The Jakarta Post
The United States of ‘dangdut’: A struggle to ‘shake’ America

Asmara Wreksono, The Jakarta Post

A melting pot of cultures, Indonesia is very fortunate to be blessed with a mix of Melayu, Indian, Arab, Chinese and European music, now known as dangdut. The popularity of the genre has reached far and wide; however, maybe not as far as the United States — or so one might think.

In February 2018, a YouTube video featuring an American man belting Nella Kharisma’s dangdut hit “Jaran Goyang” while driving went viral and caught the attention of Indonesian social media users. The Americanized pronunciation of each Indonesian word within the song sounded uniquely foreign, but Indonesians were elated and praised the man’s efforts to sing dangdut. Lexis Mazerski, an engineer from California, briefly became an online sensation.

Lexis Mazerski became an online sensation after singing Nella Kharisma's 'Jaran Goyang' on his YouTube channel (source: YouTube)

Lexis first fell in love with dangdut when he was vacationing in Bali and saw a dangdut concert being held across from his hotel. “Curiosity got the best of me, so I finally went to see what the commotion was all about. When I arrived at the ticket window, I saw a flyer for the event, which was titled ‘Lexis Rock Dangdut’,” he reminisced, “I suppose I took that as a sign that I was supposed to go inside. I bought my ticket, went in and was hooked ever since.”

Across the world, in Delaware, US, real estate agent/singer Joelina Bee met Indonesian music producer Rissa Asnan in 2015, who introduced her to dangdut. The Angelina Jolie lookalike said, “I met Rissa about three years ago and she has been trying to get me into this ever since, and finally we did. I took the plunge for it and got hooked.”

“The idea came because I used to invite Indonesian dangdut singers to perform here, but I thought things became a bit boring as it was only Indonesians entertaining other Indonesians. When could I involve Americans?”

- Risa Asnan

American real estate agent/singer Joelina Bee sings Inul Daratista's hit 'Goyang Inul' (source: Dangdut in America Facebook Page)

Rissa, who has been living in the US since the 1980s, is a relentless warrior when it comes to popularizing dangdut music in the States. Risa’s efforts include trying to get Americans to sing dangdut professionally.

“The idea came because I used to invite Indonesian dangdut singers to perform here, but I thought things became a bit boring as it was only Indonesians entertaining other Indonesians. When could I involve Americans?” Rissa asked. She then decided to look for Americans who wanted to get introduced to the unique music genre and become a dangdut star through a three-day audition held in Philadelphia back in 2007.

“Nobody came on the first day, as they didn’t know what dangdut was. The second day, the crowd picked up, and on the third day I selected three people, trained them for a month and surprisingly, it worked.”

Rissa’s efforts might seem to have worked, but due to bad timing, the three singers she trained changed their minds and decided to back out from dangdut entirely. “At that point I had to come home to Indonesia, and met with Haji Rhoma Irama, who welcomed my idea very warmly,” she said. “But when I returned to America, because they waited too long, the singers backed out because they had jobs and school to attend. They needed to keep on living, and not just wait around for their singing careers to take off.”

Unwilling to give up, Rissa held another audition the next year and managed to garner 90 interested participants, and even came up with a rising star, Arreal Tilghman, who sang dangdut in both Indonesian and English. Rissa brought Arreal to Indonesia, but sadly, to minuscule success. “Arreal was received warmly by the Indonesian fans, but the local dangdut market preferred a female singer back then,” said Rissa.

Fast forward to 2018, and Lexis Mazerski is making simple videos featuring him on his daily 30-mile commute, singing dangdut and other Indonesian popular songs with gusto. “Getting to learn more about Indonesian culture through fun music has helped my soul,” he said. Dangdut has also helped him learn the Indonesian language. “I was trying different ways to help me build my vocabulary, and since I love music so much, I thought I’d learn the meanings behind the songs that I was enjoying the rhythm to. For each song I memorize, I retain about 40 percent of the vocabulary words until it appears in another song. Then the word pretty much sticks with me.”

Andrew Weintraub, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Music, who dissected dangdut in his 2010 book, Dangdut Stories, is convinced that to sing dangdut one must have a full understanding of Indonesia. “For Americans, if they haven’t studied Indonesian music, it’s going to be difficult because the feeling of the music, the beat, it’s something really special and very specific to Indonesia.”

Aside from teaching, Weintraub also performs dangdut on special events with his band, Dangdut Cowboys, formed in 2008. “I started Dangdut Cowboys, which was meant to introduce the music to people in the US, and to also help create a dialogue with Indonesian musicians,” he said, adding that the band had also performed alongside Indonesia’s legendary dangdut singers, including Rhoma Irama, Ikke Nurjanah and others.

The Dangdut Cowboys performed with Rhoma Irama (source: YouTube)

Although he has performed dangdut with his own band, Weintraub is skeptical about the potential of success for Americans performing dangdut. “It’s really hard to predict. Reggae is a great example, because nobody could predict the popularity of the genre. Coming from the small island of Jamaica, it’s very different from a lot of music, but as we look back on it, we can understand why reggae became popular, and one of the reasons is it’s in English.”

"It is very important that the singers understand the Indonesian language. In fact, I think they have to spend some time living here."

- Andre Yahya

Dangdut veteran Andre Yahya agrees with Weintraub. “It is very important that the singers understand the Indonesian language. In fact, I think they have to spend some time living here.” He also pointed out the aspect of Indonesian pride: “Rhoma Irama did a show in America with the dangdut professor, but he won’t speak in English, even though he can. This also happens with Ikke Nurjanah, Evie Tamala — they all speak good English, but they only speak and perform in Indonesian. This is why I think dangdut songs are much like Korean songs. They have to be sung in their own original language.”

Thomas Djorghi, a dangdut singer from the younger generation in Indonesia who has been helping Rissa in her mission of popularizing the genre in the US, said while language and accent is a problem, it could be the selling point of foreign dangdut singers, which appeal to the Indonesian market.

“Language is the hardest to tackle. It’s just like when Indonesians sing in English — we can sing it, but we won’t sound like a native English speaker. It’s hard to get these singers to sing as an Indonesian would,” he admits. “However, several local music producers advised me to keep their English pronunciation because if they sound too Indonesian, people will think they have stayed here for quite some time, hence losing their unique appeal,” Thomas added.

Rissa also attempted to insert international flavor in dangdut, when in 2008 she had Arreal Tilghman sing a song titled “I Love You”, written by Husain Audah and Asmin Cayder. Another English-language dangdut song he sung was titled “Puzzle of Love”, also released in 2008.

Arreal Tilghman - "I Love You" (source: YouTube)

Tilghman’s unsuccessful attempt at delivering dangdut to Indonesians, according to Weintraub, is due to the singer’s lack of understanding of Indonesia. “I think the language is important, and also making a connection with the Indonesian people. Dangdut is not just about singing the lyrics and putting out the product. Rhoma Irama’s fans feel like they are his family. [Tilghman] was missing that family feeling that makes people identify with him.”

The challenges

In 2016, the Creative Economy Agency (Bekraf) has stated that it would push dangdut as the music of the nation onto the world stage with the “Hello Dangdut” program. Bekraf deputy head Ricky Joseph Pesik said the agency had ambitious goals to raise dangdut onto the same level as Jamaica’s reggae and South Korea’s K-pop.

“We now have a strategy called Hello Dangdut, a commercial campaign aimed at the international market; hence it’s not marketed here,” he said, acknowledging the still small number of efforts that Bekraf had already made to promote dangdut.

“We haven’t done a lot of things, but the big idea is to have a market-oriented dangdut information system for the international audience, which will contain all sorts of documentations regarding dangdut.” Also in Bekraf’s plans is to create communication tools to help introduce dangdut to international audiences.

The US is included in Bekraf’s main target as, according to Ricky, it’s the main hub of leading music platforms as well as the world’s key music industry players. “We will do market research and widen our network, not only in the US, but also in Japan, as dangdut is already a popular music genre in Japan.”

One of Bekraf’s first steps in its plans with dangdut was the incorporation of a Hello Dangdut Center in the locally held 2017 Synchronize Fest, where the agency featured non-dangdut singers Andi /rif and Lala Karmela, who performed popular dangdut songs to reach the younger audiences. “The middle-class millennials are surprisingly receptive to the new dangdut flavor; it was not as hard as we thought it would be,” Ricky said.

The agency has also supported dangdut songstress Ikke Nurjanah on her American tour under the Hello Dangdut umbrella. “As a part of our international efforts, we would also like to test if dangdut can be absorbed by international DJs,” Ricky added, stating the importance of having the courage to feature dangdut in electronic dance music (EDM) festivals as a way to grab more attention. “Here in Indonesia, we have Djakarta Warehouse Project [DWP], Japan has Summersonic and Europe has Tomorrowland. It is a part of our strategy to include dangdut in those festivals, and this strategy involves a number of competent stakeholders, including those in music and international marketing so the plans can finally materialize,” he said.

Bekraf may have huge, idealistic and positive plans for dangdut, but to add to the lack of execution actions, there are problems — one of which, ironically, is love for dangdut possessed by Indonesians abroad. “We want to go commercial, so it is a struggle to enter the international market because 80 percent of the events we held abroad were attended by Indonesians,” Ricky said. “It’s not that we don’t want to entertain Indonesians, but Hello Dangdut is aimed at the international market.”

Amid the struggles faced by Bekraf, Thomas said the first time he heard that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo wanted to push dangdut into the international market, he and Rissa were ecstatic. “The first time I read in the news that Jokowi said he wanted to make dangdut go international, both Rissa and I literally screamed in joy because he likened dangdut to K-pop — which we agree with.” Rissa and Thomas immediately met with Bekraf in the hopes of getting support from the agency.

“I told Pak Ricky, if Bekraf is looking for an American producer to popularize dangdut, then I am the right person,” said Rissa. “I told Bekraf that I wanted to make a big Indonesian-American dangdut festival. I will produce the documentary and reality show. I need them to help with the promotion,” she added, also noting that she had not heard from Bekraf since the meeting in 2017.

Andrew Weintraub performed with Ikke Nurjanah (source: Andrew Weintraub)

Weintraub has also met with Bekraf in January 2017 to discuss possibilities of bringing dangdut to the American public’s attention by having performances and cultural exchange activities in the university. “The university held a lot of concerts, and we have guest artists who come here and perform. I have a forum here, also students from Indonesia who come and study with me. We have a channel already, relationships with universities in Indonesia, [and] a study abroad program to send American students to study in Indonesia. Why can’t dangdut be a center of that?” he said. However, similar to Rissa, Weintraub has also yet to hear from Bekraf.

Desiree ft. Reign - "Kinyis-Kinyis" (source: Dangdut in America Facebook Page)

Rissa’s commercial efforts to get Americans singing dangdut professionally and Weintraub’s educational approach in introducing dangdut to his students at the University of Pittsburgh are, in fact, in line with Bekraf’s dangdut world-domination plans. However, Ricky insists that Bekraf’s Hello Dangdut campaign is aimed to support dangdut artists from Indonesia to build a dangdut career in the US.

“Hello Dangdut is purely commercial. This is not a cultural program, nor it is an educational program,” he said. “This program leans toward supporting [Indonesian] musicians, groups or labels. We have two targets: for these musicians to get partners to produce dangdut music for the international market, and to get them invited to concerts.” Ricky also said distributing dangdut through well-known global music platforms was another aim of Bekraf’s plans.

Dangdut’s importance in the Indonesian music scene has become the reason why it needs to be introduced to the world. Its role in the country’s politics should also not go unnoticed. “Dangdut is extremely political. It is a really important way to shape people’s opinion about culture and politics,” said Weintraub. “Those singers and shows don’t happen in the parliament, but they will have an impact, a significant impact on the way people think, behave and also their values. Dangdut is extremely important and extremely central to the future of Indonesia,” he added.

