Monday, September 24, 2007

Noise A Noise

It seems that Ramadan is upon us once again and so may peace be upon all of you. This fasting month, it's nice to see that in keeping with the Islamic duty of Zakat (namely the giving of alms to the poor) that the city administration has criminalized both begging and the giving of money to beggars. The poor have thus been rendered alm-less.

I won't rake over all the arguments surrounding begging again as I wrote about the whole sorry issue in a recent MM. Suffice to say that many children are forced to beg on the streets of Jakarta by unscrupulous adults just as Victorian kids were often forced up chimneys by sadistic sweeps in times past. In this sense, getting them off the street would be a good idea. However, I don't think that criminalization of these poor urchins is really going to improve their quality of life.

How about some decent money being put aside for a few positive initiatives rather than letting NGOs take up the slack as usual? Where matters of the poor are concerned, the administrative arm of city governance, rather than having a velvety glove on the end of it, more closely resembles an iron fist... in an iron glove... with iron bits sticking out of the knuckles.

But moving swiftly along this fine holy month, may I crave your indulgence this week whilst I discuss an urban problem that has no doubt caused many reading this to tear their hair out in frustration. I'm referring here to the issue of noise pollution, a problem that admittedly some are more sensitive to than others.

Noise is a highly subjective thing of course; one man's music (often mine) is another man's racket. In addition, noise does not directly poison the planet. It is transient and, unlike chemical pollutants, once the noise stops, the environment is free of it. In human terms though noise can definitely be considered a form of pollution. The roar of a Bajaj engine, for example, may be as damaging in human terms as the plumes of black soot that billow from its exhaust. Sleep is lost and migraines flourish. Noise causes stress and stress, as any doctor will tell you, kills.

Getting down to specific cases though, the Batavian noise assault (good name for a metal band that) breaks down into several specific causes. If noise pollution is a modern disease then Jakarta is most definitely PA positive. Indonesia’s enduring love affair with the PA system will be a familiar nuisance to many of you. It seems that where this country is concerned, one can paraphrase the motto of the American National Rifle Association: "They'll get my microphone when they prize it from my cold dead fingers." During any public gathering of more than say, two people, the use of an 8 kW sound rig, a microphone and a graphic equalizer set to accentuate the harshest timbres of the human voice is absolutely de rigueur, even if your audience are only sitting 3 feet away from you. Also, the microphone should ideally be possessed by the ghost of the late Jimi Hendrix and be feeding back about 40% of the time.

I recently ate in a shopping Plaza food court in which a fashion show and concert were taking place. The volume was incredible, probably on a par with a Metallica gig or a jumbo jet taking off or something. I could perhaps have stomached a little cocktail jazz piano in a food court while I'm trying to eat but this decibel fest was literally curdling my Soto Ayam. Upon returning to the ground floor of the Plaza I could still hear the event apocalyptically booming overhead.

Then there's the traffic of course. The worst culprits here are the Bajajs and the two-stroke motorcycles whose engine frequencies are pitched perfectly at that teeth rattling level. This problem is exacerbated by the many young, boy racer motorcyclists who gleefully customize their machines to make them louder, rather than quieter. By strapping huge drainpipe sized, eardrum shredding exhausts on to their little scooters these guys are engaged in a constant battle to give their road presence a more macho swagger.

Another source of noise, polluting or otherwise, are the mosques. Now I will have to be careful what I say here and if anyone feels offended, all Fatwas should be addressed to my blog site. Basically, the call to prayer lasts about three minutes and Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day. So does this mean that the houses of the holy are broadcasting for a total of 15 minutes per day? Well, I think we all know the answer to that question.

In recent years, the length of on air time seems to have been lengthening at the city's mosques. They have almost become like mini radio stations although obviously with no actual radio needed. The mosque noise is compounded by the harsh frequencies of the Tannoy systems that they all employ. An un-amplified human voice would be cool though. Either that or the people who collect in the streets to build new mosques could instead consider using the money to fit out existing mosques with state-of-the-art Bose speakers and buying their Muezzin a few bottles of expectorant. The religion of peace? Shouldn't this ideal be aural as well as political?

Other lower volume annoyances that sneak in under the psychic radar but which nevertheless wage a slow war of attrition with one's mental well-being include the endless soft rock bilge piped into supermarkets, airport waiting lounges, cinemas, hospitals, massage parlors and morgues. Soppy balladeers, Michael Learns to Rock, famous for never being heard of in the West, are a perennial favorite in this country and never fail to induce the requisite Stepford wife stupor in checkout queues.

Other sources of noise pollution? Well I'm sure you all have your own bugbears. Exceptionally loud car calls are another common one, the sound seems to drift over the rooftops for literally miles. I should also give a special mention to my local Satay seller who has replaced the endearing wooden "tok tok" sound with the rather less traditional blare of a car horn screwed to his trolley. How I hate him so.

Ultimately though there's a paradox here. Indonesia is traditionally a country of halus (soft) people. It's the country that brought us the ambient bliss of Gamelan music, the sound of moonlight that has inspired and captivated Western composers from Debussy to the present-day. Why then does Jakarta set the teeth on edge so? Perhaps these huge Asian cities are kind of anathema to the cultures that spawned them in the first place. Anyway, my iPod seems to be charged now so I'll bid you farewell.