The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, October 10, 2013


West Side Story  
It’s every parent’s horror movie: Their kids fall in with the wrong crowd and end up on the streets, students at Campus Crime.
But in the suburb of Bandulan on Malang’s west side, dads and moms happily push their offspring out of the house, into a gang and off to the harsh city where they bash, smash and frighten sensitive folk. 
The oldies even lay on transport, a cut-down Toyota Kijang that’s little more than four naked tires and two wonky axles, a hazard on the highway and a magnet for cops.
Irresponsible? Just the opposite. Civic authorities worried about youth packs turning feral for want of work should send their welfare staff to Malang right now.  Their assignment: Check the music patrols.
The first started in Bandulan more than five years ago when T-shirt printer Aries Kusuma Brasmantha had a smack-brow idea, beautiful in its simplicity.
His neighborhood had all the usual headaches: lots of kids with little to do.  “I looked at the situation and knew something had to change,” Aries said. He’s now 24, but at the time was a serious-minded teen.
If Bandulan had been in Malvern, a suburb of Melbourne, he’d apply for a community development grant.  But this is Malang, East Java. “We had to do it ourselves,” he said, “the government wasn’t going to help.”
Like many traditional kampong, Bandulan also had the remnants of a gamelan orchestra, stuff that had been lying around forever.  Solid metallophones doubled as doorstops, drums cluttered cupboards, gongs sat silent atop wardrobes. If they hadn’t been brass they’d have rusted away last century.
Performances were rare, space limited and enthusiasm falling faster than the rupiah.  Then there was the music. Rock?  For Generation Now, gamelan is rubble. 
Reasoned the lateral-thinking Aries: “If the people won’t come to listen, let’s go to them, brighten the sound and give it wheels.”
There was a small precedent.  During the holy fasting month of Ramadhan the faithful (and the rest) are roused for their pre-dawn meal by car horns and loud speakers.
Some streets competed for the most creative wake-up call, leading to more sounds than bells and whistles.
Aries mouse-clicked his way into secular society, nibbling ideas from here and there. You Tube videos of carnivals in Spain were to his taste, with street parades of spectacular displays.
Why not build a multi-level stage on an old vehicle chassis, make it into a fantasy chariot of fiery colors, fill it with musicians – and away we go?
The kids thought this wasn’t just cool, it was chillingly revolutionary. The music patrol was born and has been so successful it’s been copied.  Now about 30 teams compete for mayoral prizes.
It works like this; a community - in Aries’ case the families who worship at the Al-Hidayah Musholla (prayer room) - club together to buy a dead van. 
They strip out the engine and bodywork, then build an elaborate framework for the players and their instruments, creating a benign juggernaut. Because space is limited and the construction less than sturdy, the lightweaight kids are the performers.

The youngest is six, mister tambourine man Galih Fitro (pictured left).. 
Like sailors on a 16th century Man o’War frigate, they perch in the rigging while their dads push and steer the monster, its tiger figurehead snarling away the traffic.
Dancing in front are the girls, singing and swaying to the beat behind. Flashing lights, flags, swooping cardboard eagles, bunting and banners, Javanese designs swirling in color, drapes, calligraphy – and sound.
If noise could be weighed, the music patrols would pulverize the pavement. In competitions it’s not just the flamboyance of the display, it’s also about decibels. The kids whack the gongs and drums with such vigor and style the show becomes a spectacle to be appreciated even when wearing earplugs. They’re X Factor plus.
Having no funds for instruments the kampong did what it does best – improvise. Discarded 200 liter steel and plastic containers have been salvaged and the tops sliced, car inner tube rubber stretched across the gap. Sew on a skirt and you’ve drummed up a drum. Add water to change the pitch. Unbeatable!
The total crew of cooks, costume stitchers, water carriers, traffic marshals, maintenance men, musical advisers, choreographers, moms with tissues, grans with snacks and dads with gaffer tape comes to 120. Whatever your talent, you’re wanted.

It all sounds creatively chaotic but the show has now got so big that discipline, rehearsals and forward planning are necessary.
Malang’s music patrols fit into the tradition of medieval Europe’s long-gone strolling minstrels and Trinidad’s steelpan drum bands, entertainment nurtured in poverty, need and a determination to enjoy life.  The beat goes on.
The Al-Hidayah Crew (AHC) snared trophies and public attention. Sponsors (not the cigarette companies that infiltrate most youth music) helped with uniforms. Would the crew play at festivals and commercial events?  They would.
Businessman Wahyu Pambudi wanted something bright and different for the opening of his convenience store – so for Rp 1 million (US $88) plus meals and drinks he got the AHC to drum up business (minus their chariot) and smother the traffic noise, which they did with splendid ease.
“I wanted this group because since I heard them at a percussion festival,” he said. “They’re school kids but they play with such enthusiasm. They make you feel good and proud.”
Despite its Islamic credentials the AHC’s repertoire is far from solemn.  “It’s supposed to be religious,” said Aries. “But we get a bit bored with this, so compose our own, and include pop.”  
Half the income goes to buying more gear and paying for dancing instructors; the rest goes to the kids as pocket money, said AHC treasurer Widya Astuti.
That makes it worth being on the streets.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 October 2013)


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