As Indonesia, of course I know dangdut, a genre of Indonesian popular music. But just like many young and educated Indonesians, I am not a dangdut fan. However, born and raised in Dayeuhkolot, suburban area of Bandung, I caught myself growing up with this music. Almost every day, I heard dangdut from the house of Haji Dodo, my next door neighbor. Every time I went to the traditional market with my mom, I heard dangdut played from vendors’ radios. Too often, I found myself humming a dangdut tune, together with some kids from the neighborhood.
But do I know what dangdut really is?
I never attended any dangdut concert. Without Pittsburgh dangdut experience, I might never had a chance to attend Rhoma Irama and Soneta concert in my life. If this concert were held in Band in Bandung, my parents would not let me go.
Dangdut is represented as ‘people’ (rakyat) music. This music is perceived as the reflection of spirit, desire, and aspiration of the people, especially those small people (orang kecil), grassroots (rakyat jelata), marginalized ones, and underclass. This genre is also often paralleled with backwardness and low taste (kampungan).
Though, in other contexts, dangdut seems always manage to steal a spot or two in middle and upper class’ events. In formal events, government officials would dance with the music, sometimes to show that they are people persons. For Indonesian student abroad, dangdut is one of the symbol of Indonesian-ness, just like terasi chili paste, beef rendang, Indomie instant noodle.
In the last several years, triggered by controversies around Inul’s gyrated hip movement, I’ve been paying some attentions to dangdut. Through Inul, dangdut has been tapping into political and cultural discourses. Propped up by dissension around anti pornography and porno-action bylaws (RUU APP), dangdut has found its way to enter conversations among elites. But only in the form of discourse. As music and a form of expression, it continues to stay among the underclass.
In May 2008, an invitation from Professor Andrew Weintraub to speak at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Islam and Popular Culture in Indonesia and Malaysia to be held at the University of Pittsburgh on October 10-12, brought me to a reality that never occurred even in my wildest dream. A meeting face-to-face with the dangdut legend, Rhoma Irama.
A mixed feeling emerged. I was excited to meet the legend. But there’s something that crossed my mind. Not because I wasn’t a dangdut fan, but mostly because I couldn’t set aside my preconceived opinion that is based on the reduced, and might be distorted, image of Rhoma Irama.
My preconceived opinion was related to how Rhoma Irama has been represented in the media and discourses around Inul’s movement. The conflict between Inul and Rhoma Irama symbolizes an ideological fight between religious values, patriarchalism, conservatism and fundamentalism against democracy, individual freedom, and gender equality. Discourses around this conflict have reduced Rhoma Irama to a one dimensional, conservative fundamentalist, figure.
I realized that the image I created was not based on realities. But, still, I couldn’t help but struggle with my own feeling.
At the evening of concert, I sat down on the first row, right in front of the stage. Sitting on the same row with Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat the Indonesian Ambassador of the United States and Ishadi SK (founder and president of TransTV), at first I felt I was just in one of some formal Indonesian events. But then I realized that this was the first live dangdut concert of my life! It was surreal.
Rhoma Irama and his band, Soneta, had impressed me from their first song, Dangdut. But it wasn’t until the fourth song, I finally joined the dance, joged dangdut. As the fifth, sixth, and seventh songs were played, the dancing crowd became bigger. In the end, more than half of people in that hall joined the band. Students, high-rank officials, Pittsburgh residents, and professors mingled in dangdut. The more I danced, the more I felt comfortable about myself.
This dance was different that usual social dangdut dance I participated in many Indonesian cultural events. This time it was more than just a bodily experience. My emotion, my soul, was involved.
That evening, I got to know what dangdut really is. I experienced a collective ritual, yet with personal space, that created a dangdut moment for me. A moment to liberate myself from status, position, taste, style, image, and other labels. A moment that brought out the dangdutness in me. Yes, that ‘kampungan’ in me!
When the concert ended, I forgot about all my preconceived opinion of Rhoma Irama. My interaction with him behind the stage, together with other conference participants, made me eager to know him more. I couldn’t wait to hear his conference presentation.
The next day, he came to the conference to talk about dangdut as music, media and da’wah (preaching). Reading through his presentation, Rhoma Irama narrated the 30 years historical journey of himself with Soneta band which, considering the importance of the legend, represented a significant part of dangdut history in Indonesia. It was a great rich historical narrative, presented with very good English pronunciation, and enriched with some excerpts of his songs. I was truly impressed.
Through the historical narrative he presented, I learned a lot about dangdut. I did not know that Sonete was banned from performing in public for about eleven years. I also realized that each and every song of Rhoma Irama was created as a response to a certain social, cultural and political event. I thus understand why for his fans, Rhoma Irama’s songs represent various expressions and feelings they want to reveal to their lovers, friends, parents, country and nation.
In many discourses about dangdut, ‘the people’ is positioned as backward, kampungan, in opposed to progress and development. Intellectuals use the people to criticize modernity. Yet, through dangdut, in dangdut, and by dangdut, people find their identity, expression, and aspiration, as well as find a way to be themselves.
My dangdut journey to Pittsburgh did not convert me to be one of dangdut die-hard fans. But there I found that dangdut is not monolithic. It is nor a symbol of backwardness nor a symbol of progress. It is not homogenous space. Dangdut is space where social, cultural and political contradictions meet. It is space where everyday life affairs encounter each other. In dangdut and through dangdut, I find my kampungan side, my dangdut side, that enables me to feel comfortable, dis-enthralled, and free.
It’s ironic that it took me twenty one years of schooling, an academic career in American university and a conference trip to Pittsburgh to finally understand what dangdut is all about.