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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Dikir-Dangdut and the Defiant Spirit of Kelantanese Women

Although the infectious rhythms of dikir-dangdut are no longer ubiquitous on the streets of Kelantan, they still resonate through the subterranean channels of the virtual realm.

Source: Penang Monthly, originally from ajriya ©

Rosalinda kept her head down and her eyes fixed on the floor as she walked out of the Gua Musang Lower Syariah Court in June 2014. Hot on her heels was a throng of journalists from local newspapers bombarding her with questions and cameramen jostling to get her close-up. Among them was a Sinar Harian photo-journalist who managed to capture a shot of her wearing a turquoise scarf, fumbling around in her handbag. The next day, the newspaper published her photo in a brief report with a headline that read “Penyanyi dikir barat didenda RM1,000” (Dikir barat singer fined RM1,000).

A month earlier, in May, Rosalinda had been pulled off the stage by religious authorities at a small festival in Padang Perumahan Felda Aring Enam, Gua Musang, Kelantan. The 23 year-old Kelantanese singer was accused of dressing indecently while performing at the festival. She had shared the stage with Kajol, a transgender and a fellow singer known for her melodious high-pitched voice. She, too, was found guilty by the court for “dressing like a woman”: dyed-hair, wearing red lipstick, a bra, earrings, and carrying a handbag. Kajol served a six-week prison sentence and was fined RM1000.

Rosalinda and Kajol are well-known singers of “dikir-dangdut”, a popular folk music genre in Kelantan. Whether blaring from speakers at the night market and food stalls or hummed on the lips of young lovers, dikir-dangdut spices up mundane everyday life in Kelantan. Also known as “dangdut Kelantan”, “dikir moden” or simply “dangdut”, the genre is a song-based music with raunchy lyrics, upbeat rhythms, mischievous attitudes, and suggestive dance gestures. Dikir-dangdut is dominated by Kelantanese female singers who project a flirtatious and seductive public image.

The Emergence of Dikir-Dangdut

Dikir-dangdut owes its origin to the dikir barat—the only singing musical form in Kelantan that bridges traditional and popular genres. In live performances, dikir-dangdut usually shares a stage with dikir barat (see Penang Monthly July 2022 issue), borrowing its instrumentation and musical patterns.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the late Pak Leh Tapang brought dikir barat from Southern Thailand and improvised the art form in Kelantan. Since its early days, dikir barat has been largely male dominated with the Tok Jogho and Tukang Karut roles almost exclusively performed by men. However, over time, a space developed within that tradition to embrace female singers. These women referred to themselves as “penyanyi” (singer) rather than Tok Jogho, but were almost always accompanied by dikir barat ensembles. Dikir-dangdut thus emerged from the cradle of dikir barat, only to grow into a notorious subculture of its own.

The dikir-dangdut female singers were mostly amateur crooners or family members of dikir barat performers. Some of them were seeking to launch their career as professional singers, while others ventured into dikir-dangdut as a hobby. The earlier or “traditional” dikir-dangdut singers mostly sang a repertoire of cover songs adapted to Kelantanese dialect, culled from hits on national radio airwaves—Bollywood ballads, Indonesian and Malaysian dangdut with roots reaching back to pop sounds of Orkes Melayu in the 1950s.

Just as Johor-born Malaysian “dangdut queen” Zaleha Hamid became a legend with hits like “Penasaran”, some dikir-dangdut cover songs have attained iconic status, such as “To Shayar Hai”, Kajol’s rendition of Alka Yagnik’s hit song. Among the popular dikir-dangdut songstresses of the earlier generation were Norma Dahlia, Ani Cantik Molek, Zaleha Tahi Lalat, Che Esah Sayonara, Faridah Kampung Pisang, and Sakinah Dangdut Reggae. This generation of performers enjoyed relative freedom, travelling from funfair to funfair to perform around Peninsular Malaysia, especially the East Coast.

The life-blood of dikir-dangdut also flowed freely across Sungai Golok, between Kelantan and Southern Thailand. Performances at local venues in Patani, friendly competitions, guest singers from Patani invited to Kelantan and vice-versa, Kelantanese singers recording music videos in Yala—all this attests to the fluidity and vibrancy of dikir-dangdut subculture in its heyday. This free flow of popular culture was disrupted when Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) regulated entertainment in Kelantan in the early 1990s.

Despite state-imposed restrictions on culture, a new generation of dikir-dangdut singers emerged. Brandishing overtly sexy personas with risque outfits, and accompanied by the synthetic tones of electronic music, these singers stormed the spotlight with wild and rebellious spirit. Some of these dikir-dangdut entertainers became household names such as Adik Wani, Rosalinda, Munirah, Ayu Baby, Kajol, and male singers such as Zaidi Buluh Perindu and Man Khan.

