In the English-speaking world, Indonesian music is known best for the kecak money chant, which appeared in the film Baraka and has enjoyed some popularity on independent radio stations as a startling novelty piece, and the gamelan, an instrument comprised of gongs and metallophones that has inspired work by several Western composers including Benjamin Britten and Peter Sculthorpe. The country’s pop music has had much less exposure. A lot of the available releases have come from Japanese labels, whose reissues of kroncong and pop-sunda and dangdut are sometimes picked up for distribution by non-Asians.
The Dangdut Queen is being released in Europe thanks to a partnership between Paul Fisher, who is based in the UK, and Katsunori Tanaka, the founder of Rice Records in Japan. Tanaka is the compiler. He’s been a fan of Elvy Sukaesih for years. “Elvy Sukaesih is fantastic…” he writes in the liner notes. “I think there aren’t many singers who possess the great skills and a voice like Elvy’s in the history of popular music around the world… I just can’t find the right expression to describe the pleasant feeling you get from listening to Elvy Sukaesih.”
A newcomer to dangdut might wonder what the fuss is about, particularly if they’ve been listening to Bollywood songs, which dangdut resembles to the extent that Indonesian musicians sometimes take Bolly tunes, add Bahasa Indonesia lyrics, and then release them as if they were new compositions. “Elvy sounds much more youthful and livelier than any Indian singers, Lata Mangueshcar for example,” Tanaka argues. I don’t agree, although I wonder if his comment doesn’t say more about the style of singing than about the singers themselves. In Bollywood, youth and liveliness are qualities that come ornamented with vocal trills, which can make them sound stylised rather than natural. Sukaesih was free to sing in a more direct style, as Western pop singers do. In spite of the similarities between dangdut and Bollywood, the way she uses her voice has more in common with Madonna than with Asha Bhosle.
Tanaka has arranged the songs in chronological order, covering the heyday of her solo career from the mid-‘70s to mid-‘80s. As time goes on you can hear her tone growing gradually lighter and more daring. In “Kareta Malam”, which was recorded in the ‘70s, she imitates the huff of a train, and the sound is playful but innocent. In the ‘80s, she begins adding floating, flirting notes and teasing gasps, first on “Benci”, then on “Pacaran”. “Mandu mindi”, which was released in 1983, is, according to the compiler, “perfectly rounded dangdut”: a measured blend of teasing singing, electrified effects, and rock guitar, with the gendang tabla clear but not overwhelming in the background.
The gendang provides dangdut with the beat from which it takes its name: a long dang and then a short dut. On several of the tracks the drum is partnered with an indigenous bamboo flute, the suling. In “Gersang”, for example, the song starts with power chords from a guitar, which is quickly replaced by the two native instruments; they establish themselves and then Sukaesih starts to sing. Her voice holds onto long notes, twisting them a little, before dropping into a short, staggered chorus. “Ger-sang, ger-sang, ger-sang.” It suggests something between Arab and Indian music. Sukaesih’s songs sit at the intersection of the Islamic religion that 88 percent of Indonesia’s population observes, and the Hindi films they love to watch.
In 1985, she stopped recording and stepped out of the spotlight for the rest of the decade while her husband recovered from a dangerous illness. Tanaka’s compilation finishes with the sweet, clear title song from 1984’s Syirin Farthat. If you’ve got any kind of interest in Indonesian popular music then The Dangdut Queen is going to be a terrific compilation to have around—something like Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, if you were a non-English-speaker who had an interest in American pop. If the idea of dangdut doesn’t appeal to you then I’m not sure how you’ll take to it. The songs are bright and fun and Sukaesih sings with enormous charm, but her voice doesn’t have the inimitable character of an Asha. It’s not the kind of sound that pulls you up short and makes you say, “Hey, wait, stop, I need to know who that is.” At least I don’t think so. Katsunori Tanaka wouldn’t agree. Listen, and decide for yourself.