Does The Dangdut Song Represent Indonesian Culture?

Aditia Lestari
9 min readJun 10, 2021


Dangdut is a genre of music originating from Indonesia. Dangdut has existed since Indonesia was born. This music comes from Malay music that developed around the 1940s. The rhythm in the dangdut song is very thick with elements of Indian songs and Arabic music. The self-images of Indians have been much affected by colonialism over the past centuries and are influenced both collaterally and dialectically by the impact of outside imagery, what we may call external identity (Amartya: 2005). Looking at its history, Dangdut is one of Indonesia’s traditional popular music genres that have characteristics such as tabla and drum beats. This music is get influenced by music from India, Arabic, and Malay.

In 1940, Malay-Deli music started from North Sumatra that was followed by the establishment of Malay orchestras. In the 1960s, Dangdut began to be getting used as a means of preaching. Then dangdut music became increasingly known in the 1970s with the emergence of Rhoma Irama and Nasida Ria as the first sworddut with a religious theme. In this case, the writer studies dangdut as a culture promoted by Indonesia. Why Dangdut? Although there are some opinions that dangdut music is not originally from Indonesia. So, does Dangdut represent Indonesian culture?. According to Frederick (1982), Rhoma Irama was the first to pronounce the term Malay music into Dangdut. According to the Southeast Asian Performing Arts researcher from the University of Connecticut, United States, Prof. Matthew Isaac Cohen. At that time, Rhoma Irama mixed his musical compositions with a touch of John Bonham’s percussion from Led Zeppelin in the song “Meeting” or Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar cut in the song “Ghibah” (Barendregt and Bogaerts: 2013).

Today, most of the musical instruments are still using standard musical instruments without the interference of computer-based musical instruments. Entering the mid-90s, computer-based musical instruments began to enliven the dangdut music style, especially when recording in a music studio. The era of cassette tapes and compact discs was a golden peak for dangdut musicians. After entering digital MP3 technology with various other music digitizing tools, the dangdut music industry began to decline. It was during this transition period that the dangdut music sub-genre emerged, namely dangdut koplo, to get around the marketing side of dangdut practitioners. Dangdut Koplo is quite different from other dangdut songs where the drumbeat has more and faster beats than the previous dangdut.

Under the impact of economic growth, technological change, and social transformation, no culture has remained the same (Zakaria and Yew: 1994). No culture is confined in its shell. Many factors influence the development of culture including dangdut music which can be called Indonesia’s culture. Economy, technology, and community development are the biggest contributors to the evolution of dangdut music culture in Indonesia. According to Andrew Weintraub (2010), Professor of Music Science at the University of Pittsburg USA as quoted from his book Dangdut; Indonesian Music, Identity and Culture. Dangdut is a form or way of art that is perhaps the most flexible now to explain to the world community what Indonesia is. Furthermore, Andrew argues, “Dangdut not only reflects the state of politics and national culture. But as a practice, economy, politics, and ideology, Dangdut has helped shape ideas about class, gender, and ethnicity in the modern Indonesian state.”

The History of Dangdut

In Dangdut: Music, Identity, and Indonesian Culture (2012), Andrew Weintraub wrote that Rhoma carried out historical tracing on the story of the Deli Malay culture, which used to be part of East Sumatra, now part of North Sumatra, where the Malay Orchestra appeared since the pre-colonial era. Until the 1950s and 1970s. Malay rhythm is indeed the essence of dangdut music. However, Rhoma also mixed it with elements of rock music. Part of this mix of rock music was evident at the start of Rhoma’s career: carrying a white Fender guitar that impressed him from the influence of Ritchie Blackmore from Deep Purple to the transition to his flagship black Steinberger.

The beginning of the history of dangdut can be get drawn much further back. Quoting The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia 1891–1903 (Weintraub: 2006). Weintraub (2010) said that the Malay ancestry of dangdut music was a traveling orchestra from Malaya (Malaysia) which anchored to Java Island in the 1890s. This orchestra plays many types of music: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, as well as European. After being in Java, these traveling orchestras then went to Sumatra. There, the theater troupe and music orchestra were looking for business opportunities. Sumatra in the 1930s was a vibrant music market. Weintraub said that Sumatra with Malaya and the Selat Settlement were the sole market for the music releases of several Malay record labels at that time. For geographical reasons, singers in Sumatra appear more frequently in Malaya and Singapore than in Jakarta. That makes the acculturation of these areas occur naturally.

In the 1930s, radio had a major influence on the popularity of the three types of music that formed the foundation for dangdut: the harmonium orchestra, the lute orchestra, and the Malay orchestra. Musician Husein Bawafie called the harmonium orchestra (OH) “the origin of dangdut”. Harmonium is the name of a European organ-type musical instrument that entered India and spread to many countries. OH, musical equipment usually consists of a harmonium, violin, trumpet, drum, tambourine, and the occasional tambourine. Weintraub said that OH usually played songs with Hindustani rhythms, and songs mixed with Malay, Arabic, Indian and European music. However, in the 1940s, the name OH began to fade. Several OHs chose to change the term Malay orchestra. The second foundation of dangdut came from the lute orchestra. The music he plays is Middle Eastern-style music, relying on stringed instruments and small, double-membrane drums, commonly called marwas or marawis. The stringed instruments and marwas are thought to have originated from Hadramaut (Yemen). As a compliment, the harmonium, violin, flute, tambourine, tambourine, and bass were added.

