I Rep Malang: Indonesia Bali Funk and the struggle for the Word.

Presented at Sonic Ontologies: Music as Translation
School of Transforming Cultures, University of Technology Sydney, 23 May 2012.

This paper concerns the inaugural visit to Australia of the Indonesian poet, activist and MC, Nova Ruth, over the summer of 2007—8 on behalf of Gang, an Australia-Indonesia cultural exchange, and in particular our collaboration; a song titled Arek Malang Kudu Seneng and this subsequent vinyl record. 

I consider this to be one of several artifacts of a minor history—that came together over a series of slight coincidences, overlaps and happy accidents—played out against the backdrop of two significant events. The first being the hospitalisation and death of Suharto in January 2008, Indonesia’s second President and New Order autocrat, whose 31-year-reign had come to an end a decade earlier during an era of popular revolt known as the Reformasi. The second significant event was the much anticipated ‘Apology to the Stolen Generations’ by the then newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008.

Dropping English
Some drop science, well I’m dropping English.’   N.W.A.  Express Yourself, 1988. 
A handful of artists had arrived from Indonesia for Gang that summer and between them and the local co-conspirators here, we spoke varying degrees of English and Bahasa. I knew a few words of Bahasa, but fortunately Nova speaks a very sophisticated English, and we were able to develop a significant rapport. Nova spoke English in such a way that Hip Hop parlance would intertwine with what I dubbed a Reformasi-styled earnestness. For example, Nova told me of her stage debut at a freestyle battle where she unexpectedly dropped a word considered taboo. This word caused some fuss amongst the organisers, who wanted to edit or delete it from the recordings that they planned to release on CD.
Nova described to me how she really had to ‘struggle for the word’ in order for the recordings to remain uncensored—a phrase which struck me as unusual, and we began to say things like:

‘Hey Nova, I got a car this afternoon do wanna go struggle for the beach.’

‘Hey Mas, can you struggle some salt across the table.’

And so, ‘struggling for the word’ became a principle phrase in our rapport.

The Word from a rapper whose name was a mathematical equation
The phrase ‘Word’ has a specific use in Hip Hop parlance as an affirmation of truth. According to the definition voted most popular on Urban Dictionary, Word is the shortened form of the phrase: ‘my word is my bond’ originated by inmates in U.S. prisons.

According to Hip Hop mythology it was the B-Boy enigma, The Rammellzee—a pioneer of Wild Style writing and a rapper whose name was a mathematical equation—who introduced the phrase into the Hip Hop lexicon.

The Rammellzee theorised a world where letters armed themselves to revolt against the tyranny of Roman alphabetization. He believed bombers who put ‘burners’ on the sides of trains—the elaborately designed pieces that drew all round respect and awe—were heir to a secret knowledge akin to medieval monks operating in a mostly illiterate world, and in the words Hip Hop scholar Dave Tompkins, demonstrated the ‘extraordinary power of words to shape reality.

The Ramm’s life work was the development of the dual philosophies, ‘Gothic Futurism’ and ‘Ikonoklast Panzerism’ that concerned the secret powers of language and letter forms. The story goes that in the early development of these theories (in the late 1970s early 1980s) he had broken the English language down to its most basic form. During this phase any attempt to strike up a conversation with the Rammellzee would be met with a solitary monosyllabic response—Word.

The Rammellzee reduced the entire system of spoken English into a single subdefining sign, rendering its ‘affirmation of truth’ into the equivalence of the untruth of hegemonic white Anglo-American tricknology.

The Word made me do it
When Nova and I first met she told me her father Toto Tewel was also a musician—a rock god, actually—and I later discovered something of a national treasure. He was revered as a guitarist performing in numerous bands including Kantata Takwa, Swami, Elpamas and Kelompok Pengamen Jalanan (KPJ)—all groups whose music had been banned by Suharto during the Reformasi. I’d asked Nova to hear some of her father’s music and she produced some yet-to-be released recordings in which Toto Tewel had re-interpreted traditional Balinese motifs for the electric guitar.

Nova also mentioned Toto did not like Hip Hop. Right then and there we decided to steal his tracks to make something new. Arek Malang Kudu Seneng stages an altercation between Nova and the performance artist Exi Mahardana as MC SBY. SBY is the widely used acronym for the current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. President SBY is also an enthusiastic songwriter and coincidently Toto also plays in the President’s personally selected supergroup.

Arek Malang Kudu Seneng is assembled over a sequence of predominately Baile Funk breaks. Baile Funk is a genre of dance music derived from Miami Bass and Afrobrazillian rhythms that developed in the favelas of Rio. It had a sudden explosion of popularity across Europe and America (and of course Australia) with the advent of broadband technologies, and from exposure and commercialisation via superstar DJs and producers such as Diplo.

As such, Arek Malang Kudu Seneng sits within the genre of ‘global mash-up’ or ‘global bass’, and it could easily be read as following that particular music trend. Alternatively, it could be read as a critique of the ‘Diplodisation’ of globalised Hip Hop via an accelerated hyrbridisation of regional sounds. But as I was organizing these Brazillian rhythms together with Toto Tewel’s Balinese licks, I thought of it instead as a bending of pop flows, in which Rio’s Baile Funk became Indonesia’s Bali Funk. It’s a terrible pun, but it’s true. The Word made me do it.

I Rep Malang
Nova and Toto are both from Malang, a city in east Java known for its fiercely proud ‘Arema’ culture expressed through it’s punk bands, rock musicians and a famous football team. Malang Arema—generally understood as Malang teenagers—exhibit a fierce local pride and refer to themselves as ‘Arek Malang.’ According to Nova they also have a reputation for being ‘trouble makers’ (ie hooligans).

Nova and MC SBY rap in Malang-style Javanese that is considered coarse by many in the West of the island, and Nova appeals to ‘the young people of Malang to better use their great energy in more positive directions. Not okol (muscles), but akal (brains).’ [1]

I knew none of this as the song took shape in my bedroom studio. As I was at the time attempting to learn some Bahasa, I was listening very closely to the vocal takes for familiar sounding words. Nova laughed out loud when I removed my headphones to ask her:

 ‘Did you just say ‘I rep Malang’?’

It was an unintentional pun on Malang-Javanese and Hip Hop terminology that coincidently holds its meaning (I rep Malang/Arek Malang). Admittedly it’s a very slight pun, but it was enough to lead us to think more about this process of workable miscommunication.

Wordplay also common to Indonesian slang, is complicated by a number of regional languages and dialects playing across the lingua franca of Bahasa and English, which is also recognized as a working language in the Indonesian constitution.

A technique common to Javanese slang is to reverse the word. For example I have a friend, Maya, from North America who lives in Yogya. When you say Maya in reverse it becomes Ayam. Ayam is the Bahasa word for chicken, and henceforth Maya became known as Maya Otos—in turn, the reverse of Soto Ayam the popular chicken soup available at many street vendors.

It’s a cute nonsensical nickname that draws Maya into a matrix of spoken processes that familiarize and reassure and are ultimately hospitable. Everywhere Maya Otos goes in Java the street vendors unintentionally call out her name…backwards.

Maya is now something of a celebrity in Indonesia, so presumably everybody knows her name. I suspect this confirms what The Rammellzee already knew—that the world made of words is full of un-signifying things.


[1] Sista Nova, ‘Arek Malang Must Be Happy (I rap Malang)’, gang re:Publik (ed) Crosby, Alexandra et al Gang Festival NSW Australia 2008.

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