Indonesian country music — dangdut, reggae, or Pop Melayu?

According to my wife, back in the day, when Charly and his posse used to play music for passersby at Station 12 between Jakarta and Bogor (ST12), he had a crush on her.

“Stay with me, Angel, he told her. “I’m gonna be bigtime. You’ll see” [I’m not making this up, but was she? ]

“No way, Charly. It is fun kickin’ it here with y’all. But I don’t want no dirty busker for a boyfriend.”

[And she regrets it big-time, to this day :  ]

Everybody in this town got a  story like that. However ineffable once you’re there, the highway to fame and fortune — people around here say — often turns out be a country lane or a narrow urban alleyway (gang) crawling with rats and cockroaches. You don’t even need to go anywhere specific  — like Hollywood or Nashville — to get famous around here.

So in the context of rags to riches, what’s the Indonesian version of country music?

Emma Baulch’s article “Music for the Pria Dewasa: Change and Continuities in Class and Pop Music Genres,”  in the Journal of Indonesian Social Sciences and Humanities, makes me want to check the box next to: Pop Melayu.

The article is theory-laden but readable; all you really need to know is:

  • The Malay word #kampung (kampong)  — in this part of the world — lines up with the notion of village, countryside, less developed, etc.
  • And the word may be opposed to another — gedung, which means building — to set up a little rural/urban dichotomy
  • Despite their mass popularity, some — or I mean lots — of Indonesians will rather forcefully argue that they don’t like bands like  ST 12, Kangan Band, and Hijau Daun. (Honestly, it does remind me of the Nashville twang — I mean thang ; )

Dandgut, certainly, is legit. And a lot older than Pop Melayu (which — as you can probably tell — is a label that come music executive came up with and not the way that fans would refer to bands like ST12).   And then there’s reggae — which can be down-to-earth without sweating the urban /rural thing. (I guess I’d have to emphasize can be down-to-earth. Cuz, the self-styled Indonesian ambassador of reggae, lately of NYC, himself — Ras Muhammad —  was recently lamenting that a lot of reggae these days is nothing but a  soundtrack for airhead beach parties.)

OK, I’m done. Below, however,  are the ‘graphs I dug from Baulch’s rock-n-roll article. Taken together, you’ll see they do — just for the fun of it — support the notion of Pop Melayu, being “Indonesian Country.” (Which is a plenty weird result, since the music doesn’t really sound like country . . . whereas Iwan Fals kinda does (Iwan Fals also sometimes sounds like Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd).

 . . . pop genre distinctions and their attendant kampungan-gedongan dimensions [should be looked at in terms of how ]print media have played a cruical role in building, and reinforcing, a myth of class  @109

Dangdut became a social text for assigning all sorts of meanings — kampungan for example — through which elites could register their own class position. . . Dangdut fans, synonymous with the masses, were discursively produced in print media according to middle class and elite notions of the rakyat [the people] as explosive and uncontrolled. @107

In contrast to dangdut though, pop Melayu [ST12,  Kangan Band, Hijau Daun] generally make use of Western instrumentation, not a bamboo suling (flute) or a gendang (paired hand drums). Pop Melayu’s nod to dangdut can be very slight and barely noticeable. In recent years, in terms of sales, pop Melayu has emerged as an enormously successful genre. @117

Rather than distancing itself from the images of provincial vulgarity associated with the term kampungan, [Kangan Band’s] publicity machine began to make much of its humble, marginal beginnings. In cinematic and literary form, narratives of the band’s rags to riches story appear in a chain of bookstores and on television. Here is an inspirational story of wong cilik (little people) battling against the odds. @121

Much seems up for discussion here: the question of how an interest in the vocalist’s physical appearance reflects on consumers, the role of the metropolis in cultural production, the Melayuness or otherwise of Kangen Band’s music and it’s implications for the affective qualities of consumption. Indeed, the term kampungan is not unpacked here. Nevertheless, the responses to Selinkuh on You Tube do evidence a kind of inquiring, reflexive mode that, it could be argued, disagreements about pop Melayu’s quality seem to provoke. @123

Besides the commercial  significance of pay-to-download ring-back tones featuring the music of Pop Melayu bands and “the pervasiveness  narratives of upward mobility which depict this trajectory as one from kampung to metropolis” [what matters for present purposes] “is that these musical products are . . . most intensively consumed by those living in provincial second-tier and third-tier cities, especially those cities on islands other than Java, therefore most squarely beyond the fringes of Jakarta.” @122-3

The article concludes that kampungan — as the marker of Otherness that has been so important in the construction of Indonesian middleness — is “increasingly unstable.” Moreover, as Pop Melayu is “spun and pitched”  as a musical genre, it is being incorporated into narratives of upward mobility with the result that it is  “no longer just the waste, the un-modern, the vulgar (although these significations endure). Instead, “kampungan (which I suppose we can translate as “country  roots”)  can now also signify the possibility of bettering oneself.”

One response »

  1. Instant comment function (simpy cut and paste into the “Leave a Reply” box, together with a link to your blog):

    I’m not really into the Indonesian gang twang thang, but I would have to agree that kampungan tastes in music and other crap are very clear markers that you’re an un-modern waste of limited urban space with plenty of room for improvement : – )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s