Last month, an Indonesian singer was killed on stage by a king cobra she used in her act, making headlines around the world. The BBC’s Rebecca Henschke travelled to her home village in West Java to find the truth behind the increasingly salacious world of dangdut music and the pressure on its performers to stand out from the crowd.
On a bamboo bench outside her home in Karawaci, Encum recalls seeing her daughter, Irma Bule, perform.
“It was embarrassing, seeing her up there dancing on stage like that,” she says.
She knew her daughter was a dangdut singer, but she didn’t know her act that day in Karawang involved snakes.
Disturbing video seen around the world last month shows Irma accidentally stepping on the king cobra as she dances.
It clamps onto her leg. Stage hands pull the snake off her but she continues to perform for another 45 minutes.
She was only taken off stage after she started vomiting. By the time Encum arrived at the hospital, her daughter was dead.
“I always hoped she would become a teacher but she always wanted to sing. No-one forced her – she was doing what she loved,” says Ercum, wiping tears away with her headscarf.
“I miss her terribly. She was a good mother, a good wife, a dutiful daughter.”
She wants to know why no-one rushed her to hospital immediately.
Multimillion dollar industry
Dangdut combines Indian, Arabic and Malay influences in fast-paced dance floor fillers, and has been hugely popular in Indonesia for decades. Its singers are renowned for their erotic dancing.
Irma had been performing with snakes for eight years and with cobras for the last two years.
“The snake killed her but the snake didn’t crawl up on stage by himself,” says her uncle, Maman, who has been at the police station following up the case.
“Someone gave it to her and told her it was safe. Whether it was neglect or planned, she was killed.”
Police are still investigating what happened. A number of people have been questioned by police but no-one has been charged.
The organisers of the event have denied any wrongdoing. They told the BBC they just hired the musicians and the snake handler.
The snake handler, one of those questioned, could not be reached.
Dancing for tips
Many dangdut stars began their careers in rice farming villages like Karawaci, where Nani Sanjaya is entertaining an all-age crowd at a village wedding.
As night falls, she and other performers change into more revealing, sparkling outfits.
Men come up on stage to dance around them. They tuck money into their hands, hair and clothes as they sway around them.
The performers earn a fee through their agents, but most of their earnings come from these tips.
Nani, who was friends with Irma, says a performer gets “more money and tips if you perform with snakes, you’re the star of the show”.
“There is pressure to please and stand out from all the others, we all dream of becoming stars,” she says.
‘We were nobodies’
Dangdut is a multimillion dollar industry. For those who make it big, a career on TV beckons.
At a studio of the national television station in the capital, Jakarta, the latest dangdut sensation Duo Serigala are performing alongside two of the biggest stars of the genre.
The pair, Pamela and Ovi, have made themselves stand out with a salacious dance that became known as the “dribble dance” (goyang drible), and their sensational and sexy Instagram account.
“It’s been a long journey, we have worked very hard from the bottom to get here, we started from zero,” says Pamela Safitri.
“We were nobodies. I am sorry to say that our families were poor but now slowly with the money we are earning from singing we are able to support them.”
They too were shocked by Irma Bule’s death and say they can relate to her story.
“Irma Bule was doing the same as we did, working really hard to try and entertain people,” says Ovi Sovianti. “She used the snakes to make her performance the best. We really feel for her family.”
King of Dangdut
Rhoma Irama has been the undisputed King of Dangdut since the 1970s.
But the singer and politician – he has his own unofficial political party – has been vocal about his distaste for what he sees as the increasingly erotic performances of female singers.
“Polite dancing not erotic dance – that’s the true dangdut,” he says in his office in Jakarta.
But despite opposition from some conservative Muslim groups, he says there is nothing in Islam that outlaws dangdut.
“Islam is very pluralist. Islam is peaceful. Love Indonesia, love dangdut, love the world,” he says with a laugh. “Dangdut is Indonesia, it’s the spirit of Indonesia.”
“Do singers often get killed by snakes?” I ask.
“This is the first time I have ever heard of it,” he replies. “Snakes are not essential to perform dangdut at all. In all my years on stage I have never met a snake.”
He says the dangdut community is close and that they have a fund for singers who die or get sick. Irma’s family say they have received money from the dangdut community.
Back at the family’s home in Karawaci, there is a knock on the door, and Irma Bule’s daughters rush in from school.
The oldest is eight. She says she too wants to be a singer like her mum.
Irma’s uncle, Maman says he will not let that happen, but admits: “I can’t stop her.”
“What I will do is keep her in school and, if we can, send her to university. Hopefully with a good education, she will make her own good decisions about what to do with her life.”