LICENSED TO TRILL: THE BIRDMEN OF SAWOJAJAR
© Duncan Graham 2006
They gather at dawn twice weekly to sing up the sun. After unpacking their precious cargoes they send them heavenwards and trust that odes of joy will cascade in gratitude.
For this they also hope for rich rewards hereafter.
But the men who gather for this regular ritual are not members of some mystic sect destined to be dispersed by the self-appointed custodians of religious righteousness. Their business has the authenticity of international acceptance coupled to a tradition dating back to the Majapahit Era, 700 years past.
These men are the disciples of birdsong and they’re professional. Later this year when an international contest is held the winner will be very well off indeed.
“We’re maintaining a culture of appreciating nature that’s been in East Java for centuries,” said Haji Soelaiman, chairman of P3SI. “Although a few women sometimes come along and bring cakes and drinks, this is really an interest for men.
“We have about 200 members in and around Malang, and there’s another club in Surabaya.”
P3SI stands for Persatuan Pelestarian Perkutut Se Indonesia (Association for the Conservation of Turtledoves in Indonesia) and it’s clearly no fly-by-night organisation. Next year it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Although called turtledoves, the delicate little birds with black-striped throats look remarkably like the doves cooing and preening in the gardens and parks of the Western Australian capital Perth. There they’re known as Senegal doves and are believed to have been introduced from India in the 19th century.
While the doves fly wild in Australia and are often considered a nuisance, in Java they are serious money. A coo-master is no featherweight; aficionados are prepared to pay up to Rp 150 million (US $15,000) for a top-flight prize winner.
That was the sum pocketed by P3SI member Hasan Fajar for his little cock Jambrud (Emerald). In 2004 Jambrud won his proud owner a new car in an international contest, outsinging warblers from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines – and was then sold to another birdman.
But how do you pick a winner? “The judges select according to the voice and tone,” said Hasan who has 60 birds in his home aviary. “The doves are all male, and sing to attract females. They start around three months but can live many years. It’s a hobby, sure, but it’s also business.”
Hasan claims paranormal skills and trains his birds with an impressive repertoire of whistles, hums and twitters. Who knows what the birds make of his mouth music? They turn their heads quizzically and presumably wonder why their master doesn’t flap his wings and soar away.
The training ground is a park in Sawojajar on the outskirts of the central East Java town of Malang. Here a forest of steel gallows stands ready for the birds’ hanging.
They come in gaudy cells enamelled with exhortations in English like Will Be Choice; this reads more like a cigarette advertisement than a licence to trill.
Others are decorated with the most bizarre pictures. They include figures from the ancient texts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana through to pouncing eagles and purring pussies. Presumably these are to remind the feathered prisoners of the awful fate which waits should they peck and push their way through the wire mesh.
Inside conical cages they are winched high to sing for their breakfast in safety; in the wicked world beyond, red in beak and claw, these pampered pets lack skysmart survival skills. They’d become a predator’s snack in a trice.
Preening isn’t just a job for those with feathers. The men wear fancy embroidered jackets and tie these to the base of the poles to mark ownership while their birdies above open up their vocal chords.
The dove devotees sit on a grassy bank and suck cigarettes through hand-carved holders made of yellow bone. Most chat in Madurese. Depending on the weather they hang around for up to four hours comparing tone and pitch of their charges aloft attempting to seduce any passing ladybird.
Fat chance. Almost everything that flutters in East Java seems to have been pinged by air rifles, shot by catapults or caught by cats.
In English the doves’ song sounds like Coo-Coo, running up and down the scale, but the birdmen say it’s Kung Krus.
Like beauty, it’s in the ear of the beholder.
Whatever the phonetics, this is the soft sound of calm from a bird known everywhere as a symbol of peace and love. That’s worth celebrating in Sawojajar and beyond.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 January 2006)