Wandering Around Batusangkar, West Sumatra: Chicken Song for the Soul

In Batusangkar, West Sumatra, while stopping for lunch at Pondok Flora restaurant, a band was playing a number of traditional songs. For Jakartans like my family, being entertained by a group of musicians playing traditional instruments live is not something that happens every day. So it was an experience to enjoy. Like tourists, my cousin and aunt even took a clip of the band playing.

Bares Solok_cropped
This man is playing the “saluang”, a traditional instrument from West Sumatra.

The band played a couple of old numbers which your brain would slowly recollect as a tune you have heard somewhere some time ago, even if you are a Jakartan who have never been to West Sumatra. Some of the music are from songs that you learned in elementary school; for the older generation, these songs were once popular on the radio and on TV.

One of the songs is the all-time legendary West Sumatran hit, Ayam Den Lapeh. Although the song may ring a bell to many Indonesians (and Malaysians), but who really knows what the song is all about?  Ayam Den Lapeh, literally means “my chicken got away”. So I bet that is what most people think this uptempo song is all about—a chicken that went loose. This was what I thought too all through grade school. In fact, I thought den was short for raden (a Javanese title for royalty). So I figured it was about this spoilt raden who is complaining about some royal chicken he lost. Being older now, I knew it had to be more complicated than that. So I decided it was time I consulted good old Google and what I found was pretty much to my surprise.

Ayam den Lapeh_cropped
These girls are playing the “talempong”, another traditional instrument from West Sumatra.

Ayam Den Lapeh was a song written by Nurseha and Abdul Hamid which in the song he used chicken as a metaphor. In the old days in West Sumatra, chicken was an expensive livestock. In the song, chicken was used to symbolize something precious. So the song tells a story of someone regretting that he/she has lost something or maybe someone—which makes more sense, I think—very special or precious to him/her, letting it get away right under his/her eyes.

Although the song is actually talking about a dark moment, it is sang in a cheerful way and the music has an upbeat tempo. Some interpretations say that the song is about lessons learned and looking at things from a positive perspective, even if you have lost something valuable to your heart. Hence, the cheerful sound.

So to understand the song, you have to look at the context and culture of the Sumatran society.

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