet, attempting to fashion a "new music" with which to replace the Western rock
he had just renounced. His odd name was Oma Irama, invented by his parents to
commemorate the special circumstances surrounding his birth: his mother had gone
into labor upon returning home from an outdoor concert and thus the child was
called irama or "rhythm."21* Originally there was little to suggest that this fellow,
who grew to be a mediocre student with a penchant for rock music and, it is said,
rather rakish behavior, would turn out at all differently from so many other urban
middle-class youths.
But in less than a decade Oma, who subsequently styled himself Rhoma by adding
the initial letters of the titles raden and hα/i to his childhood nickname, was
transformed--or perhaps transformed himself --into one of the best-paid and most
widely recognized contemporary Indonesians, and a musician who changed the face
of Indonesian music. While his accomplishments stand on their own, it is also true
that his biography has fascinated Indonesian society at many levels for some time.
The reason for this interest appears to be that Rhoma Iramaτs life exemplifies a
partly traditional and partly very contemporary kind of rags-to-riches, triumph-oft
he-good-individual story that young Indonesians find very appealing. And it is
perhaps true as well that the details of this personal tale, especially in romanticized
screen versions, mirror the popular perceptions, frustrations, and desires of the
times with remarkable coherence.
Rhoma was born on December 11, 1947 in Tasikmalaya, West Java. His father,
a captain in the army, moved the family to Jakarta in the early 1950s and hoped the
boy would take advantage of the educational facilities in the capital city to become a
doctor. Rhomaτs mother, a native of Bandung, was perhaps a little less insistent
about the precise career choice, but there can be little doubt that she too had
middle-class aspirations for her son. When her husband died in 1957, she continued to follow their earlier plans for Rhomaτs education; despite help from a brother in
Bandung, it was no easy task, financially or otherwise.
A restless boy, Rhoma seemed moved by music and little else. He is said to
have drummed on his school bench with such verve that his classmates stopped to
listen. He taught himself to play the guitar and practiced singing in his naturally
clear, full-toned voice. In his early teens he played, without his mother's or uncle's
knowledge, in a number of bands formed by school chums in Tebet. In 1963
he established his own band, Gayhand, attempting to make a paying business out of
a repertoire of Beatles music and tunes associated with Paul Anka, Tom Jones, and
Andy Williams. It was neither a creative nor a commercial success, at least not on
the scale Rhoma had hoped for. But educational plans, his mother had finally to
admit, had not worked out very well either. Rhoma moved desultorily through a
number of high schools in Jakarta and elsewhere, and then attended Universitas
17 Agustus before finally giving up. He felt himself to be a musician and began to
discover within himself a gritty determination to make the world take notice.
It is difficult to say exactly how the change took place, but rather abruptly
Rhoma turned to Melayu music as an alternative to Western pop and rock. More
likely than not, the young man's still-developing musical and business intuitions
were equally aroused. In 1968 he sang for a while with the Orkes Melayu Purnama.
He was impressed with both the spirit and the marketability of the band's style,
and there he met the singer Elvy Sukaesih (b. 1951), who had already developed a
fluid approach to Melayu music that was new and exciting. By his own account,
this experience, together with the excitement of reaching an audience larger and
different in social composition from those he was used to, propelled Rhoma into
planning a new musical style with certain specifications: it must be broadly popular,
cutting across class lines and appealing to the sensibilities of Indonesians of
all sorts; it must be unmistakably modern; and it must carry a message, however
simple, in a language that was easily grasped by young people everywhere. Finally,
this new music must neither reveal an obvious kinship with Western styles--the
goal was an unmistakably "Indonesian" or at least an "Eastern" sound--nor merely
imitate the existing Melayu-Deli style with its Arab and Indian flourishes.25
This was a tall order by any reckoning, and a music to fill it did not appear
overnight. But that such a music was envisioned--and envisioned in this particular
fashion--re veals much about Oma Irama that might otherwise be obscure. One is
struck, for example, with the deliberate, intellectualizing approach he took toward
his music at this early stage. There is no reason to disbelieve his own account of
the manner in which he sat down to ponder how a new style might be created. While
the eventual difference between success and failure in this endeavor undoubtedly
owes as much to intuitive creative talent as to deliberation, it is the studied character
of Oma's search that first invites attention. In addition, his actions bear the
unmistakable stamp of a shrewd pragmatism and natural business acumen. Today
Oma frequently disavows having had any special concern for the potential financial
rewards offered by public entertaining, but the reality is surely rather different.
He seems instinctively to have identified popular success at least partly with commercial
success, and has more recently shown that he has an unerring business
sense. He sees nothing contradictory, and certainly nothing morally objectionable,
in aspiring to be entrepreneur and artist, and has applied his keen feel for the
public pulse to both enterprises.some of his ideas with ensembles he did not control (all of them orkes Melayu of
the usual sort), Oma formed Soneta in 1971. This group was still basically an orkes
Melayu, and was frequently advertised as such during its early years, but the intent
seems always to have been to break out of the orkes Melayu pattern. Later
the name Soneta Group, with its contemporary ring and affinity with the titles of
diversified New Order enterprises (Sinar Group, Kartini Group), was insisted upon.
Soneta gave Oma both creative elbowroom and a certain degree of financial independence
with which to experiment. He had mastered the Melayu sound and, with Elvy
Sukaesih as his principal singing partner, rode the vogue as he began to infuse it
with new ideas. There was no musical revolution, but a gradual and not always
certain development produced by an active musical imagination and the competition
and financial rewards of the musical marketplace. Melayu tunes were already growing
in popularity again--perhaps they seemed fresh and catchy to a new generation.
Oma was not responsible for this trend, but he did realize that he could seize the
essence of the music itself and the opportunity offered by its new recognition to
create something fresh and exciting.
To speak of a well-defined Soneta Group style between 1971 and about 1974
would be to ascribe to the compositions it played a coherence that they did not, if
available recordings are faithful, in reality possess. At most it might be said that
Oma and Elvy managed to vary the instrumentation and phrasing of their numbers
to produce more variety in tone and texture than displayed by the ordinary orkes
Melayu. The typical underbeat of this music was also treated in such a way as to
give it more verve and expressiveness than its Indian model. Omaτs output as a
composer, however, was limited, and as a lyricist his work showed little depth or
direction. 2G
By 1975, however, the outlines of a tighter synthesis and a patently individual
personality could be seen in Oma's music. It was above all an energetic style that
pumped the Melayu song full of a liquid, flowing rhythm and highlighted its characteristic
waves of melody. In part the effect was achieved with subtle changes in
orchestration, but it came more noticeable with the incorporation of electrical instruments--
guitar, organ, even mandolin--and increasingly powerful acoustical
equipment. This kind of music could be felt in an almost visceral way. If Melayu
music was customarily foot-tapping stuff, then this dangdut (as it was now being
called) practically shook young listeners, compelling them to toss off their footgear
and rock (bergoyang) to the music. Indeed, dancing in this particular manner, a
cross between the traditional kampung-style joget and vaguely rock-and-roll motions,
became a hallmark of Soneta performances. (source: RHOMA IRAMA AND THE DANGDUT STYLE: