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The Power of Dangdut: Stairway to Pantura

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The very first Indonesian word i learned when i came to Jakarta the first time was “macet” (traffic jam). The second was dangdut.

Someone came to pick me up when i landed at the Soekarno Hatta airport and, after we dribbled the fake taxi drivers who ask 300.000 rupiah to get to the centre of the town (the average is about 120) and the guys who offer themselves to carry your luggage to the taxi for 100.000 rupiah, we finally stepped into a taxi, a real one. After 2 minutes we were already stuck in the jam, not moving at all.

“Macet” the taxi driver said, whose meaning i discovered to be “traffic jam”, a word that i could never forget anymore (we took 2 and half hour to get to Jakarta that day).

Can you see me? I'm the one in the blue car. (Bay Ismoyo/GettyImages)

Can you see me? I’m the one in the blue car.
(Bay Ismoyo/GettyImages)

So, well, we were there, in the traffic, the taxi was stinking of dirty feet and weird cigarette smoke, i was getting nervous, not a good start for sure but… From the speakers of the car a music was gently invading my mind. A music i never heard before, with an enchanting rhythm. A sweet flute, percussions and a thin feminine voice were drilling into my brain

“What the hell of music is this?” I asked to my friend.
“That’s dangdut, Indonesian music,” he answered.
“I love it,” i said. And since that day, like the word “macet”, dangdut never left me alone.

If you are Indonesian you know what i’m talking about. If you are not, go have a look on Youtube, digit dangdut and you will soon know what it is.

I have learned most of my English thanks to rock and roll. When i was a young teenager i was used to spend most of my time (at least the one spared from porn and video games) listening to old English rock, mostly from the ’70, digging into the lyrics and the music, and in this way i learned the language. Led Zeppelin, Queen, Deep Purple, Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd were my teachers. So i said, why don’t we give dangdut a chance? Who knows, maybe i can learn Bahasa Indonesia faster than i think. I was delusional.

If you approach Indonesian music you will soon discover that, if your target is the pop music, most of the songs are based on few words, repeated and mixed, but still the same words: “Cinta” (love), “Kangen” or “Rindu” (missing), “Selamanya” (for ever), “Putus” (break up), “Asmara” (romance) and few others. You can’t learn that much. Yes, you learn for sure how to say “I love you” to a girl, but not much more. The 90% of the pop songs are love songs and that’s it.

But if your target is dangdut, like it was mine, you have a larger range of scenarios to explore. Well… Not really.

Let’s divide the complete discography of dangdut in 2 parts: songs by female singers and songs by male singers.

I love dangdut but of course i’m not an expert, my knowledge is not that huge but I soon realised that, when you listen a dangdut song by female singers, the topics are just 2: sex (mostly as a victim) and cheating men. Period.

The lyrics of the songs by female dangdut singers picture a word full of bad guys, experts on cheating and lying, guys that have 3, 4 or even 5 wives, guys that only think about having sex no matter how, guys who make you pregnant and disappear, dudes who don’t come back home for 3 years already (tiga kali puasa, tiga kali lebaran…) and leave crying children and desperate wives, bastards that fucked you and then give you a wrong address so that you can’t find them, maniacs that marry another wife when they already have one or that goes fucking around young widows (janda muda).

Come on, it's already 3 years. Just give up.

Come on, it’s already 3 years. Just give up.

Well, if you listen a dangdut song and the singer is a sweet young lady, even if you don’t understand the lyrics don’t worry, she is talking about some piece of shit she met, someone who lied to her, fucked her in the darkness of a tea plantation, then left her alone, pregnant and hopeless. Unless the singer is not talking about her husband who has an affair or about getting money by making guys horny with her dance moves (sawer). So, still, i could not learn that much either.

When the singer is a man, the things are different, more stuff to learn, larger number of words to memorise. The problem is that, beside some old male singers, especially The King Rhoma (God keep him healthy), there are not so many male dangdut performers nowadays. You have to dig in the classics, which i did. The result was nice and so far the classic dangdut is still my favourite.

