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Elvy Sukaesih - The Dangdut Queen

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Artist: Elvy Sukaesih

Album: The Dangdut Queen

Label: Rice

Review date: Apr. 30, 2006

Imagine listening to One, the compilation of the Beatles’s number one hits, or Number Ones, the equivalent for Michael Jackson, without ever having heard any of the songs. You’ll get the same high from The Dangdut Queen, a batch of Elvy Sukaesih’s big numbers from her years of major Indonesian stardom, 1974-1984. Over its 80 minutes, the smash successes never let up, bam-bam-bam. At times it’s like getting hit by a bus, one with the best production, writing and vocal performance of the period.

Dangdut is Indonesia’s major homegrown pop tradition. While gamelan is local to Java and Bali and is performed in local languages, dangdut was created post-independence and is performed in the national language, Indonesian. Thus, one can probably remove the word “pop” and call dangdut the music of the united archipelago. Dangdut bands generally feature suling (bamboo flute), gendang (tabla-esque drums), electric guitar, and synthesizer; the singer is the face of the group and in live bands will nearly always be female (though many dangdut recordings feature male singers). The female vocal style falls somewhere between Bollywood warbling and the big, round sound of American R&B. In live performance, the singers dance up a storm, these days quite suggestively. Indonesia’s current dangdut queen, Inul, sings to backing tracks with thick synth lines and techno beats, and her signature hip-swivel is featured in commercials for, among other things, the energy drink Extrajoss.

House dangdut bands (with the requisite female singer) reside in clubs and outdoor theaters across the country; these venues are frequented almost exclusively by men who, surreptitiously drunk (they’re Muslim), dance with each other in signature dangdut style, butts sticking way out, arms up, elbows bent, jazz hands, ogling the singer who (also Muslim) is dressed in tight but not revealing clothing.

Thus dangdut is “pop” in the manufactured American tradition – its “stars” are iconic and have great pipes, but they do not write the songs they sing or play any part in production of backing tracks. While the Indonesian Britney is still Britney, it is also Inul, and in her day Elvy Sukaesih was something like Madonna.

Elvy, whose parents were musicians, didn’t get her start in a local outfit. Born in 1951, she was already on the radio at 10 and grew up along with dangdut, the existence of which her fame predated. Pictures of her from the time period reflected on The Dangdut Queen are way ’80s – she is styled, more than anything, like Cindy Lauper, in dresses as frilly as wedding cakes, big hair, pink lipstick, and spangley hair ribbons. Some pictures mix in bits of traditional Indonesian dress; some show her coy like Peggy Lee.

Indonesia doesn’t have much of an archival or cultural-export tradition, and in keeping with this, The Dangdut Queen was put together by a Japanese music writer (Katsunori Tanaka) and released by a British label (albeit, one with an outpost in Singapore); the writers of several of the songs are unknown. Unfortunately, the extensive liner notes are error-prone and poorly translated from Japanese and – instead of filling in the archival gaps – feature platitudes such as “What should be highly rated about dangdut is the fact that born from virtually nowhere it has developed today into such an appealing music.” But then again, when it comes to the music, every single track is a standout.

“Kereta Malam” (“Night Train”), perhaps Elvy’s most stellar recording, was previously introduced to American listeners on Rounder’s The Rough Guide to the Music of Indonesia. The lyrics tell of an archetypal Indonesian experience, the journey across Java by train. Vocal effects and guitar at the beginning of the track pick out the sound of wind in the rice fields and steel wheels on steel rails. Elvy’s languid trills echo the “chugga-chugga” as she tells of elemental excitement.

Many of the dance numbers, peppy and bright musically, have dark lyrics. In “Colak-colek” (“Touch Lightly”), she sings “Memang aneh / dunia jaman sekarang / banyak orang, orang bilang / tak ada uang, tak sayang,” (“Yes, it’s true / this age is strange / all the people, people saying / there’s no money, no love.”) “Cubit-cubitan” (“Pinching”) uses the semi-rhyming harmony of Indonesian speech to tell of a girl killing herself over her first love, “akhirnya gadis manis bunuh diri/cinta pertama dibawa mati.”

Two slow-jam highlights, “Izinkanlah,” (“Permit Me”) and “Pacaran” (“Lovers”), borrow from the rhythmic structure of gamelan. In “Izinkanlah” the tempo slips at the bridge, where it slows down for a zither solo, and then revs back up for the lyric. Later the bridge returns, the rhythm slips, then revs again. The cycling is intoxicating. “Pacaran” features handclaps reminiscent of the interlocking, 3-person clapping (keplok) of gamelan. The clapping interludes, played live, are overlaid with synthesized versions of traditional Indonesian instruments, and Elvy sings of smiling and sweet laughter – “We’re going out! Oh, happiness!”

So turn it up loud, stick your butt out and your hands in the air, and wave ‘em like there are 100 more pop goddesses out there who none of us have ever heard. There probably are, thank god.

By Josie Clowney

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