Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Dangdut and Drilling in Indonesia
Reprinted with permission from the author
The following excerpt, from My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist, tells the story of Ainul Rokhimah, a 25-year-old peasant girl from East Java, using the name Inul Daratista, whose ability to rotate her backside had become famous. Interestingly, Ainul later described herself as a fanatic about her Muslim faith.
In Jakarta I lived in an apartment complex called Puri Casablanca, four tall pink towers on the edge of the central business district or, as the website boasted, ‘strategically located in golden triangle.’ Each tower was named for a flower: Allamanda, Bougainvillea, Cattleya and Dahlia. This wasn’t the top end of the market—the Four Seasons or the Dharmawangsa with their BMW and Jaguar lined underground parking—but it wasn’t quite the bottom either. A profusion of fresh flowers greeted you in the lobby; the marble floors gleamed with polish; the water in the kidney-shaped swimming pool stayed a clear pale blue all year round. The New York Deli next to it, where the servers were Deep Purple fans, dished up Rubens and Rachels and Turkey Clubs with American meats and Australian cheeses and Kettle Chips in four flavours.
Propped against the living room wall of my apartment, on the eighth floor of Allamanda, was a black and white cartoon by an artist from Yogyakarta. It showed the dangdut performer Inul Daratista onstage, her famous backside encased in tight striped pants. Across from her on another stage, stood her nemesis, Rhoma Irama, an older dangdut star. Rhoma had once borrowed his look from Elvis Presley and his sound partly from Deep Purple, but he had since found God and placed his voice in the service of the faith. My cartoon showed him belting out nasyid, devotional Islamic music.
Dangdut, onomatopoeically named for the Indian drumbeat that ran through most songs, was popular music, the music of the street. Inul Daratista (‘The Girl with the Breasts’) was the stage name of Ainul Rokhimah, a 25-year-old peasant girl from the abangan, or nominal Muslim, heartland of east Java. Inul was something of a hero to me. She had started out performing at village weddings and circumcision ceremonies for 10,000 rupiah (about a dollar) a song and now charged, as the papers breathlessly reported, 70 million rupiah for a forty-minute appearance. This metamorphosis from impoverished yokel to superstar, as the papers peevishly reported, owed less to Inul’s voice than to her backside. She had invented a dance move called drilling that had quickly become all the rage. It involved, to put it simply, rotating her behind faster and faster in a blur of tightening circles.
The previous year drilling had drawn the wrath of the Council of Indonesian Ulama, a powerful quasi-official group of mullahs. They called Inul ‘devilish’ and ‘lustful’ and as proof of her malign influence brought up a man who claimed that a pirated VCD of her act had led him to rape a child. Rhoma Irama, ageing and ill-tempered, joined the chorus of outrage. Concerned about her future in the industry a cowed Inul approached Rhoma for his blessings, but this only brought on public humiliation. ‘She performs trash,’ announced Rhoma at a press conference. (This from a man with a fondness for white leather bodysuits.) Rhoma proceeded to ban Inul from performing any of his songs.
In the end, however, Inul appeared to have the last laugh. The former president Abdurrahman Wahid and a clutch of women’s groups rallied behind her. Though his eyesight prevented him from appreciating the finer points of drilling, Wahid declared that it ought to be protected as an art form. Hundreds of noisy feminists drilled in solidarity at the Hotel Indonesia circle. The pious Rhoma’s reputation received a jolt when a tabloid journalist reported him exiting a starlet’s bungalow at dawn. Since then Inul’s popularity had acquired new proportions. She had become the best-paid entertainer in the country. She was on television advertising everything from motorcycles to mosquito coils and playing herself in a miniseries based on her life story. On the streets they sold Inul pencils—made of rubber, supple and flexible.
* * *
Crown Entertainment Center belonged in a Moammar Emka book. On the street outside toothless vendors peddled pirated porn DVDs with loud cries of, ‘hello mister chicky-chicky.’ Though rooted in the small business hustle and open sewers of the Chinese neighbourhood Glodok, the centre itself was rather more upscale than its surroundings and included a spa, a disco, a massage parlour and private karaoke rooms.
About two months after the Jakarta Undercover party I shook off my lethargy one evening to visit Crown. I took the elevator to the seventh floor, passed through a metal detector and then up a sweeping stairway that terminated at a sign that said ‘VVIP Ladies’. Most of the staff milling about were girls in snug navy blue dresses with flawless skin and shampoo commercial hair. A covey of them clustered by a flickering computer screen in a low, open booth shaped like a horseshoe.
