The Act of Sawer from Various Points of View

One thing that is undeniably attached to the culture of dangdut is menyawer – an activity of asking for money to the audience or when audience gave money to the performers (in a travelling act). In a research done on dangdut performances in Jakarta and Indramayu, Bader (2011) described menyawer as an on-stage meeting between singers and audiences that involved an act of giving and receiving money – both directly or indirectly. In certain instances, when there was no monetary transaction done on stage, performers would receive additional fees when the show has been completed.

From its historical aspect, menyawer can be linked to local traditions that exist in various regions in Indonesia. In West Java, for example, people were familiar with the song “Goyang Dombret”, which according to Weintraub is an ethnic dangdut. In 2000, the songs popularity broadened to the national level after being covered by Uut Permatasari and Inul Daratista. “Goyang Dombret” is usually performed in parties every night during the dry season in fishing villages on the north coast of West Java, including Cilamaya (Karawang), Mayangan (Subang) and Indramayu. Female singers who performed the song are called ronggeng and they usually danced a routine that emphasizes on the movement of the hips. Ronggeng would often invite male audience members to dance with them. And it was during this time on stage that male audiences would usually give money to ronggeng as part of a cultural practice called ‘sawer’.

Linking to the Western Java traditional customs, Aryandri & MS associated menyawer with Bajidor – a harvesting celebration in Karawang involving music and dance performances. The female performers personified Dewi Sri, the goddess believed to be the giver of life. While performing, the dancer would shake her hips. Hefner (1987) once photographed an activity of menyawer when observing a Tayuban show in East Java. As stated earlier, female dangdut singer would often adopt elements of Tayub. In addition to the dance techniques used by Inul Daratista, other elemens of Tayuban adapted to dangdut performances is the action of the tledhek (female Tayub perfomer), which was similar to the stage acts of female singers.

For the most part, the members of the audience did menyawer voluntarily. But more often than not, this activity was carried out after some provocation from the singer. As a summary of the examples given, it can be concluded menyawer has become some kind of a decorum that needs to be followed, either voluntarily or by force, when one went to see a dangdut performance.

It has been said that the sexier the singer appearance is, the more money she will get. This notion affirmed the view of some people, who believed that the appearance of a female dangdut singer is associated with the male gaze, which emitted a look of pleasure when gazing towards an object. However, this is not always true in every dangdut performances. Even when the singer was dressed moderately and did not perform sensual dance moves, the act of menyawer could still be carried out.

As a response to this, Bader & Richter (2014) stated that menyawer wasn’t always associated with sexual transaction, but rather a form of tradition in the Javanese and/or Sundanese culture. They also suggested that menyawer could be based on the motive of honoring the host who had invited dangdut singers. The rationale of respecting the host could even be more valid when the person doing the act of menyawer is related to the host.

Like Bader & Richter, Wallach (2017) expressed an alternative view about the motives of menyawer. He went to explain that the act of giving money (saweran) to dangdut singers was a sign of appreciation, not only because their performance was great, but also because it was effective – in terms of how it was perceived as an excitement and the positive response given by the audience when the host presented the dangdut singer on stage.

Another side of menyawer worth to be highlighted was the issue of power between men and women. By giving money to dangdut singers, male singer asserted male power and self-control. By self-control it was meant as the desire for physical contact on the stage, which then can be altered by giving money – though in reality it didn’t necessarily mean that menyawer negates the physical contact between the singer and the audience (refer to previous discussion on audience and singer interaction). In relation to male power, female singer who are on the receiving side of menyawer were often perceived as inferior and merely an object that did not a sense of agency.

However, the assumption of menyawer is identical to male power could be rebutted by the fact that women often participate in this activity. Based on Bader’s note (2011), and many other instances, women of various ages had been recorded actively participating in menyawer during dangdut performances as the giver. On the other hand, there are those who saw menyawer as an implication of women’s empowerment in utilizing their assets (physical appearance, the ability to act on stage). When female singers received money only by dancing suggestively to show their sensuality, some people would consider the singer to have held a significant freedom and power.

Aryandari, Citra & Gilang MS. (2017). Goyang Karawang: Exploration of Woman’s Body Between Rites and Fiesta. Mudra Journal of Art and Culture Vol. 32 No. 3, p. 283-291.
Bader, Sandra. (2011). Dancing Bodies on Stage. Indonesia and the Malay World Vol. 39 No. 115, p. 333-355.
Bader, Sandra & Max M. Richter. (2014). Dangdut Beyond the Sex: Creating Intercorporeal Space through Nyawer Encounters in West Java, Indonesia. Ethnomusicology Forum Vol. 23, No. 2, p. 163–183.
Hefner, Robert W. (1987). The Politics of Popular Art: Tayuban Dance and Culture Change in East Java. Indonesia No. 43, p. 75-94.
Wallach, Jeremy. (2017). Musik Indonesia 1997-2001: Kebisingan dan Keberagaman Aliran Lagu (Tini, transl.). Depok: Komunitas Bambu.
Weintraub, Andrew N. (2012). Dangdut: Musik, Identitas, dan Budaya Indonesia (A.B. Prasetyo, transl.). Jakarta: KPG.