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.
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 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.
For travelers and coffee lovers, tasting local coffee would definitely be on the “To Do” list. So for those traveling to West Sumatra, you should not miss out on local coffee and the coffee shops that offer the best quality beans. Here, in this post, I will share names of a number of coffee venues to visit.
Coffee is known to perk you up and put a smile on your face. But if you think about coffee in West Sumatra, I mean really think about it, you realize that coffee in this region has a dark past that won’t make you smile.
The golden coffee age in West Sumatra was during the Dutch occupation where plantations were established in the inlands, such as Bukittinggi. But for the Indonesian people, especially during the 1840s, coffee plantations meant forced labor and coolies.
However, the coffee trade created a lot of changes in West Sumatra. When adat leaders turned to the Dutch during the Padri War, the Dutch took this opportunity to build infrastructure, schools, and coffee warehouses—training the Minangkabau locals to assist coffee businesses.
In fact, there was one famous—shall we say—coffee tycoon, noted in history, that is, Kota Gadang native, Abdul Gani Rajo Mangkuto (1817–1907). He became so successful that he even got to travel to the Netherlands. Nevertheless, continued tax disputes between the Minangkabau people and colonialists, among other things, affected the coffee business in the inlands.
Furthermore, local people were also recruited into administrative positions in the local government. A new class of Dutch-speaking locals, civil servants, and intellectuals emerged, which ultimately gave way to resistance against the Dutch and Indonesia’s independence!
But way before that, in the 1870s, coffee production was no longer profitable and was replaced by other crops, such as copra and tobacco. To make a long story short, the coffee golden age ultimately ended. Coffee was then grown in people’s gardens. People usually drink coffee made from coffee leaves rather than beans.
Visit These Coffee Venues
But luckily today, we can find fresh West Sumatran coffee beans at local markets and coffee shops. After a decline in the popularity of the local coffee beans, things are looking bright as you can now find a variety of local beans—spicy and fruity—in a various places, such as in Padang and Bukittinggi. One example is at the Rimbun Espresso and Brew Bar in Padang and Bukittinggi (also home to the historical Jam Gadang tower clock). And just to name a few other coffee venues in Padang, they are: Kubik Koffie, Lalito Coffee & Bar, M.O. Resto & Coffee, and Konco Coffee, and in Buktitinggi we have the Apache and Café Bedudal.
Meanwhile, in Sawahlunto there is a local brand coffee sold at Warung Kopi Datuk Silungkang Coffee. The makers have been producing local Robusta coffee traditionally since 1992.
And let’s not forget the Solok Coffee trend in 2014 which marked the emergence of a new era of coffee-making in West Sumatra. Under the Solok Radjo cooperative (which members include coffee traders), coffee producers from five villages in Solok District created the Solok Coffee specialty which has a hint of lemon taste. The coffee gradually hit the local market, including the big cities such as Jakarta, and it is now an export commodity. This has certainly put West Sumatran coffee back in the spotlight.
At school in Indonesia, we all learned about Abdul Muis (1886–1959), Indonesia’s first national hero and the author of the very famous novel Salah Asuhan (1928). Although I’ve memorized this many times in order to pass school exams, it was only recently that I realized the relevance of the novel—which talks about mixed cultures and national identity—not only for Indonesia before independence, but in fact, for Indonesia today.
Abdul Muis is known as a journalist, novelist, a nationalist, and advocate for independence.
He was awarded the national hero title after his death by former President Sukarno. Although born in Sungai Puar, West Sumatra, he spent a major part of his adult life in West Java, many years in exile. His father, Datuak Tumangguang Sutan Sulaiman, was the district head of Sungai Puar between 1870s and 1930s. He was known to be very critical of the Dutch government and refused to implement some policies, which resulted in his exile. Like father, like son, as they say.
I have seen pictures of Datuak Tumangguang Sutan Sulaiman’s rumah gadang (traditional long house) in Sungai Puar. It’s also interesting to know that my maternal great grandfather was a Sungai Puar native and is related to Abdul Muis, but we don’t share the same rumah gadang.
Anyway, this is why Abdul Muis is a national hero.
Adul Muis did not complete his university education (Stovia, Jakarta), but his fluency in Dutch made it easy for him to find work, such as being the first Indonesian to work as a clerk (civil servant) for a government department.
Thanks to his good journalistic skills Abdul Muis later worked for a number of newspapers. The first was the Bandung-based newspaper, Bintang Hindia in 1905, which was later banned. Fluency in Dutch got him a job at the Dutch daily newspaper, De Prianger Bode, around 1912. Being a nationalist, he had written articles for the De Express, a Dutch-language daily newspaper, bluntly criticizing Dutch occupation. Tensions with his superiors at De Prianger Bode led him to leave the paper and he became head editor for the first nationalist daily newspaper, Kaum Muda, which promoted anti-colonial views.
