In this photograph taken on June 13, 2012, a dangdut singer, center, performs along a street in Jakarta. The coarse lyrics and provocative dance moves of Indonesian dangdut music have rubbed conservatives the wrong way, but die-hard fans and artists in the world's largest Muslim nation have stayed true to a genre that has roots in the social underclass
AFP/Getty Images
By Yenni Kwok
April 8, 2016

The bizarre death of a singer in Indonesia became international headlines in recent days. Irma Bule lost her life on Sunday after being bitten by a venomous king cobra she brought on stage as a prop at a village in West Java. The news sparked a wave of sensationalist headlines: “Shocking! Singer Irma Bule dies after being bit by venomous cobra on stage! (Watch video),” read one. “Tragic singer bitten by cobra on stage keeps singing for 45 MINUTES before collapsing and dying,” read another.

However, few stories looked beyond the lurid confluence of pop music, poison and a young woman’s death to understand why Irma was on stage with such a dangerous animal in the first place.

Irma, 26, was not a nationally famous singer. A mother of three, she was known in the Karawang area of West Java province for her goyang ular, Indonesian for “snake dance moves.” She started singing dangdut since she graduated from junior high school.

Dangdut is a popular music genre in Indonesia, and often used to attract crowds, especially during election campaigns. Many new singers are young women who come from small towns or poor backgrounds, or both. Like Irma, they tour rural and urban backwaters to earn a living, usually to help support their families, while dreaming of a breakthrough in Indonesia’s pop music scene.

They are usually paid a pittance. According to Irma’s fellow singer, Yeyen, girls get paid around $20 per performance (tips from the audience are extra). But, if they perform on stage with a snake, they get $25. “If there are snake dancers, there will be more audience,” Yeyen told local media. “Therefore … we have snake dancers.”

The young singers have to find a way to entice bigger audiences in the highly competitive market. They are usually dressed in skimpy costumes. They invent provocative dance moves. Dangdut superstar Inul Daratista, whose suggestive, gyrating dance movements have irked religious conservatives, began her career touring small towns and villages in East Java province before videos of her style of dancing propelled her to fame and caught the eyes of television executives.

In an interview with news website Detik.com, Irma’s mother Encum said her daughter, whose real name is Irmawati but whom her family called Eneng, started performing with snakes three years ago — but she usually sang with nonvenomous pythons that belonged to a snake handler and with the snakes’ mouths duct-taped shut. “Eneng perhaps didn’t know it was a poisonous snake,” Encum said about the animal used last Sunday. “She was just told to perform with the snake and its mouth wasn’t shut with a duct tape.”

There was also a speculation that Irma brought snakes to prevent unwanted touching from audience members when she was on stage, says Indonesian journalist Made Supriatma, who has researched dangdut music, in a Facebook post.

But beyond the bizarre, sensational story, there is something sad and sobering about Irma’s tale. “Irma is a portrait of an Indonesian woman who happens to be at the lower level of society,” Supriatma writes. “She fights hard. She exploits what she can exploit to go on living.” She certainly doesn’t deserve to die amid a storm of lurid, tabloid headlines.

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