Monday, April 30, 2007

Dancing In the Street

Busking is a common occupation in many of the world cities. In my home metropolis of London for example, the underground stations often reverberate to the sound of saxophones and amplified guitars and many of these street musicians are actually talented music students trying to make a few shekels. In fact they've now become a tourist attraction in their own right.

It works a little differently in Jakarta however. When you pull up behind a line of traffic at the lights here, hoping to drive through the junction before the effects of global warming submerge it in 3 feet of water, you'll be confronted with someone rather less likely to be an undergraduate at the Juilliard School of music. Often you will be faced with one or two guys staring in at you through your windscreen. They may be shaking a stick with bottle tops nailed to it and singing in a monotone whine. If they're lucky (and you’re unlucky) they may have a guitar between them. These guitars are the cheapest available and are, in fact, impossible to play properly. For a start, they appear to be strung with cheese wire and secondly they don't stay in tune as you play up the fretboard. I can actually play guitar but almost had my fingers sliced in twain when I once tried one of these buskers' torture instruments.

Busking here is thus inverted from its usual function. Instead of paying them because you like the sound that they are making, one basically pays buskers in Jakarta in order to make them go away and assault someone else's eardrums. We all know that if you slip them a couple of thousand Rupiah then they shoot away, after a courteous Terimah Kasih, like greyhounds after a rabbit. Mind you, if you don't pay them then they can sometimes get a bit shirty and flick you off with a few choice non Anglo-Saxon swear words or indeed bang on the car or taxi. Even hip swinging transvestite buskers can get tetchy at times and have the advantage of possessing longer nails with which to scratch your paintwork.

These impromptu street jams often resemble the fun preliminary heats of American Idol; the ones in which tone deaf sociopathic wannabes induce reactions in the three judges akin to somebody dragging their fingernails down a blackboard. In fact, maybe the local franchise, Indonesian Idol, should head out onto the streets in search of a few comedy contestants for the early rounds.

Sadly though, many of Jakarta's buskers are just vulnerable little kids. Some are orphans whilst others are pushed by their impoverished parents to earn money on the streets during hard times. Non-governmental organizations such as Yayasan Griya Asih, Jakarta Street Kids Global Concern or the ISCO Foundation often advise people not to give these kids money as it only encourages poor parents and criminal groups to exploit them by sending them begging into the traffic day after day. It seems like an act of kindness to slip these poor waifs a few Rupiah but if the aim is to discourage children from busking and get them off the streets and into schools, then maybe it would indeed be better to divert any cash to organizations such as the ones mentioned above.

It is perhaps understandable that the city’s Street kids are often lacking passion in their vocal performances. Being hungry and often victims of violence and sexual abuse, musical talent is probably the last thing on their minds. The government aren't much help either. Many street kids are intimidated and even beaten up by public order officials and a current issue hitting the headlines here is the huge number of Indonesian families unable to even afford birth certificates for their offspring, surely a basic human right. No birth certificate, no school.

Apparently, there are over 150,000 children plying people on Jakarta's streets; busking, laughing, fighting, shining shoes, getting involved in petty crime, taking drugs, prostituting themselves, contracting AIDS and, of course, playing some of the most shocking music ever heard. The 1989 UN Convention on the rights of children specifies rights to a home, health care and an education among other things. Here though, these are pie in the sky wishes for many adults as well as children.

So, to sum up, we’re on the horns of a dilemma here. Either don’t give the buskers Rp.1000 and help to discourage the ear drum abuse in the longer term by keeping them off the streets, or go for the quick fix of shutting them up with a few coins and then breathe an instant sigh of relief when they take their caterwauling elsewhere. Politics is never simple is it?


Simon Pitchforth