Although Abdul Muis was a journalist and writer, he had only written the novel he is best known for during exile in West Java.
Abdul Muis was first of all a political activist. In 1913 he established the Komite Bumi Putra alongside other nationalists who criticized the Dutch government’s policy of collecting tax from the native Indonesians for the celebration of the Dutch people’s independence from France. Addul Muis and his colleagues were apprehended by Dutch Indies authorities because of this.
Abdul Muis also took part in Sarekat Islam, the first national political party in the Dutch Indies, which promoted Islamic modernism. In 1917 he represented the party in negotiations with the Dutch to obtain direct representation for Indonesia in the Dutch parliamentary system which, however, failed. In 1918 he became a member of the volksraad (the people’s representative body).
Abdul Muis was also a labor and human rights activist. In 1922 Abdul Muis led a worker’s strike in Yogyakarta to demand better conditions for workers and was arrested. In 1923 he led a protest against a land supervision law (landrentestelsel) which was going to be implemented by the Dutch and he lobbied local figures in Padang to object taxes collected by the Dutch government. As a result, Abdul Muis was banned from political activities. In fact, he was banned from leaving West Java for 13 years (1926–1939).
It was during his exile that he used words to compensate for his political restraint and penned the critically acclaimed, Salah Asuhan, published in 1928 and translated as Never the Twain in 2010.
His work opened the door to the modern Indonesian literature era. The novel highlights tensions between Eastern and Western culture and what it meant to efforts in building a national identity for an independent Indonesia. It seems to me that this issue is still relevant for our country even today, although not only in terms of East meets West, but in reference to tensions among local cultures and identities. What do you think?
Autumn is a season which represents release and maturity. I have read that somewhere, I can’t remember where exactly, but by what our family is going through now, I am beginning to understand what the metaphor is all about.
We are here in the month of October, a month in the season of autumn. Our family has been going through a difficult time these last few months, my uncle from my mother’s side had been stricken by illness. On October 8th we lost him.
Just like a lot of families in the big city of Jakarta, bad traffic, long working hours, tons of school activities make the extended family a thing of the past. Families just don’t connect physically but through social media messages when they have the time. So as you can guess, I hardly saw my uncle. Only in important family occasions would I see him—during weddings, funerals, or Idul Fitri family gatherings—and sometimes, like most teens, I’m there because my mother had dragged me there.
Although we don’t meet as often as we should, I remember my uncle, “Om Amri”, as I would call him, as a friendly man who likes to chitchat with a sense of humor and a distinctive way of speaking. Even though I don’t always get his jokes, I remember the big smile he always had on his face. A warm and caring smile.
The last time I saw Uncle Amri was at the hospital and I couldn’t attend his funeral in his hometown, Sawahlunto. Funny thing, I always thought that he and I and Aunt Ita will visit Sawahlunto together some day. But that’s okay.
After graduating from high school in Sawahlunto, my uncle moved to Jakarta to go to college. Even after 48 years, he never forgot his hometown and visited it regularly. His heart belonged to Sawahlunto and that is where he wanted to return to. On Sawahlunto soil, close to the Sage II house, and under the Sawahlunto sky is where he chose to rest.
The grief and lost that our family is feeling with the passing of Uncle Amri is what autumn is all about. It is about releasing and letting go. The changes that come about because of it make us more mature and a better person. This is the phase my family, especially my aunt and her children, is going through at this time. Letting go of a loved one will make us grow spiritually and emotionally.
Rest in peace my uncle, Amri Djamiun, it was nice knowing you. Thanks for being part of our lives and teaching me this great lesson in life.
On the 17th of August, Indonesia celebrates its Independence Day. Amidst this joyful celebration, we should be reminded to pay respect to one of Indonesia’s less celebrated female hero, Rohana Kudus, who died on the same day 27 years after independence. Rohana Kudus was Indonesia’s first female journalist and was an advocate for women’s education. She founded the first school for women in Koto Gadang, West Sumatra. To learn more about this pioneering women’s life, you can visit the Rohana Kudus Museum in Koto Gadang, Bukittingi, West Sumatra, just a two-hour drive from the Sage II Vacation Home, in Sawahlunto.
About Rohana Kudus, My Ancestor
Known as the “Ibu Kartini” of Koto Gadang, Rohana Kudus was born on 20 December 1884 in Koto Gadang and happens to be the cousin of my great grandmother from my mother’s side. Although I have learned about her at school but it was only when I was in junior high school that my mother told me that we are related to her and that our families once lost contact for a period of time. Ever since then, I was eager to know more about her.