Expressing the Self through Sexuality

Dikir-dangdut became one of the few available spaces for Kelantanese women to lepas angin—release their ‘inner winds’ through an expression of temperament and desire (see essay by Pauline Fan in Axon, 2013). Dikir-dangdut women performers actively create their space for self-expression and social commentary, exploring themes of love, longing, separation, jealousy, frustration, betrayal, revenge, independence, empowerment, social ills, and sexuality.

These songstresses give voice to their personal desires, disappointments, and fantasies as agents, not objects, of desire. In rare public expressions of sexuality in Kelantan, especially in the face of growing conservatism, dikir-dangdut singers define their own public image. Their racy fashion statements, naughty lyrics, and seductive dance moves challenge moralising paternalistic views of how women should dress, speak, think, and behave.

In one of Adik Wani’s most popular hits, Tubik Masuk—a Kelantanese rendition of “Keluar Masuk” (In and Out) by Zaleha Hamid—she ostensibly addresses the social problem of smoking, with lyrics saturated with sexual innuendos.

Suk suk suk tubik masuk,

Tubik masuk ah ah tubik lagi,

Dap dap dap meme sedap,

Lamo lamo ah ah koho sedap.

Adik Wani also stirred up a sensation alongside Ain, Elyana, and Erma in the music video “Serabut Weh”, their Kelantanese rendition of the dangdut hit “Bete” by Indonesian girl group Manis Manja. Dressed in black corset tops, hot pants, and boots in the back of a pickup truck, gyrating their hips and shaking their bosoms, the Kelantanese girls make their Indonesian counterparts seem somewhat tame.

In Kelantan’s music recording industry, talent was not a paramount consideration. They celebrated any woman who wanted to perform, giving them opportunities to record music videos and albums. The dikir barat stage and local recording labels thus nurtured women performers who dared to stand out, express themselves, and leave their mark on the local popular music scene. Dikir-dangdut is a somewhat age-less musical genre: some songstresses began singing in public as teenagers, like Adik Wani, Rosalinda, and Zaleha Adik Manja, while others kept performing into their mature years.

PAS’ crackdown on culture in Kelantan has severely reduced public space for women performers, from traditional Mak Yong to modern dikir-dangdut. According to Sakinah Dangdut Reggae, an older generation dikir-dangdut singer now affectionately known as Moksu Nah: “The authorities don’t allow women to perform on stage. If we cannot perform, we cannot express ourselves, our ‘inner winds’ (angin) won’t flow freely.”

Adapting to the times

The dikir-dangdut scene developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Kelantanese record labels such as Sincere, located on Jalan Sultanah Zainab in Kota Bharu. Sincere also produced and released albums of Kelantanese rock bands such as Desire and Kapilla. To be considered a professional dikir-dangdut singer at that time, artistes were expected to record albums. There was a low-budget, makeshift feel to these local Kelantanese music productions—due to the high cost of renting a studio, they tried to complete everything in one take. Unsurprisingly, quality was at times compromised. Record labels also produced their own music videos. Dikir-dangdut music videos were often recorded in a private hall decorated to resemble a night club, filmed from a single-frame angle of the singer for the entire duration of the song.

The early 1990s coincided with PAS’ takeover of the state government of Kelantan, heralding a period of cultural purification. Cultural traditions such as wayang kulit and mak yong were deemed unIslamic and banned outright, while dikir barat—and subsequently dikir-dangdut—came under pressure and scrutiny from religious authorities. Even though there is no specific directive by the state government, dikir-dangdut performances are denied permits to perform (see article by Julia Mayer, Policy Forum, 2017). The reasons authorities disapproved of dikir barat and dikir-dangdut, is because they involved men and women mingling on the same stage, its lyrics that veered towards eroticism, and the ‘indecent’ dressing and dance moves. The pressure from religious authorities led to some dikir-dangdut singers eventually ended their careers, while others continued to perform in private albeit cautiously.

After a long hiatus, a group of dikir barat and dikir-dangdut practitioners led by the lyricist Sufian Hanuman Ikan consulted state government officials to negotiate conditions to resume performances. Sufian presented a sample dikir barat performance to the state government, with an all-male ensemble. In return, the then Kelantan Menteri Besar, Nik Abdul Aziz introduced a set of guidelines—performances must end before 12am, songs must be moralistic and educational, and women were now prohibited to perform. Sufian agreed with the regulations, supporting state-sanctioned “pemurnian” (purification). Dikir-dangdut was completely left out of these negotiations. As a result, dikir-dangdut that had once served as a creative space for women, was relegated to existential limbo: not officially banned yet not allowed to exist.

Nevertheless, dikir-dangdut songstresses refuse to give in easily; they still defy authorities and find ways to perform. No longer allowed to perform at community events such as funfairs, dikir-dangdut performers moved their scene online, garnering new audiences on Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media platforms. They use their entrepreneurial skills to secure sponsorship for their art—endorsing cosmetic brands or herbal products that enhance sexual prowess. Although the infectious rhythms of dikir-dangdut are no longer ubiquitous on the streets of Kelantan, they still resonate through the subterranean channels of the virtual realm.

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, April 2023.


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