December 2013 - January 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Miley Cyrus, eat your heart out

By Ramon Glazov
Indonesia’s dangdut music puts Western pop to shame

“Dying planet obsessively debates twerking.” That’s how Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle summarised the fallout from the world-stopping music awards ceremony in August where Miley Cyrus jiggled her backside on stage. Or, in hip-hop parlance, she twerked it. As a page view–hungry blogosphere fought over the former tween star’s hind-thrusts, the Oxford English Dictionary belatedly promoted “twerk” to official word status.

To Indonesians, though, the frenzy both on and off the stage smacked of déjà vu. After all, Jakarta’s Kompas newspaper explained, Cyrus’ moves were “equivalent to dangdut koplo attractions in this country”.

Dangdut, a sound that mixes electric instruments with tablas and flutes, evolved in a markedly different way from Western rock’n’roll. Classic 1970s dangdut was preachy, Islamic, pro-Malaysian and Arabophile. But one pioneer, Rhoma Irama, knew just what to borrow from the West. Like Elvis, he starred in a series of guitar musicals, playing himself as a long-haired, Lincoln-bearded dreamer who annoyed his parents by pursuing a music career between mosque visits. Irama posed shirtless on album covers. Nodding towards glam and heavy metal, the “King of Dangdut” sang from nitrogen-fogged stages beneath giant skulls and colossal bat sculptures. His lyrics were ascetic and prim, condemning fleshliness, worldliness and Suharto-era modernity. Here’s the opening to ‘Haram’, an impressively tuneful listing of the Quranic no-nos, sung as a duet:

SHE: Why – oh why – is drinking haram?

HE: Because – oh because – it fuddles the mind.

SHE: And why – oh why – is cheating haram?

HE: Because – oh because – it’s the way of the beasts.

Irama is a practising cleric whose salty Islamism still makes headlines. Leading prayer last year at Jakarta’s Al-Isra mosque, he denounced Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the popular ex-mayor of Surakarta, now governor of Jakarta, who may well win Indonesia’s 2014 presidential race. Irama also warned his congregation not to vote for “infidel” candidates in the capital’s gubernatorial elections, reminding them that Jokowi’s running mate was a Chinese Christian and claiming – on scarce evidence – that Jokowi’s mother secretly practised Christianity. Though the governor’s seat went to Jokowi, the Raja Dangdut wasn’t surrendering; last December, the 66-year-old Irama announced ambitions to run for president as a member of the Islamist PKB, a minority party in Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling coalition.

With 200-plus songs to his name, Irama could viably claim credit for half the dangdut canon. But against his best efforts, dangdut is now famous for something other than pious Islam: twerking. After Suharto’s fall, a new dangdut style emerged called koplo, after the Javanese for “fool” – or “dope”, in the pill-popping sense. The chord progressions were simpler, the tabla beat faster. And instead of Islam, koplo’s main topic was sex. (A current hit is ‘Buka Dikit Jos’ – ‘Show Us Some Skin, Babe!’)

In 2003, a full decade before the fuss over Cyrus’ antics, Indonesians witnessed a far grander tumult around East Javanese koplo star Inul Daratista. Today Daratista remains less known for her songs than for her signature goyang ngebor, or “drilling dance”: a suggestive mix of glute-shaking and hula wobbling performed in a skin-tight bodysuit. Islamist groups were livid, declaring her dance haram, and calling for public bans. Her name kept being invoked in the push for Indonesia’s 2008 Anti-Pornography Bill, a law that includes body movements in its blacklist of “pornography and porno-action”.

The most notorious condemnations came from Irama, who accused Daratista of “throwing dangdut music into the mud, tearing apart the nation’s social fabric and encouraging illicit sex and rape”. He also forbade her from performing any of his own compositions, which was unprecedented. Dangdut singers ordinarily don’t even charge one another royalties; once a tune gets out, performance rights are communal. (YouTube boasts a half-dozen different versions of ‘Show Us Some Skin, Babe!’ alone, all by established voices.) Meanwhile, regular dangdut tragics can enjoy song-sharing through karaoke: VCDs – classic and koplo alike – come with sing-along text. One taxi company, Cipaganti, even runs karaoke cabs with video screens and microphones, and despite Irama’s anti-koplo pronouncements, dangdut – both old and new – remains the music of Indonesian identity.

