While many Americans are completely ignorant of anything having to do with Indonesia -- the world's most populous Muslim country and a moderate, modernized nation -- that doesn't mean you need to be unaware. And University of Pittsburgh professor Andrew Weintraub can help. A Fulbright scholar who has traveled to Indonesia numerous times, he founded the Pitt music department's gamelan ensemble, and is bringing in Indonesia's most popular singer, Rhoma Irama, to show Pittsburgh what that culture can offer.
Irama sings dangdut, which emerged in the late '60s and has since matured into Indonesia's national pop music. Influenced by American music of that era (especially surf and psych rock), as well as Bollywood film hits and Egyptian pop, dangdut's lilting, gooey melodies and cult emphasis on singers also bears a resemblance to Algerian rai.
"During the late '50s and early '60s, with [President] Sukarno, American music was banned from Indonesia as a symbol of imperialism, since they had just become independent from the Dutch," says Weintraub. "But there was also this Malay style, and Asian pop music that fed into it."
Dangdut developed into a style of religious pop music under the influence of superstars like Irama. His 10-piece band, Soneta, dresses in glitzy Western style and features signature dangdut instruments -- the suling (flute) and the gendang (a cross between a bongo and a tabla) -- in addition to Western guitars, drums and keyboards. More recently, dangdut has incorporated suggestive dancing, especially by the female stars, yet that's an aspect that Irama -- a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca and speaks on religious themes -- has condemned.
Another of Irama's facets has been his outspoken criticism of the Indonesian government in the past, especially the corrupt, dictatorial reign of President Suharto (who left office in 1998). "I started thinking that this was a story that needed to be told," explains Weintraub, "not just about Irama, but about dangdut as the music of the underclasses, and the political nature of the music, and the controversial stuff that's going on now with freedom of expression there, now that the music has become very sexualized."
To that end, Weintraub and Pitt's Asian Studies Center have convened a free, public conference on Islam and popular culture, which kicks off with a film on Fri., Oct. 10, at the Melwood Screening Room, and an all-day seminar on Sat., Oct. 11, at Sennott Square, on the Pitt campus. The conference culminates Saturday night, when Irama (now a spry 62) and Soneta perform in all their classic '70s glory.
So put on your dancing shoes, and come on time to witness Weintraub's own band, the Dangdut Cowboys, opening the show with a combination of dangdut and American country-and-western. "Indonesia's ambassador to the U.S. is coming from D.C. to introduce the concert," says Weintraub. "It's a big deal."
Rhoma Irama and Soneta, with the Dangdut Cowboys. 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 11. Bellefield Hall Auditorium, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. Free. 412-624-7370 or www.ucis,pitt.edu/asc/conference
- Outspoken: Rhoma Irama