The United States of ‘dangdut’: A struggle to ‘shake’ America

Aside from love as a popular topic, dangdut also addresses social issues normally avoided by other genres

source: Dangdut Stories - Andrew Weintraub (2010)

Among which include:

“Mabuk Lagi” - Cucu Cahyati

“Mabuk Lagi”

Duhai tunanganku
Sampaikan pada orangtuamu
Tahun depan ku melamarmu
Akan kubelikan mobil biru

Mabuk lagi ah mabuk lagi
Judi lagi … judi lagi …
Kau bawa teman-teman
Hai mabuk bersamamu
Kau ajak teman-teman
Hai judi bersamamu

Mabuk lagi, judi lagi
Ku tak mau terus begini
Putuskan saja hubungan
Jangan lagi bertunangan
Ku tak mau jadi istri
Kalau kau terus begini

Mabuk lagi … judi lagi …

Baiklah oh sayangku
Tolong ambilkan air aki
Eh salah … maaf …
Akan kudengarkan katamu
Ku tak akan mabuk lagi
Dan ku tak akan judi lagi

Tak baik sering minum
Apalagi minuman keras
Ditambah lagi judi
Membuat kau malas

Mukamu kusut
Hei rambut acak-acakan
Malah sering kau tertidur
Di pinggir jalan

Bagaimana kau menyayangiku
Sedang dirimu tak kau sayang

“Drunk Again”

Hello, my fiancée
Please tell your parents
Next year I will propose
And give you a new car

You get drunk and gamble again
With your friends, getting drunk
With your friends, gambling

You get drunk and gamble again
I don’t want it to be like this
Just break up with me
I don’t want to be engaged anymore
I don’t want to be your wife
If this is how you’re going to be

Drunk again, gamble again

Alright darling,
Please get me battery water
I’m sorry
I will listen to your words
I will not get drunk again
And I will not gamble again

It’s not good to drink too much
Especially alcoholic drinks
Plus gambling makes you lazy

Your face, gloomy
Hair disheveled
You sleep on roadsides a lot
How are you going to love me
When you don’t love yourself

“Termiskin Di Dunia” - Hamdan ATT

“Termiskin Di Dunia”

Bukan ku menolakmu untuk mencintaiku
Tetapi lihat dulu siapakah diriku
Karna engkau dan aku sungguh berbeda
Kau orang kaya, aku orang tak punya

Sebelum terlanjur fikir-fikirlah dulu
Sebelum engkau menyesal kemudian

Jangankan gedung gubukpun aku tak punya
Jangankan permata uangpun aku tiada
Aku merasa orang termiskin di dunia
Yang penuh derita bermandikan airmata
Itulah diriku ku katakan padamu
Agar engkau tau siapa aku

"The Poorest in the World"

It’s not that I reject your love,
But please take a look at who I am
Because you and I are very different
You’re rich and I am poor

Before we get too deep, please give it a thought
Before you regret this in the future

Don’t speak of buildings, I don’t even have a hut
Don’t speak of diamonds, I don’t even have money
I feel like I’m the poorest in the world
Who lives in misery and bathed in my own tears
That is me, I’m telling you
So you know who I really am

“Mandul” - Rhoma Irama & Elvi Sukaesih


Sepuluh tahun sudah kita berumah tangga
Tapi belum juga mendapatkan putra
Jangan kau sedih jangan berduka
Mohon pada-Nya dalam berdoa

Sebagai seorang isteri ‘ku merasa sedih
‘Ku takut dirimu kecewa padaku

Cintaku padamu tak akan pudar
Walau seumur hidupmu dalam kemandulan
Cintaku padamu tak akan pudar
Walau seumur hidupmu dalam kemandulan

Kurasa tiada sempurna kebahagiaan kita
Tanpa adanya seorang putra belahan jiwa


Ten years we’ve been married
But yet to be blessed with a child

Don’t be sad and mournful
Ask God in your prayers

As a wife, I feel sad
I am afraid you’ll be disappointed in me

My love for you will never fade
Although we’re barren for life
My love for you will never fade
Although we’re barren for life

I feel our happiness is imperfect
Without a child as part of our soul

Managing Editor Life : Asmara Wreksono
Editors : Keshie Hernitaningtyas, Maria Wening Gitomartoyo,
Muthi Achadiat Kautsar
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