Logan Hall
Service Learning
Affiliates & Visiting Fellows Program
Roger D. Abrahams Fund
CFE Home
Folklore Home
UPenn Home

For more information about the Center for Folklore & Ethnography,at UPenn, contact Professor Mary Hufford at mhufford@sas.upenn.edu.

To be added to the CFE mailing list, contact Joyce Roselle, at jroselle@sas.upenn.edu

For assistance with the Folklore and Folklife website, contact Linda Lee at lindalee@sas.upenn.edu.

Research Archives Events News

Dangdut in America: Service Learning as Cultural Brokerage

Engaging Locally and Globally with Philadelphia's Indonesian  Community
What is Dangdut?
Dangdut in America: Staging Reciprocity

Engaging Locally and Globally with Philadelphia's Indonesian Community

Each spring, the Center for Folklore and Ethnography offers a place-based, ethnographic service-learning course entitled “Exploring Memory and Tradition in Philadelphia Communities” (Folk 321, Anth 321/UrbSt 327/ASAM 311). In order to identify a service that Penn students can perform for a Philadelphia community, we conduct fieldwork within the community, in partnership with a community institution, and under the guidance of community leaders. This year our client is the Folk Art and Cultural Treasures School in Chinatown, where many Indonesian children are currently enrolled. Last fall, while conducting fieldwork for this course, Yoonhee Kang (a visiting fellow of the CFE whose research area is Indonesia) consulted with Deborah Wei, the school’s principal. Wei suggested that we undertake fieldwork and research in south Philadelphia’s Indonesian community. The FACT School views its educational mission as the cultivation of a global citizenry, preparing its students to respect and appreciate the diversity of ways in which Philadelphia’s immigrant communities continually express and renew cultural identities, while making Philadelphia home. Over the past ten years, the number of Indonesian immigrants in Philadelphia has grown to 5,000. Under the guidance of community leaders and in consultation with twelve teen-age research assistants at South Philadelphia High School who are fluent in Indonesian languages and culture, we are identifying resources on which teachers might draw in order to address the cultural and linguistic maintenance needs of Indonesian children in the school.

We began by visiting some of the stores and churches that are the hubs of Indonesian cultural and community life in South Philadelphia: Café Pendawa, Srikandi Market, The Indonesia Store, the Philadelphia Praise Center, St. Thomas Acquinas Catholic Church, as well as the laundromats in South Philadelphia Yoonhee Kang suggested that the stores in South Philadelphia adroitly combine the functions of warung – the small markets where people gather for nongkrong (hanging out on the side of the road) and coffee – and kaki lima – the “five legged carts.” Peddlers with two legs propel their wares in carts with two wheels and one prop– hence five legs. The stores in South Philadelphia are marketplaces and cultural centers, where members of the community can prepare and sell foods from particular regions of Indonesia, and customers can get together for food and socializing (Setiyawan, ND). In South Philadelphia many of the Indonesian merchants are the ethnic Chinese, who fled Indonesia during the riots of the late 1990s, when the ethnic Chinese merchants were blamed for the krismon, the financial crisis in Indonesia In the Indonesia Store we received a tutorial from one of the proprietors on kroncong (pronounced kronchong) and dangdut (rhymes with long foot), two genres of Indonesian popular music. Kroncong, which dates back to the early 20th century, is a form enjoyed by an older generation of Indonesians, whereas dangdut emerged as a popular genre in the 1960s and 70s. Watching and listening to the videos and conversation, and tasting the lumpia (spring rolls), somay (dim sums), and kerupuk (fish crackers), we began to savor the rich and complex history of global cultural encounters that glimmers through the food and music of Indonesian South Philadelphia. While any of these could serve as a window onto this history, dangdut has become a key ethnographic text for our inquiry.

