Sounds of the Jakarta Streets

Traffic, prayer calls, tropical rain, and some would swear the sound of pollution itself, the streets of Jakarta offer a unique cacophony to its residents. Indonesian music’s embracing of sharp dissonance and garish costumes gives its buskers a powerful hold over the attention of passersby, as I recently learned walking through the evening crowds.

It was a small group of buskers, for the lack of a better word, plying their trade to earn donations from the onlookers. Jakarta has its share of guitar players, and singers bringing their versions of pop and rock songs to the streets, but it is the traditional ensembles that really attract attention. Indonesian music is polyrhythmic, consisting a many related simple lines of music layered on top of one another. Wonderfully textured, but not well suited to the solo busker.

The sight that greeted me on this evening was of a small troop of musicians spread out across one of the crowded side streets that connect Jakarta’s main traffic arteries. Percussionists with bass drums, metal gongs, and small xylophone like instruments, made a cascade of sounds coming from all directions. Also accompanied by by a sharp horn sounding melody, this was the sound of plodding chaos. It was also music of perspective. Moving through the street the musicians darted about with seeming randomness and combined with passing cars, and the changing density of the crowd, bringing different parts of the music in and out focus.

These sounds, captured on only a mobile phone voice recorder, were accompanied by two dreamlike figures slowly bobbing their way down the street.

Giant Masks of the street dancers – sorry for the poor quality

Their dance was merely slow vertical arm moments, and a soft bobbing like astronauts walking on the lunar surface. It was a surreal contrast to the heavy bustle of the crowds, jagged features painted on oversize masks juxtaposed the unique urban chaos of Southeast Asia.

It was difficult to stop an enjoy with the swarm of people accompanying the band and dancers collecting money from the crowd, but nevertheless is a welcome addition to the unique soundscape of this city.

This was originally published as ‘Sounds of the Jakarta Streets on The Abyss of Height

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