David Reeve is well-known not only within the ranks of Australian academics of Bahasa Indonesia, but also as a researcher and expert on Indonesian culture. His new book, Angkot dan Bus Minangkabau: Budaya Pop & Nilai-Nilai Budaya Pop, translated by Australia-based linguist and lecturer Iskandar P. Nugraha, reveals the colour and complexity of this aspect of Minangkabau pop culture in vibrant and entertaining fashion. We interviewed both to find out more about their new work.

David, what is Angkot dan Bus Minangkabau all about?

Witty words and phrases, bright colours, pictures and symbols – these are the elements in a tradition of decoration of various kinds of transport in different parts of Indonesia: becaks, bajajs, trucks, bemos, buses and passenger vans (angkot) … sometimes combined with booming music. The trucks of the north coast of Java are famous for sexy or pious pictures plus snappy phrases. Buses north and south of Yogyakarta are often covered with big pictures and a range of phrases and slogans. The angkot of Medan and Makassar are sometimes quite boldly decorated. But the peak of all this decoration is found in West Sumatra, particularly on the fabulously decorated angkot of the city of Padang, and in a range of buses, large and small, including Padang city buses (now disappearing), and intercity and interprovincial buses. The book Angkot dan Bus Minangkabau is an attempt to record, celebrate and analyse this dramatic and fascinating phenomenon of popular art, popular culture and popular values.

What was the main impetus behind the writing of the book?

The first impetus came from my career as a teacher of Indonesian over several decades. I am always interested in dramatic and memorable language, language that packs a punch – language that I can use in Indonesian classes. I’ve found some terrific language in signs, posters, billboards and ads of all kinds, in print media, radio, television and the internet. I went to Padang in 2006 for a wedding and was bowled over by the angkot, these moving works of art flying up and down the city streets, and started recording the language decorations on them. Then I went to Bukittinggi and realised that the buses have their own forms of decoration as well, with big pictures more prominent. I thought this was all so dynamic, creative and fun that it was worth recording. Eventually the notes, taken over several years and several visits, became the core of the book.

Tell us about the writing process – what kind of research did you do? Where, with whom?

My research started with recording the language, words and phrases, on angkot and buses, not always easy as they tend to fly past at a considerable speed. Then the greater sophistication of mobile phones allowed me to take pictures as well, so I had a rapidly growing corpus of words and phrases on the one hand (in various languages, mainly English, Indonesian and Minangkabau), and an expanding collection of pictorial decorations on the other. I added to the collection on the occasions I could make short visits to West Sumatra … so the research was from a collection of short visits of a few days, but over about six years initially.

Iskandar and David at the book’s launch and panel discussion in Jakarta. Photo: Komunitas Bambu

I was really only intending to make a collection of teaching materials, but as the word bank and picture collection grew, I began to see that there were very specific themes recurring in the data … and that these themes represented various values, and further that the values endorsed there were very different from the ‘standard’ or ‘official’ version of Minangkabau values. I came to see the popular culture expressed on the angkot and buses as showing a counter-culture, in opposition to official values. So I started with a language collection but ended, almost despite myself, writing something more like sociology and ethnography – based on a corpus of language items.

For the first few years this was more like a personal hobby, but in the later few years I realised I needed help, especially with the Minangkabau language of course. So various individual Minangs helped out as research assistants, and I established a good contact with the Universitas Negeri Padang, where several staff and students helped, particularly in the last couple of years when it became clear that this was to be a book rather than a set of teaching materials. In Australia, Iskandar P. Nugraha helped in many ways, far beyond the very good translation he did. It is a bilingual book, with English on the left-hand page, and Indonesian on the right. And it has about 300 pictures.

Iskandar, tell us about your role as translator?

I’ve been living in Australia for over 20 years now. During that time I’ve worked with UNSW, USYD, NSW Department of Education, ABC and SBS and other Australian academics in various roles from lecturer and editor to voice over artist and actor. Working in these various environments has given me a diverse experience.

David and I have a history of working together; while at UNSW I assisted David with the development of the communicative language material with an emphasis on bahasa gaul (street language) and other informal language. I was also involved in the editing and translation of David’s 2013 book Golkar of Indonesia: An Alternative to the Party System. The Indonesian edition was also published by Komunitas Bambu with title Golkar sejarah yang hilang: akar pemikiran & dinamika. With the Angkot book, initially I was assisting David with the planning, research and collation of material both in Australia and Indonesia. I had already become quite immersed in the project so when the publisher suggested the book be bilingual, and David insisted that I was the best person to translate, it was rather exciting. My understanding of bahasa gaul was essential for this book.

You can read the second part of this interview next week.