We kept hearing about dangdut. Heraldo Shiahaan, the charismatic leader of the Philadelphia Praise Center at 17th and McKean Streets, visited our class in February. In Indonesian South Philadelphia he is known as Aldo, and known, it seems, by everyone. His voice is known as well throughout the archipelago of Indonesia, because for many years he was a DJ in Jakarta. In February he visited our class with a colleague, Indah Nuritasari, a journalist from Jakarta. During their overview of Indonesian community life in south Philadelphia, the topic of dangdut came up again. Aldo interpreted dangdut as it is rendered on YouTube and within a few days we learned from Indah that there would soon be auditions for a project entitled: Dangdut in America.”

What is Dangdut?

Since the early 1970s, the term “dangdut” has described a genre of music popular in Malaysia and Indonesia. The term onomatopoetically compresses the sounds of the instrumental traditions in which the music is rooted, the history of ideas exchanged among Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, Hindu and Indonesians cultures through centuries of trade, and ambivalence about the lower class (kampungan) origins and egalitarian politics of the music itself. The term “dangdut” (literally, “thumpety-thump”) mimes the rhythms of metallophones and drums that have for centuries been hallmarks of wandering ensembles (tanjidor) that played Indonesian, Arab, Western, Chinese, Sundanese, Maluku, and Portuguese instruments and melodies (Frederick 1982:105).
Dangdut music was commercialized and popularized in the late 1970s by Rhoma Irama (the King of Dangdut) and Elvy Sukaeshi (the Queen of Dangdut). For its open criticism of the corruption of Soeharto’s New Order, Irama’s song, Indonesia, was banned during the 1970s. Its refrain asks why the rich keep growing richer while the poor grow poorer:

“Seluruh harta kekyaan Negara

Hanyala untuk kemakmuran rakyatnya
Namun Hatiku selalu bertany-tany
Mengapa kehidupan tidak merata
Yang kaya makin kaya
Yang miskin makin miskin
Yang kaya makin kaya
Yan miskin makin miskin
Negara bukan milik golongan
Dan juga bukan milik perorangan
Dari itu jangan seenaknya
Memperkaya diri membabi buta.”

(Loosely translated, the lyrics point out that though the land is prosperous and rich, only the ruling class is benefiting My heart keeps asking why the lives are not even. The rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer. The nation does not belong to the ruling class or to individuals. It is madness when a nation is ruled by those who enrich themselves while sacrificing others.)

In addition to creating a new kind of public identity for Indonesian Islam, the populist messages of dangdut have made it a music of choice in recent years for politicians campaigning for election in Indonesia. Yet, in spite of its obvious popularity, there remains a curious ambivalence about dangdut, perhaps due to conflicting ideas about what it means to be modern. What kind of culture can best represent Indonesia as a modern and cosmopolitan world player? Dangdut? “Cheesy,” a proprietor of a market in south Philly commented. Yet many who say such things admit that they karaoke to dangdut every chance they get. “You know you’re Indonesian,” says a line in one cyber circular, “When you think dangdut is stupid but you listen to it anyway, because you are homesick.” “Dangdut makes everybody happy,” proclaims a song in Indonesian performed on Youtube: “Dangdut is the music of my country.”

Since the 1970s, dangdut has continued to evolve, preserving the character of its origins, while fusing musical ideas from every continent into a dynamic global conversation. Lyrics that protest social inequity, promote Islamic values, and explore the range of conditions and emotions experienced by ordinary people are set to styles of singing, instrumentation, and dance that bring the history of Indonesia mimetically into dialogue with the West. Nasal, mellismatic vocals (cangkok), swiveling of hips (goyang), choreographies that quote from tribal dances as well as from Hollywood and Bollywood, riffs that echo gamelan, wooden flutes, Chinese violin fuse with ideas drawn from rock, rap, jazz, reggae, marimba, and salsa. Dangdut not only embodies a global modernity that recognizes and embraces the diversity that is Indonesia, it invokes cultural reciprocity as a mode of building international relations.
Such reciprocity is long overdue. Jeremy Wallach, an anthropologist who wrote his dissertation on dangdut in 2002, spent a great deal of time listening to dangdut musicians who each evening hung out at various warungs in Jakarta. Wallach found that “a recurrent theme throughout Indonesian popular culture is a kind of yearning for a reciprocal affirming gesture from the country that set the standard for popular culture.” (2002: 242) Through “Dangdut in America,” NSR Productions has inaugurated that reciprocal affirming gesture.