The show wasn’t due to begin for another half hour and the disco’s doors were still shut. I waited on the lip of a wall-high waterfall facing the booth. Security was tight on account of the night’s special guest; men in safari suits with cropped skulls and beefy forearms barked instructions into their walkie-talkies. A couple of them looked pointedly at my beard and my black messenger bag, but nobody said anything. To my right, one-third of a long banner touted a new brand of mild kretek; the other two-thirds was given to a picture of Inul sheathed in black leather, silver chains on her hips, her hair piled high in caramel-coloured curls. An older woman, a mamasan—chunky legs, painted red lips, pencil eyebrows—lowered her bulk beside me and placed a sleek new Sony digital camera in my hands. Would I explain how to use it? I turned it on and showed her which button to click. When I aimed the camera at her she exclaimed in horror, ‘No, no,’ and pointed at one of her girls, young and chubby in a tight black skirt and a T-shirt with a sepiatinted picture of Britney Spears. ‘I’m ugly. Take her picture instead.’
At length the doors swung open on a dark and cavernous room with dozens of round black tables on three sides of a dance floor. A stage under a canopy shaped like a large crown, of the kind I associated with either Henry VIII or the King of Hearts, abutted the fourth. Blue light bounced off two drum sets and a synthesiser. On a screen above them a dandelion exploded in a million pieces. The room quickly began to fill, for the most part with middle-class twenty-somethings, not the sort you would usually find at a dangdut concert. Waiters in canary yellow Formula One pit stop crew uniforms threaded their way between tables with tall bottles of Beer Bintang. A sign came on screen, a red circle with the words ‘Ngebor is not a Crime.’ Ngebor was Indonesian for ‘drilling’.
As befit her status, Inul was late. While we waited, a boyish and somewhat nervous host did his best to amuse the swelling crowd. He boasted about the building’s amenities: bar, spa, disco, cigar cellar. He talked up a 70 percent discount on the karaoke rooms that night and a 50 percent discount on ‘beverages’. The American word in a sentence of Indonesian sounded odd to my ears. He offered a prize for anyone wearing glasses with spots on them, for anyone in batik underwear. Nobody came forward. He asked us to guess Inul’s shoe size. (Thirty-nine, it turned out.) As the audience’s impatience grew palpable, he persuaded three college girls to drill. They came onstage giggling and did their imitation, shyly and slowly. At last the host darted into the wings and a thrill of anticipation ran through the room. The drummers took their places, then two long-haired men on electric guitars and a short-haired man on the synthesiser. Perhaps to make up for the delay, they skipped a warm-up and immediately fell upon their instruments with a vigour that suggested a secret contest to see who could burst your eardrums first. A few moment later Inul glided onstage in a silver latex bodysuit, silver chains around her neck and dangling from her hips. The music died while she struck a brief pose under a spotlight, middle finger and thumb together like an Indian dancer. Then it resumed, faster and, if this was possible, louder. Inul shook her big curly mane over her face like a heavy metal rocker. ‘Hho! Hho!’ she barked. A crush of fans, camera phones aloft, surged to the edge of the stage. ‘Hho! Hho! Hho!’ screeched Inul, her hair a blur.
I had been looking forward to a performance both devilish and lustful, but the person onstage resembled an over-caffeinated gym instructress more than an erotic temptress. She dropped her hair over her face again and pulled it back with a sharp jerk. Flailing her arms violently, she played air guitar. The papers, you had to admit, were right about her vocal limitations; I cringed each time her voice reached for a high note, like a piece of chalk on an unfortunate blackboard. After about half a dozen songs, including a popular one about herself, Inul sauntered to the edge of the stage. ‘If I sing a song by Pak Rhoma he’ll call the police,’ she said mimicking a phone with thumb and little finger. The room filled with hisses and boos. Inul nodded at the band to resume its assault, took three strides towards the centre of the stage, and halted. Swivelling on one heel, she pumped the other leg like a piston—knee bent, knee straight, knee bent. As she gathered momentum her ample latex-clad behind bore down in circles, lower and lower, faster and faster, lower, faster, faster, lower. The effect eluded words. It was mesmerising as only a silver bottom rotating at high speed could be.
Barely 45 minutes after she stepped onstage Inul was gone. In the elevator on the way down her fans whispered about the millions this appearance had commanded.