To many daily commuters on Jakarta's crammed buses and trains, they are simply loud and obnoxious beggars. But for others, the city's thousands of roving pengamen, or buskers, are the hardest-working men and women in Indonesian show business. They sometimes go it solo but more often perform in rattling grass-roots (and often teenage) ensembles of Spanish guitar, violin and ukulele. A tambourine man might be thrown into the mix. Or a kid who's decided that an upturned plastic bucket or a length of wood outfitted with rusty bottle caps is a legitimate form of percussion. At night markets, where they compete with wafts of meaty grilled satay and hawkers of the latest military biographies for the attention of diners, bands of pengamen job for hours through eclectic sets of John Denver tunes and folk versions of Indonesian Top 40 hits.
These itinerant jukeboxes earn just a small fistful of dollars a day, and their quality predictably varies. Many are migrants from the countryside with little or no musical training. Some are just vagrants who specialize in aural assault maintaining their walls of noise until someone forks over a 1,000-rupiah note (11 cents) for silence. But others are true phenoms who dream of making it big like onetime street singer Iwan Fals, a self-styled Indonesian Bob Dylan who became his country's most famous balladeer (and a TIME Asian Hero in 2002). And, more recently, Januarisman, who in 2008 won the fifth season of Indonesian Idol with renditions of popular rock songs from groups Ungu and ST 12. The most moving of pengamen, though, stick with traditional songs and instruments, warbling beautifully, for instance, over a kecapi, or Sundanese zither. To hear its haunting melodies with a plate of nasi goreng before you and a creamy avocado shake in hand is like listening to, tasting and drinking in the soul of a nation.