Dangdut in America: Staging Reciprocity

The big project is this: create a video of Americans performing Dangdut and get Indonesian public television to broadcast the performance. The message from America to Indonesia: “Americans are performing dangdut and loving it.” Rissa Asnan and her team have woven reciprocity into the production process from the very beginning.

In the weeks leading up the auditions in mid-February, fliers were distributed in all of the Indonesian stores, and advertisements appeared in the newspapers, as well as on My Space--“Become famous in Indonesia,” the announcements advertised. Finalists would learn to sing in Indonesian and to dance to dangdut. But these were no ordinary auditions. From the very beginning, the auditions were part of the process of teaching Americans about Dangdut. To audition, contestants sang a song of their choice in any language. They then read a song text in Indonesian, and were invited to listen to a recording of Dangdut instrumental music and dance to it. (To see video clip of auditions, click here). Among the contestants were Indonesian residents of south Philadelphia who were seasoned dangdut performers, American musicians who had never before encountered the music, and eight service learners from the University of Pennsylvania who came thinking to observe, but were quickly conscripted into auditioning! One member of the class, Yuki Yamaguchi, made the final cut. His song: “Indonesia,” by Rhoma Irama.
The rehearsals were held on two Sundays at the University of Pennsylvania. The rehearsals further intensified the reciprocal learning process inaugurated during the auditions. Professional singer Rey Wowor and dancer Melinda ?? coached the finalists through every detail of pronunciation, style, emotional expression, and gesture. The musicians who assembled to form the live band represented dangdut’s contemporary ensemble: flute, keyboard, drums, and bass and lead guitar. But they had never performed dangdut. Working with the singers and dancers over the next two weeks, and listening to recordings of the music, the musicians began generating the melodic rifs and the sounds of gamelan, wooden flute, and traditional stringed instruments, reframing these as quotations within the larger project. As we interviewed participants over the course of the auditions and rehearsals we began to appreciate the extent to which Dangdut opens a window onto Indonesian culture and history, and the extent to which the Dangdut in America project is anchoring a new global cultural conversation in Philadelphia. Significantly, the conversation of rehearsal was staged in the Penn Humanities building. Directly across from this building is the Wharton School, which for more than a century has played a major role in shaping global economic relations. Indeed, the present Coordinating Minister for the Economy in Indonesia, Boediono, took his doctoral degree from Wharton in 1979.

From the social space of nongkrong in the warung of south Philadelphia – to the global cultural conversations conducted during rehearsals, local musicians are learning from each other to create a more culturally inclusive global polity and teaching us how. What medium could be better suited to such a project than dangdut?


Frederick, William H. 1982. “Rhoma Irama and the Dangdut Style: Aspects of Contemporary Indonesian Popular Culture.” Indonesia 34:102-130.

Hill, Judy. 2007. “South Philly's Indonesian Community as a Focus for Service Learning.” Penn Current, March 1, 2007. 

Kabar Kilat. (Local Indonesian Newspaper) 

Kang, Yoonhee. 2006. “Indonesian Stores in S. Philly

Setiyawan, Dahlia. MS. “Serving Communities: U.S. Indonesian Eateries as Mediators of Culture.”

-----. 2005. “’Unity in Diversity’: Identity Development and Community Building Among Indonesian immigrants in Philadelphia.” M.A. Thesis in Intercultural Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

Taussig, Michael. 1991. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge.

Wallach, Jeremy. 2002. “Modern Noise and Ethnic Accents: Indonesian Popular Music in the Era of Reformasi.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Yampolsky, Philip. ND. “Indonesian popular Music: Kroncong, Dangdut, and Langgam Jawa.” Music of Indonesia 2. Liner notes for Smithsonian/Folkways cd/c SF-40056.

YouTube. (For seven clips about Dangdut as the music of Indonesia, search: Dangdut is the music of my country.)

<< Return to the previous page