Reading about Rohana Kudus, I found out that her way of thinking was ahead of her time. Rohana, who herself never had any formal education, was an advocate for women’s education. Rohana established good relations with the Dutch women in her neighborhood and it was through a friendship that she learned to knit, weave, and sew, as well as learned the Dutch language. This had influenced her views on education and led her, in 1911, to found the Amai Setia Women’s Handcraft School which also taught women how to read and write. In 1917 she established a school for women and men, this time using her own name the “Rohana School”.
I was told that she encountered various obstacles in running her handcraft school’s activities. Some residents disliked her views on women’s emancipation which conflicted with the cultural norms of the old days.
What I also learned and found remarkable is that Rohana was also the founder of the first women’s newspaper in Indonesia in 1912, called Sunting Melayu, where all the writers and editors were women. Throughout her life she worked for a number of newspapers.
Aside from having the skills to teach and write, Rohana was also a successful businesswoman. She was able to market the handcraft school’s merchandise and they were imported to Holland. The Women’s Handcraft School is now a handcraft shop and on top of this shop is where the Rohana Kudus Museum humbly stands.
Despite having good relations with the Dutch, Rohana was against Dutch occupation. She led a public kitchen during the battle with the Dutch and smuggled arms wrapped in fruits and vegetables.
Even though I had all this information about her, Rohana Kudus, my ancestor, is still a mystery to me. I could only imagine this young fearless woman who devoted her life to the future of the people of West Sumatra, especially women.
Reading about the Rohana Kudus Museum, I learned more about her. The museum kept a lot of her personal belongings and photographs of her family and relatives. Her father, Mohamad Rasjad Maharadja, was an advisor for the Sultan of Deli. It was her father who taught Rohana how to read and write. He was also the founder of what was later to be the Studiefonds Koto Gadang, a school for the people of Koto Gadang.
Rohana’s half-brother, Sutan Syahrir, was Indonesia’s first prime minister and her cousin, Agus Salim, is a national hero who fought for Indonesia’s independence. Then I suddenly realized, how hard my ancestors have fought for our independence. Previously, it was just something I read in school textbooks, as if having no relation to me.
Acknowledgment Long Overdue
Rohana lived a long life, she died on 17 August 1972 in Jakarta at the age of 87. It is such a shame that the government acknowledged all of Rohana’s work only after she had died and that she was not quite a celebrated national hero. It was in 1974, two years after her death, that Rohana was awarded as the first female journalist of Indonesia by the Government of West Sumatra, and in 1987 awarded for being a pioneer of Indonesia’s Journalism by Indonesia’s Minister of Information. In 2007, she was finally awarded the Bintang Jasa Utama, a medal for civilians who are acknowledged for their services to the country.
RIP, Rohana Kudus, you are an inspiration for me and for Indonesia’s young generation.
Long before Thomas the train became famous, there was Mak Itam running through the railways of West Sumatra, an island unknown to most parts of the world in the 19th century. Mak Itam (Mr. Black), the nick name given to the long sleek black locomotive, is Indonesia’s oldest train which first operated in Sawahlunto to transport coal for the Dutch Indies government. He was built by Hartmann Chemnitz from Esslingen, Germany, with the serial number E 1060. Now he is the icon of Sawahlunto and is the star of Sawahlunto’s train station museum which received UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation for the category Living Museum Town in 2009.
This locomotive is full of history. If Mak Itam could speak like Thomas he would be able to tell you how he witnessed the beginning and the end of the coal mining Dutch Indies enterprise. Traveling from Sawahlunto to Emmahaven (Telukbayur) Padang to transport coal, Mak Itam witnessed the first coal workers settlements in Sawahlunto. In fact, he may even know about some of the worst times in the history of Dutch occupation where people from other islands were forced to work to build the railways all through the 1890s. He also witnessed the fall of the coal mine industry and how it impacted on Sawahlunto’s economy and population.
Mak Itam was still on duty during the 1980s where he was sent to work and transport coal in Ambarawa, Central Java. However after only a short period he was called off duty in the 1990s and retired at the Amabrawa Train Station Museum. This is when he began his career in the tourism industry, taking tourists for a ride from the museum.
It was not until 2008 that he was brought back to his home town, Sawahlunto, and was back in operation in 2009. This time his job was to take tourists from the Sawahlunto Train Station to Muarakelaban. Mak Itam has also provided transportation for participants of the Tour de Singkarak, the last time in 2012.
