Raunchy dangdut music stirs debate in Indonesia

By Karishma Vaswani
BBC News, Jakarta

Image caption,
Dangdut singer Julia Perez gyrating to her popular song on TV show Dahsyat

Pounding music sent vibrations through the car seat as we approached the grand stage in the small East Jakarta neighbourhood.

The dangdut performance, in honour of Siti Maisa's daughter's wedding, was the main attraction of the night.

The rain kept coming but so did the fans. Bad weather could not keep the guests away from the performance by Malinda, a well-known dangdut singer.

Dangdut sounds like a cross between techno and Bollywood, but it is 100% Indonesian. With influences from Indian, Arabic and Malay music, it has traditionally been extremely popular with the working classes and lower income groups, but it can be heard in train stations, police offices and even the bank, if your teller likes it.

Siti Maisa, the bride's mother, said she did not mind spending money on the show because it was what her children wanted for their special evening.

"My children and I, we like these songs and we are fans of dangdut. Many Indonesians, if they can afford it, get dangdut performers to sing at special occasions like weddings. It's normal," she said, as we waited in her house for the performance to begin.

"If our children like this kind of music, well then we don't think about the cost - that's for us to think about after the show!"

It certainly seemed to be money well spent. The whole neighbourhood turned up to see the show. Young children were allowed to stay up late to watch and many of them even knew the words to the songs.

Mass appeal

Dangdut is an integral part of Indonesian life. The world's most populous Muslim nation even wants to register it as part of its musical heritage with Unesco.

But there are concerns it has become increasingly vulgar over the years. A growing and vocal group of conservative Muslims are unhappy. Critics say it has been corrupted by vulgar lyrics and erotic dances over the years.

Recently, 10 popular songs were banned in one province for being pornographic.

During a live performance of Indonesia's highest-rated morning television show Dahsyat, it was evident that dangdut songs ruled the roost. Even teenage sensation Justin Bieber's songs are Indonesianised on the show - his chart-topper "Baby" set to a dangdut score resulted in peals of laughter from the crowd watching the show.

Yahya Iwan Wel, the executive producer of Dahsyat, said dangdut had been modernised to suit Indonesians' changing tastes, but rejected criticism that it was vulgar.

"Nowadays there are singers who perform in small towns and villages who use very erotic and sexy moves," he said. "And yes, certainly some of their lyrics are suggestive. But for broadcast on radio and television there tends to be more control over what they do and wear."

But critics say dangdut performers like Julia Perez - or JuPe as she is known in Indonesia - do not demonstrate any of that control.

Her entrance on the Dahsyat show was greeted with loud applause and wolf whistles from her fans.

Known as Indonesia's "sex-bomb", she did not disappoint, wearing a skin-tight black leather outfit with an embossed skeleton, which left little to the imagination.

Hiding her eyes behind sunglasses studded with crystals, she gyrated to her popular number "What JuPe likes the most", ending her performance being dragged across the floor of the studio in a rather precarious and suggestive fashion by one of the TV hosts.

The song has got her into trouble in some parts of Indonesia. It has been banned in one province because of the racy lyrics, which refer to the sexual positions she prefers.


JuPe contests that she is not vulgar - she is just sexy.

Image caption,
Dangdut singer Malinda working the crowd at a wedding

"This is my creation," she said in her dressing room, "so either you like it or not. I'm doing something to make people happy."

She rejected the suggestion her music could be misinterpreted by others as being far too sexually suggestive for Muslim-majority Indonesia.

"It's because I'm sexy, that's why they don't like me," the singer said, referring to the Muslim clerics who have spoken out against her.

"They think I cannot behave myself, that this is [strict] Muslim country. They say: 'Julia, you cannot be sexy here ' . But how come the ratings are always high? The people like me because I don't have to pretend that I'm a good Muslim - when I talk about my faith it's between me and my God."

But Muslim clerics say JuPe and singers like her are ruining dangdut and turning it into something it is not meant to be.

"We don't have anything against dangdut music per se," Amidan Shaberah, the chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulamas said in his offices in Jakarta. The organisation is one that many Indonesians believe is the highest authority on Islamic issues.

"But," he added, "dangdut isn't jazz or rock and roll that you can do erotic dance moves to. You can gyrate but it shouldn't be erotic. What we reject are the erotic moves - it's just too sexy."

But fans of the music may not agree.

Dangdut has always been the music of the masses and has, even in the past, had racy undertones.

Now, though, conservative groups feel it has moved too far from its roots and risks corrupting Indonesian society. But the majority of Indonesians are dancing to a different tune - and they are not complaining.