December 2013 - January 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Miley Cyrus, eat your heart out

By Ramon Glazov
Miley Cyrus, eat your heart out
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.

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