Not that middle-class Javanese would ever call it theirs. In the city of Surabaya, I heard the put-down that hardcore dangdut fans weren’t so much Javanese as hayseed migrants from neighbouring Madura. Yet young working Indonesians far prefer it to Western pop, and nearly all dangdut stars come from Java, albeit mostly from dusty, blue-collar satellite towns like Krian and Pasuruan.

Politicians do well not to ignore the karaoke-crazed “silent” majority. Jokowi has declared himself a lifelong Irama fan, while Yudhoyono’s incumbent coalition is pushing to add dangdut to UNESCO’s cultural world heritage list. Most political parties have resident dangdut stars and, typically, dangdut campaign songs. Like this koplo jingle:

Jokowi, Jokowi – he’s a sensible guy!

Jokowi, Jokowi – he’s famous worldwide!

Jokowi, Jokowi – the Indo hope!

Jokowi, Jokowi – an honest bloke!

Koplo has bred a small gaggle of signature twerking styles, lesser goyangs so far unable to repeat Daratista’s “drilling” scandal. The current bad girl of dangdut is Julia “Jupe” Perez, known for pole-dancing at a Jakarta intersection and for her rivalry with fellow starlet Dewi “Depe” Perssik. Earlier this year, Jupe spent three months in prison for assaulting Depe on the set of a horror film.

The Javanese, though, can reconcile almost anything. For Jupe and Depe, the twerking, brawling and koplo sit quite comfortably alongside their avowals of motherhood, Islam and traditional Javanese femininity. At one stage Jupe announced that she would marry a much older Muslim cleric “to make [her] mother happy”, and her first act after leaving prison was to distribute Qurans at urban mosques.

Not to be outdone, Depe last year assured an audience at Jakarta’s At-Tin Mosque that she would never “shake it” in front of children, not least her young son. Her four-year-old, Depe added, was already learning to fast for Ramadan.

Ramon Glazov

Ramon Glazov is a Perth-based writer, critic and journalist. His work has appeared in Overland, Jacobin, Tincture Journal and the Saturday Paper.

From the front page

Image of WA Premier Mark McGowan. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

The gospel according to Mark

Is this the moment WA Premier Mark McGowan goes too far?

Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

Image of South Australia Premier Steven Marshall addressing the media during a press conference in Adelaide, August 24, 2021. Image © Morgan Sette / AAP Images

Marshall law

Premier Steven Marshall claimed South Australia was “COVID-ready” when the state opened borders just as Omicron was emerging, but it now faces the same issues as the eastern states

Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

‘Girl from the North Country’

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

In This Issue

Vale Doris Lessing

Memories of a friend and mentor

Scarface Claw, as seen in Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy (1983). © Lynley Dodd

The art of children’s literature

What makes a picture book a classic?

The Lists

A story

Health care, American style

Motivational slogans and pricey lungs in a US hospital


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Declaration of independents

The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Echidna poo has changed our understanding of human evolution

Citizen science is not only helping echidna conservation, but changing how we think about evolution

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Suspended from the rock

Rock-climbers at Arapiles/Dyurrite say the parks department has misled traditional owners over climb closures

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pride of place

Why the Bondi Memorial honouring victims of Sydney’s LGBTIQ hate-crime epidemic matters for victims and their families


Online exclusives

Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

Image of South Australia Premier Steven Marshall addressing the media during a press conference in Adelaide, August 24, 2021. Image © Morgan Sette / AAP Images

Marshall law

Premier Steven Marshall claimed South Australia was “COVID-ready” when the state opened borders just as Omicron was emerging, but it now faces the same issues as the eastern states

Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

‘Girl from the North Country’

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com