Rhoma Irama is one of the most acclaimed Indonesian musicians of all time, innovating and exemplifying the best of the Indonesian dangdut style of popular music. After a difficult and intriguing childhood, he became a superstar in Indonesia in the 1970s, dubbing himself Raja Dangdut, which translates to the "King of Dangdut." Rhoma Irama's contribution to the world of Indonesian pop music is immense, and his popularity helped to provide some crossover success in the United States as well. His popularization of dangdut allowed the lower-class of Indonesia and Jakarta to express themselves in a culturally relevant and powerful way, adding to his importance as a guiding figure in the history of world music.
In order to understand the importance of Rhoma's music, one must know the history of the guitar itself. Stringed instruments have existed in some form or another since the 12th century, at least the ones most identified as guitars - India and central Asia developed the sitar, the setar, the tanbur and others, which then moved into Europe with the invention and development of instruments more in tune with the classical guitar. By the 15th century, the vihuela, a Spanish instrument with six courses and a body much like a guitar, was developed. From there, the five-course baroque guitar was developed in Spain and became popular - this particular type of guitar is the primary ancestor of most modern guitars today.
Guitar has been used in nearly every kind of popular and classical music from the Renaissance on, from baroque music to classical music - all the way through to flamenco and the folk songs of Western Europe and the New World. Many different culture have used the guitar in different ways, creating new genres of music. Dangdut, and the world of Rhoma Irama, falls directly into the realm of World Music, as that is a genre which focuses primarily on the guitar and music styles of other countries throughout the world. World Music, as a subgenre, focuses on the types of music that are not normally found in the West (meaning those with American and Western European influences). Typically, the music styles of African nations, of central and East Asia, and even South America fall under the blanket term of World Music, but each country brings their own unique meaning. There is no singular sound to World Music; definitions typically involve those genres of music that are specific to an ethnicity or tradition of another country1. Japanese koto music, Nordic folk music, and other Middle Eastern forms of music specific to those regions are just some examples of the World Music genre. Specifying the genre of World Music that Rhoma Irama specializes in, however, is much more straightforward.
Dangdut started in the late 1960s in Java as a musical style started by lower-class Muslim youngsters, which soon spread to countries like Indonesia by the 1990s2. The term dangdut came from the sound of the tabla drum, which is used in dangdut music - "Dang-ndut." While many believe that this term was defined in a music magazine in Indonesia, but Rhoma Irama claims that it was given such a base name as to shame the poor Indonesians who played and listened to it. The fans of this genre of music appropriated that term, however, and it became known as dangdut. The genre's sound is likened often to Bollywood music, with lively rhythms, lilting, ululating vocals, and a very percussion and guitar-heavy sound3. Dangdut bands are usually made up of a lead singer, with up to eight musicians playing instruments as diverse as guitars, mandolins, synthesizers and the aforementioned tabla drum. Elements of house and hip-hop music are found in dangdut, as well as reggae, Western rock music and primarily Middle Eastern pop4.
Rhoma Irama was born Oma Irana, and was born in 1946 in West Java, Indonesia. His parents, Raden Burdah Anggawirya and R.H. Titu Juariah, were members of the aristocrat class of Sudan. Growing up in Indonesia, he soon started playing dangdut music with bands such as Gayhand and Tornado. These bands played the music of Irama's heroes, including The Beatles, Paul Anka and Andy Williams5. Richie Blackmore, of the band Deep Purple, was a huge influence on his guitar stylings. Moving on from that, Irama sang songs in the style of pop Indonesia and orkes Melayu, incorporating dangdust stylings within the latter genre of music when he joined Orkes Melayu Purnama. At this point, he became widely known for his electric guitar skills, and the expansion of its role in orkes Melayu music - the Bollywood influences of dangdut were becoming more popular, and Irama was at the forefront of that phenomenon.
In 1976, Irama went on a hajj, or religions pilgrimage, to Mecca; here, he changed his name to Rhoma Irama, and developed a much more chaste outlook to his life and his music. He started kicking out band members who would have extra-marital sex or perform sins, getting much more in touch with his Muslim roots and beliefs. From that point on, he became a crusader for moral good through his music, speaking against gambling, drugs and corruption as a result. Coming back from this, Irama's music started to diminish in Bollywood influences, and increased the moralizing of its lyrics. One of Irama's major themes in his music is the disparity between social and economic classes in Indonesia, to the point where the government is totalitarian against the impoverished slums of Jakarta.
Irama quickly became the face of dangdut in the 1980s - evolving the dangdut from lively acoustic guitar leanings, he fused heavy metal Western rock influences into the music, coming on stage with black flying-V guitars and tight tanktops and headbands. This evolved the style into a pop music sensation, and his guitar stylings became more Western, moving from the trills and bends of Bollywood-style music to a slightly more straightforward shredding style of 80s metal pop. To that end, as well as the political changes in Indonesia that saw greater equality to the poor, his political messages started to lessen in his works.
One of Irama's most famous albums is Begadang, accompanied by the Soneta group - this was the album that showcased Irama's full influence by Western hard rock bands, electrifying the keyboard, the guitar, and the bass. Even electric gendangs and sulings were implemented, bringing a deeper fusion of Indonesian and Western music together. Rolling Stone Indonesia ranked Begadang as the 11th greatest Indonesian Album of All Time, and the main single, "Begadang," was named the 24th greatest Indonesian Song of All Time6. He even brought his talents to film, performing in many Indonesian musicals performing his own songs, to great acclaim.
In conclusion, Rhoma Irama's unique life and guitar/musical stylings brings a great deal of importance and influence to the musical culture of Indonesia. The dangdut style of music was essentially invented by him, combining light Western pop with Bollywood influences, melding these styles into an energetic brand of music that is perfect for the impoverished youth of Indonesia. Rhoma's skill with the guitar, as well as his use of Western hard-rock rhythms and shredding later in his career in dangdut, brought an intensity and showmanship to Indonesian music that was not very present at the time. By incorporating messages into his music, he managed to bring forth a political sentiment through his songs and guitar playing that flew in the face of the Indonesian government. To that end, Rhoma Irama is one of the most important Indonesian musicians of all time.
Browne, Susan J. (June 2000), The gender implications of dangdut kampungan: Indonesian "low class" popular music, Monash Asia Institute.
Campbell, Debe (18 April 1998), "The 'Billboard' report: Dangdut thrives in SE Asia—music rules Indonesia", Billboard 110: 1
Gehr, Richard (10 December 1991), "Dawn of Dangdut", The Village Voice 36: 86
Nidel, Richard (2004). World Music: The Basics.
Rolling Stone Special Edition: 150 Greatest Indonesian Songs of All Time (56th ed.). Rolling Stone Indonesia. 2009.
Weintraub, Andrew N. Dangdut Stories: A Social and Musical History of Indonesia's Most Popular Music, Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.