One of the most famous musicians from the lute orchestra is Syech Albar, Ahmad Albar’s father. According to historian Fandy Hutari (2018), Albar studied the stringed instrument from Sayid Thah bin Alwi Albar in Yemen in 1926. Albar first got a recording contract with the label His Master’s Voice in 1931. However, Weintraub (2010) noted that the music Albar produced came from many influences, and looks at his work, it was starting from Malay, Arabic, to Cuban Rumba. The Malay Orchestra (OM) is a complement to the two initial foundations. From various radio records, OM began to appear in Indonesia in the 1930s. One that has a classy name is the Medan Sinar Melajoe Orchestra, led by Abdul Halim. Even though the name is Sinar Medan, this orchestra originates from Jakarta. In Weintraub’s study, this orchestra used European instruments but still retained its Malay musical elements. Among other things, poetry and phrases such as ‘Aduhai sayang’. Weintraub noted that Malay songs such as “Sayang Manis” and “Sinar Malacca” are accompanied by a vocalist with a shrill voice, and a time to cheer up the singer. After Indonesian independence, OM began to put a new twist in their music: creating new melodies based on Indian film melodies. This is said to be the door to the birth of dangdut. Five years after Indonesia’s independence, cultural exchanges have accelerated. Arabic, Malay, Indian, Latin American, as well as European that enrich the musicality of the Malay orchestra.

Dangdut Becomes Indonesian Folk Music and The National Identity

In the 1970s, Malay and Indian music had transformed into dangdut. This music was getting considered folk music since the base of the majority of its fans was lower-class people. Weintraub (2010) cites several references to dangdut fans in the Indonesian media: the little people, the common people, the hobo, the lower class, the marginalized, and the lower middle class. Dangdut has become popular among the people because the lyrics are close to the daily lives of most Indonesians. Besides, Weintraub stated, Indonesian pop and rock music does not have historical roots or musical characteristics that link it to “The suffering of the people.” Dangdut is not the case. He has strong roots and tells a lot about the lives of ordinary people. Thus, it thrives in an urban environment that is “Socially and economically marginalized.” This gave birth to the classical contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Dangdut is considered to represent the tastes of the lower class people, considered uncool and at the same time plebeian. This dispute was symbolized by the chaos between rock musician Benny Subardja of Giant Step, who called dangdut “Dog shit music” or in Indonesian called “Musik Tai anjing.

In Weintraub (2010) interview with Meggy Z, Mansyur S., and Dadang S., the term dangdut became popular thanks to the services of Bung Mangkudilaga, a radio broadcaster who often promoted dangdut on Agustina Radio, Tanjung Priok, Jakarta, in 1973–1974. Mangkudilaga is hosting an event called “Sop Dangdut”. This name is interesting because it reflects the spirit of dangdut itself: mixing. Soup is made from various types of vegetables, just as dangdut is formed from various musical influences. With the growing number of fans, many radios became interested in broadcasting dangdut. Another factor that made dangdut even more popular was the best-selling records of Ellya Khadam. One indicator of the growing popularity of dangdut (Weintraub: 2010). Many Indonesian pop musicians (who are considered to represent the rich and luxurious) want to compose Malay rhythmic songs. In 1975, according to Weintraub (2010), dangdut had controlled 75 percent of the recording industry market. The world of dangdut grew bigger when a knight with a guitar from Tasikmalaya, West Java appeared, named the Rhoma Irama stage.

As a dangdut musician, Rhoma is special because he has different musical roots compared to other dangdut singers. Although Rhoma liked to sing Indian music, he grew up listening to rock music. Rhoma later became the dominant name in the dangdut world and earned the nickname the King of Dangdut. Unfortunately, being king for too long made Rhoma forget about the acculturation value he had brought before. When Inul Daratista appeared, he brought koplo music as a new type of dangdut. From the interbreeding of the dangdut kingdom, from the songs “Terajana” to “Anoman Obong”, from “Viva Dangdut” to “Jaran Goyang”, we never know where the dangdut music will go. However, one thing is certain, all of this makes us more flexible in dancing, and the singers are even more passionate. So, from the history and the journey of dangdut music in Indonesia, is it sufficient to reflect the life of the Indonesian people and their culture?

How Dangdut Represent Indonesian Culture

For Indonesia, dangdut is not just entertainment music. More than that, dangdut is closely related to the history and culture of Indonesian society. This is what Andrew N. Weintraub tries to raise in his book entitled Dangdut: Music, Identity and Indonesian Culture (2010). He is a music professor at the University of Pittsburgh who falls in love with dangdut. Weintraub also tries to refute musicological studies by understanding practice in performance, style, and aesthetics in certain historical contexts.

Weintraub as the author of this book has succeeded in telling dangdut historically, ethnographically as well as musicologically. Weintraub analyzed the dangdut songs that were popular in every era. Both in tone, rhythm, and lyrics. I think this is one of Weintraub’s strengths in analyzing dangdut as a whole. Dangdut has indeed lost its golden age. Dangdut has now been marginalized. However, we can’t just get rid of dangdut from Indonesia. Dangdut is a treasure as original Indonesian music. At least, the presence of this book makes us open that dangdut is not just rubbish in the Indonesian music scene but also represents Indonesia’s triumphant journey and cultural development in Indonesia from time to time which is always present in dangdut lyrics ranging from contemporary dangdut to modern dangdut. The development of dangdut music cannot be separated from social, economic, and political conditions. Government support, western-style capital expansion, and the development of a culture of consumerism have made dangdut’s popularity increase. Dangdut began to be introduced as a campaign tool to attract the masses. After the reformation, local dangdut developed. The effect of the monetary crisis-era made financial difficulties for national record production. Local dangdut is a way to survive dangdut music from this situation. They reach out to local connoisseurs. Dangdut musicians defend dangdut and their lives in this way until now.


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