Now let me tell you something that might shock you, if you are Indonesian: “Kopi Dangdut”, yes, the famous song by Fahmi Sahab is not an original dangdut song. Believe it or not. I was in Indonesia for few months and i was humming a dangdut song I just learned (i think it was “Alamat Palsu”) when one of my guy in the kitchen asked me “Hey chef, do you like dangdut?” of course the answer was “I love it”, so that guy started to tell me about this legendary dangdut song, so famous that even a Japanese band did a cover of it. Soon we were in my office on YouTube listening to it. That’s how i knew “Kopi Dangdut” and yes, i did also listen to the Japanese version (which title is “Coffee Rumba”) but there was something in the deep of my brain that reminded me of my childhood, it was like i heard that song before. So i did a fast research on web and, as i expected, i found a song, from the ’60, with the same exact music. The singer was Mina, a very famous Italian old singer, and the title of the song is “Moliendo Cafe”. The version of Mina was a cover as well, in Spanish, of an instrumental song by Hugo Blanco, a Venezuelan musician, with the same title (that means “grinding coffe” in Spanish). They did more than 800 covers of that song all over the world and in Indonesia Fahmi Sahab did the dangdut version. I know it’s hard to find out the truth by an Italian chef but to support what i say i post the video of the version by Mina.

For most of the people in the world that was Mina singing Moliendo Cafe. For Indonesians that was a silly old Italian lady that made a cover of Kopi Dangdut almost 30 years before Fahmi Sahab wrote it

But let’s go back to the topic that is in the title “The Power of Dangdut”. Dangdut might not teach you to speak Bahasa Indonesia but it’s a very mighty tool to link with Indonesians. If you are in a group with some Indonesian fellas, you are maybe the only bule (white guy) and you feel a bit cut out of the conversation… Start singing a random dangdut song and everybody will start to smile, and sing with you. This is what happens to me, at least.

I work in the kitchens, I work with Indonesians, many Indonesians in a tough environment and when the tension raises in the kitchen, in busy time, when everybody is running trying to do their best with plenty things to do… What i have to do is start singing dangdut and i wipe out all the bad mood and the stress. Everybody around me start smiling, singing with me, screaming stuff like “Aseeekkk!!!!” (which means Cool!!!) and even if they are busy they drop the pans to raise their thumbs and start dancing (yes, because no matter how you move, no matter what you do, if your thumbs are up you already joget dangdut).

My knowledge of this music, all the time spent in front of my pc, listening to the dangdut songs was not worthless. In every moment i can cheer my guys up, bring a good mood to a stressful environment like the kitchen, just singing few verses of a dangdut song with my thumbs up. No more stress. Everybody works better and the time goes by faster. Do it and you are already a friend of them.

I made more friends thanks to dangdut than thanks to anything else in my life. Sometimes i go working in places where they don’t know me as i am (a crazy silly dude), just for few hours, doing cooking classes, cooking shows or demos and i always meet new people, Indonesians who think i’m the typical “bule sombong”, serious and a bit arrogant, someone to be afraid of. They respect me, they are so kind with me since the beginning, but when i start singing dangdut their faces light up, a smile soon appears on their lips and i’m soon one of them, a friend. They will work better and more relaxed and everybody enjoys.

If you are with a company a bit more sophisticated, with people who think dangdut is a music for villagers, for uneducated people… No matter. Try the experiment anyway and you will see that somehow it will be funny. They will also probably start singing some dangdut song that reminds them when they were kids and at the end everybody will smile.

It’s just that i find dangdut funny and enjoyable. It’s not the music, it’s not the lyrics (although there are some lyrics that, i swear, are funniest than any stand up comedian), it’s not just the dance… It’s all. It’s the attitude. It’s Indonesia in its most genuine aspect, the one i love and i’m addicted to. Forget all the shit, forget all the corruption, the problems and the contradictions of this country and go to the root, go to the soul of Indonesians. It’s more complicated than this, yes, but after all it’s this attitude that i love, the “dangdut attitude” as i call it, and i find it in most of the good people i daily meet.

I’m writing this article on a bus heading to Pantura the place i know as the centre of dangdut in west Java. My friends told me stories about that, magnifying it as the Eldorado for dangdut lovers: dangdut parties night and day, stages for concerts everywhere, sweet ladies dancing with their sexy moves on the streets, attracting horny guys from all around the kampung.

Look at this. How can people not like dangdut?!

Check this out. How can people not like dangdut?!

 

In my mind it’s a mix between heaven and hell, a place for lust and fun, full of crazy horny girls. And all this with the finest dangdut soundtrack ever. Of course i’m alone, Lika is not with me, and my pockets are full of “goceng” (the 5000 rupiah bills) for “sawer” (the “tips” you slip into the bra of the dangdut singers and dancers as compensation for their entertainment). All i wish is to meet Mela Barbie, my goddess, to donate her the necklace i personally did sewing 15 bills of 100.000 rupiah together. Wish me good luck.

Matteo

 

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