Since his return, Mak Itam has settled at the Sawahlunto Train Station Museum. Opened in 2005, this museum displays photographs of Mak Itam during his youth and the Sawahlunto Train Station’s activities during the golden years of coal mining. It holds old train and communication equipment as well as miniature replicates of old locomotives.
Unfortunately, in 2013 Mak Itam suffered from combustion problems and was not able to operate. However, museum visitors could pay tribute to the historic Mak Itam in the museum where he was resting. Lack of government funds delayed Mak Itam’s regular operation in taking visitors from the train station. It took quite a while to figure out the way to repair Mak Itam, however in 2016, Indonesia’s locomotive experts have finally revived Mak Itam. In 13 June 2016, the Government of Sawahlunto launched the comeback of the legendary Mak Itam. He elegantly came dashing through the train tracks while a gathering crowd applauded with delight.
According to Sawahlunto’s Mayor, Ali Yusuf, Mak Itam will continue his important role in Sawahlunto’s tourism sector as soon as possible.
Music has always been an important element in the Minangkabau society of West Sumatra. Traditional music is a major part of the rituals and festive activities of Minang community life. Moreover, Minang music has developed as a genre and has widely contributed to the development of modern music in Indonesia, while continuing to maintain the Minang identity.
Influences on Traditional Music
The unique sounds and instruments of Minang traditional music reflects the roles and statuses of each group in the community and serves to strengthen collectivity and cohesiveness. Minangkabau traditional instruments include the serunai (a wind instrument influenced by Indian culture), saluang (a bamboo flute), and talempong (a gong-like percussion). Some musical instruments are influenced by Arabic culture, such as the rabab (similar to a small violin) and the rebana percussions. The latter has its roots in Arabic culture and is frequently used in social or Islamic-related events. All these instruments are known to provide a distinct character to Minang traditional music.
In Indonesia, the Minang people are not only known for their traditional music but also for what is called the Minang pop genre, where modern musical instruments are also used. In the Minang pop genre, traditional instruments are played in combination with the piano and the guitar and other instruments. Many modern instruments that originated from Europe, made their way to Indonesia during the Dutch occupation. For example, the guitar was first introduced when a group of Portuguese people held captive by the Dutch would spend time playing guitar.
Hybrid music containing various elements of local and foreign features, which formed the Minang pop genre date way back to the 1880s when the Dutch theatre (tonil) presented these kind of musical influences in the theatres of Kota Padang and later in Bukittinggi. Gamad-Melayu music containing elements of Indian and Portuguese music has also been identified as the beginning of what would later be known as Minang pop. The Evening Market Fair (‘Pasar Malam’) which was held regularly in Kota Padang featured other types of popular music, such as keroncong, which has its influence from the Portuguese. The Javanese people who were taken to Sawahluntho by the Dutch to work in the coal mines played an important role in spreading keroncong in West Sumatra.
Minang Pop Music
Elements of music which combined traditional and modern characteristics continued to influence the development of modern music in West Sumatra and outside of the province, especially the genre known as Minang pop. In fact, a kind of Minang pop music invasion emerged in the early 1950s during the Soekarno era when Western influences and culture were suppressed. It provided the right moment for regional music to rise and grab the attention of the nation.
The Minang pop genre was popular in Jakarta mainly in the 1950s to 1970s where it was initiated by the Minang people who migrated to the cities. Leaving their village town (especially for men) to find a better living is part of the Minangkabau way of life which is still practiced until today. Minang pop music, sung by using the Minang language and with lyrics sometimes describing the landscapes of the villages, was soothing to the hearts of those Minang migrants far from home and at the same time it served as maintaining their Minang identity. More than that, the music was received quite well by the Indonesian public.
The mid-1950s saw the emergence of a Jakarta-based musical group under the name Orkes Gumarang who succeeded in making Minang pop a commercial break through. In a political climate which restricted western music, Orkes Gumarang was smart to adopt elements of Latin music. Not only did their song received high radio airplay, they even succeeded in performing live on the national radio, RRI (Radio of the Republic of Indonesia), where they had to go through a very tight selection process. The band reached its peak of success in the ‘60s and is considered one of the pioneers of Indonesian modern music.
Orkes Gumarang enjoyed internationally acclaimed success, they toured the United States, Europe, and Japan. In 1971 they played for the first time in West Sumatra, but only in two towns, Padang and Bukittinggi. Other towns, such as Sawahlunto, which was a title for a popular Minang pop song, ‘Nasib Sawahlunto’ (the Fate of Sawahlunto) were left disappointed.
Even today, Minang pop music has not lost the innovative sense which it had during its heyday. The music now combines elements of hip hop and various types of dance music mix. Whilst maintaining the importance of the Minang cultural identity, the Minang people have shown to be receptive to change, making the Minang culture always dynamic.