Farel Prayoga performing at the Presidential Palace. Photo by Biro Pers Sekretariat Presiden.


The beat of dangdut music is a familiar soundtrack to daily life in Indonesian rural and urban villages. But one place where this uniquely Indonesian genre is rarely heard is at the Presidential Palace. This changed on 17 August, when child singer Farel Prayoga performed the popular dangdut koplo song “Ojo Dibandingke” (Don’t Compare Me) at Indonesia’s 77th Independence Day celebrations, in front of the president, ministers and guests.

Soon senior national figures, like Minister of Defence Prabowo Subianto, Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani Indrawati, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi, joined Farel on the parade grounds and danced along. Even President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and First Lady Iriana smiled and bopped in their seats, creating an amusing scene that quickly went viral on social media.

Many social media commentators praised the fun and lively atmosphere. Some, however, grumbled that a 12-year-old child should not be singing a love song like “Ojo Dibandingke”, while others cringed at the modification of a line in the song’s lyrics from “it is only you” to “it is only Pak Jokowi”.

Initially, it was hard to understand why this performance, in particular, had gone viral. Independence Day celebrations often include cultural performances, which are designed to communicate ideas and imaginations about how Indonesia sees itself. In 2014, for example, I attended Independence Day celebrations at the Presidential Palace, which also included cultural performances followed by songs by famous pop stars.

Even Soekarno regularly invited pop legend Titiek Puspa to sing at the Palace. Soeharto also hosted Titiek Puspa, along with other stars like Sundari Soekotjo and Yuni Shara.  Farel was simply continuing this tradition – he was already famous online well before this performance, attracting more than 27 million views on YouTube for his cover of “Ojo Dibandingke”.

Holding dangdut performances at the Presidential Palace in front of distinguished guests is a symbolic recognition of dangdut – often derided as popular but tacky music of the underclass – as an important part of Indonesian culture.

This was not the first time a dangdut singer has been invited to perform at the Presidential Palace. In 2017, senior dangdut singer Ikke Nurjanah also performed at Independence Day celebrations. But this year’s Independence Day celebrations attracted attention mainly because of the specific subgenre of dangdut that Farel was performing: dangdut koplo.

Koplo is a variant of dangdut that emerged from the periphery in the mid-1990s, and was popularised by the now legendary Inul Daratista in the early 2000s. It can be distinguished from “traditional” dangdut by its faster tempo and often suggestive lyrics. Koplo was born in the nightclubs and cafes around Jalan Jarak in Surabaya, East Java. The word “koplo” is a reference to a psychotropic drug that was common in the area – the rapid tempo of the music is said to mimic the feeling of being on drugs.

The style spread quickly along the north coast of Java (Pantura), with pirated VCDs shared among bus, transportation and truck drivers. Mainly because of the controversy and interest Inul created, koplo singers are almost always women, who typically wear revealing outfits and perform eroticised moves on stage.

The popularity of the “peripheral” koplo resulted in a backlash from traditional dangdut musicians in the centre, that is, Jakarta. When Inul captured the national spotlight in 2003, the so-called “King of Dangdut”, Rhoma Irama, condemned her and dangdut koplo as disrespectful to the genre. In 2012, he even said “Dangdut is dangdut, koplo is koplo. Koplo is not part of dangdut!”.

Recent years have seen the style continue to evolve. Some modern dangdut koplo sounds more like pop music rather than typical dangdut. Other recent koplo songs have drawn inspiration from local culture and performing arts, like Nella Kharisma’s “Jaran Goyang” and “Konco Turu”, which are influenced by the Jaranan dance, or Elsa Safira’s “Stel Kondo”, which is influenced by East Java’s “patrol” music.

Since it emerged on the national stage, dangdut koplo has suffered from negative stigma. Presenting dangdut koplo in the Palace grounds was therefore an important acknowledgement that the president himself recognised dangdut koplo as part of Indonesian culture. It brought something from the periphery to the centre of the Indonesian state, presenting it alongside other traditional performing arts and popular music, and on the same level.

This recognition of dangdut koplo at the Presidential Palace can help to break down the stigma that has long been attached to the genre. The Independence Day celebrations showcased high (adiluhung) culture alongside the trivial (alit). Whether one is a fan of dangdut koplo or not, its inclusion in the celebrations was an accurate representation of Indonesian diversity.


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