When Americans mix cowboy with Rhoma Irama’s ‘dangdut’

The Jakarta Post18 Mar 2019M. Taufiqurrahman

JP/M. Taufiqurrahman

Yee-haw: American ethnomusicologist Andrew Weintraub (center), the lead singer and guitarist of Pittsburgh-based dangdut tribute band the Dangdut Cowboys, converses with fellow band members before kicking off their performance at American cultural center @america on Saturday.

It is easy to see why Pittsburgh University ethnomusicology professor Andrew Weintraub is so fascinated by Rhoma Irama and his brand of dangdut.

In fact, Weintraub is so enamored with dangdut that he wrote a tome on the subject titled Dangdut Stories: A Social and Musical History of Indonesia’s Most Popular Music, published in 2010. A bare-chested Rhoma graces its cover. In 2007, he founded the Dangdut Cowboys, a tribute band that plays Rhoma’s biggest hits and deep cuts.

The tribute is indeed fitting for a figure that not only transformed a musical genre but also left a mark on the country’s social and political landscape.

Rhoma was responsible for creating a unique mix of influences taken from both indigenous and foreign musical traditions and made it something that Indonesia can really claim as its own.

By trading acoustic instruments traditionally used in Melayu music with Western-oriented electrical instruments — guitar, Hammond organ and mandolin — Rhoma found a medium to express novel sentiment, some of it political, which he used to communicate with millions of his fans throughout Indonesia. Rhoma wields so much influence that he was able to send shivers down the spines of the security apparatus of the New Order regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Rhoma is one of those musical geniuses who bends genres, mixes influences and smuggles multiple ideas to an unsuspecting public that mistakes the sound and fury as his own. For the millions of his working class fans, it was from Rhoma’s music that they could get a taste of Western pop and rock music in all their glory.

Music from Rhoma’s biggest 1970s albums, such as “Begadang” (Stay Up All Night), “Rupiah”, “Penasaran” (Curious) and “Indonesia”, and some of the soundtracks from his best-selling films, such as “Darah Muda” (Young Blood), “Penasaran” and “Gitar Tua” (Old Guitar), are steeped in psychedelic rock with snaking Hammond organs humming and throbbing above the mix.

For the soundtrack of “Darah Muda”, released in 1977, Rhoma composed a complex instrumental score with a sweeping orchestral arrangement, complete with all the flair embodied in the style of Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone cowboy western flicks.

Throughout all this, Rhoma found space to flaunt his guitarpicking techniques that any Deep Purple fan would know are borrowed from Ritchie Blackmore in his 1970s prime.

Rhoma also dug deep in his effort to bring a new synthesis. Many of his Western-schooled fans may have noticed that Rhoma’s early music vaguely referenced funk, but nothing represents his left turn toward deep funk better than “Santai” (Relax), a tune off his seventh album, which heavily borrowed from Isaac Hayes and Parliament Funkadelic.

It was tunes like “Santai” that the Dangdut Cowboys recreated during their performance at American cultural center @america over the weekend.

On the stage, Weintraub sang and played rhythm guitar while Meghan Hynson sang backup. Bolstering the vocalists with their instruments were flute player Stephen Schults, one of the world’s foremost baroque flute players, jazz guitarist John Bagnato and Ghanaian keyboard player Samuel Boateng.

In fact, the Dangdut Cowboys’ mission statement for the weekend performance was that there were so many connections between Rhoma’s brand of dangdut and American music, including country. It was apparent that Weintraub and his crew intended to paint similarities between the two disparate traditions, at least based on the idea that music is a universal language that allows humans to express their emotions.

Halfway through the performance of “Kegagalan Cinta” (Failure of Love), Rhoma’s maudlin ballad about heartbreak and promises not kept, the Cowboys switched to playing Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” without changing the arrangement, as if the two songs were one and the same.

The Cowboys’ best performance predictably came during a rendition of “Santai”, a throbbing psychedelic tune that all band members could execute with relative ease, considering their background as some of the best musicians in their respective fields.

This is also the tune that left some members of the audience, mostly casual fans of Rhoma, scratching their heads. “Is this one of Rhoma’s songs?” some could be heard muttering. Such a response was expected though, as “Santai”, by dint of its complexity, is the type of Rhoma tune that attracts interest from DJs and cratediggers.

The band played six songs before handing the stage over to dangdut singer Fitri Carlina.

“For casual listeners, dangdut looks easy, but it is not. Playing it was hard because the feel is just different,” Weintraub said after the performance.

Whatever one makes of their unique blend, the performance by the Dangdut Cowboys, a group of Americans playing exotic music from a third-world country while seeking to find a common ground among different musical expressions, is a milestone in the Trump era, when chasms and divisions are widening.

As for some of the 14-year-olds who were in attendance for their first dangdut concert, they had the privilege of getting a crash course in the country’s biggest musical genre from a bunch of globe-trotting ethnomusicologists.

Last Updated: Jun 18, 2020 @ 11:29 pm

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