Busking for a break in Jakarta's bustle

by AFP/Presi Mandari, Aug 27, 2007 | Destinations: Indonesia / Jakarta

Jakarta, Indonesia - It's mid-morning on a commuter train in the steamy Indonesian capital Jakarta when a six-piece acoustic rock band strikes up its first chords of the day.

Bali and his five friends are part of a burgeoning street music scene, earning some cash while hoping for their big break.

With guitars, a snare drum, violin, accordion and vocal harmonies reprising old Indonesian hits, the mood in the grotty train carriage filled with unsmiling travellers is transformed into something incongruously festive.

"Trains are spacious, so we can entertain with various instruments," explains 31-year-old Bali, a high school drop-out who is a self-taught violinist, guitarist and keyboardist.

"We played on buses for years but the limited space hindered our creativity," he says of his band, Lavaza. The group plays from mid-morning until early evening to earn up to 50,000 rupiah (five dollars) a day each.

They skip the early rush hour, and in the evenings when the crowds pack the trains the band migrates to platforms to entertain people as they wait to get home.

On Saturdays, the band wraps early and heads to a cafe for a weekly gig -- a job they picked up thanks to being spotted on the train.

"These guys are special compared to the usual buskers in Jakarta. Their musical instruments are so complete it's as if we are in a cafe," says regular commuter Weni Setiastuti.

'They need to have spirit to survive'

Earlier this month, 500 street buskers aged under 25, selected from thousands in auditions, attended a three-day workshop in Jakarta sponsored by phone giant Nokia and entertainment conglomerate Sony BMG.

Fifty were selected to go on to the next seven-day session, then three winners will record albums with the help of alternative Indonesian band Gigi.

Irwan, 17, has been busking for four years and says he was a nervous wreck during auditions.

"When we're busking on buses, people never watch us playing. They tend to neglect us. But here, we were nervous because of the jury and people watching us," he said.

Indonesian reggae singer Tony Q. Rastafara, who has been teaching some of the contestants, reckons about one in five Jakartan buskers are truly talented. But they endure social stigma and lack money to put recording samples together, meaning they face an uphill battle to success.

"I tried to boost their spirits by sharing my experiences. If they are serious, they need to have spirit to survive," says Rastafara, who busked on Jakarta's buses and streets in the 1980s before moving on to parties and cafes.

Now he has six albums under his belt, all featuring his signature blend of reggae and traditional Javanese or Sundanese music, and has played with Bob Marley's wife.

'Better than my students at university'

Buskers have long solicited cash on Jakarta's teeming and polluted streets, but they reached a peak when the 1997-98 Asian crisis hit Indonesia hard. A decade on, it's difficult to cross town without seeing at least a few.

While in Western capitals permit systems allow only the more talented to legally hit the streets, it's a free-for-all in the Indonesian capital.

Miranti, a music lecturer at the Jakarta Institute of Arts, says Jakarta's buskers have blossomed in recent years.

"If in the past they only played with a minimum of instruments, such as guitars or harmonicas, now we find them playing in groups of more than three, with many instruments," she said.

"They have talent but no other opportunity to play music other than as buskers," she says, adding that one group in particular she has seen "played better than my students at the university".

At the bottom of the hierarchy sit those who accost motorists at traffic lights with monotone screeches, accompanied by out-of-tune guitars, cheap tambourines and plaintive looks. Motorists pay them to go away.

Braver and slightly more competent ones board buses, but must stay alert to avoid being caught by prowling officials from the social affairs ministry. It's not illegal to busk, but the musicians can be detained for disturbing public order by officials from the social affairs ministry.

Then there are those on the trains, seen as the most professional.

Eight bands, each with six or seven members, daily ply the main commuter train route in Jakarta from Kota, in Jakarta's north, to Bogor, a hill station about 60 kilometres (miles) from the capital.

They got together a few years ago to form the Train Symphony Association (KSKA), which allowed them to negotiate more formally with railway officials to get permission to play on Bogor station's platforms.

The members also help each other develop musically.

"KSKA only allows skilled musicians to become members," says guitarist Erwin Andrianto, who plays in a six-piece outfit called Pohon Jati.

His band plays everything from Jamaican reggae to Indonesia's home-grown dangdut style and has played gigs for several ministries after being spotted busking.

They hope that busking will one day catapult them into proper musical careers.

"We cannot rely our entire life on busking. No one wants to be born a busker," says 29-year-old band member Ivan.

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