Sun, 14 Dec 2003

Mike, myself and I: Loving the sound of our own voices

Aida Greenbury, Contributor, Jakarta

I really think that there is an inexplicably sickening relationship between Indonesians and microphones.

Most Indonesians treat microphones as an extension of their egos. Microphones are everywhere in this country: schools, traditional markets, drug stores, cemeteries, even public toilets.

Once one person stands up and gradually moves the microphone closer to the lips, then it's the time for the imaginary propaganda and -- ding-ding -- a red sign pops out from the top of his head which reads, "Look at me, look at me and listen to me, I'm so important and so good at this!"

Some of us probably only eat two out of the four basic foods every day, but, hey, we have a set of karaoke microphones at our house. If you're stuck not knowing what to give as a present, try a microphone to add to their collection.

I got myself toddled up in a bright orange Javanese kebaya (traditional blouse) on a recent morning. My slightly oversized lower hips were securely wrapped in a batik wrap skirt, outlining what was important for men to see of this miserable traditional woman.

Making sure that the rolled hairpiece -- hopefully not harvested from some poor woman's grave -- was stuck properly on the back of my head, I was ready to go. Slowly I walked toward my car, keeping things -- the two-kilo weight hairpiece, my tightly wrapped derriere and seven-centimeter-high stilettos -- in balance on my way to attend a wedding ceremony in Bekasi.

The invitation said that the ceremony would start precisely at noon and all female guests must wear formal traditional outfits. Talk about a slow death.

I had been nowhere near Bekasi before in my life. Despite the clear map, typically, the reception building could not be found. My driver drove around the suburb for quite some time before we were led to approach the reception building by the loud music coming from a huge sound system installed inside the building.

I went inside and right away was greeted by my relatives and friends, who appeared so cheerful to see me. I guess they felt better as soon as they saw me show up in the same miserable condition.

We tried to communicate, to no avail. The background music dominated all attempts of communication. I walked toward the back of the beautifully decorated stage to talk to the sound system operators, asking them very nicely to turn down the volume.

I was left to waddle away with a scrap of dignity intact, since the operator just stared back at me as if my request was completely offensive. I guess guests are supposed to communicate with sign language while they are forced to enjoy the music.

The bride and groom arrived at the entrance of the building. The loud music was replaced by graceful traditional gamelan, and the music was really soothing. The bride and groom were finally seated, and the MC proudly announced that the entertainment was about to begin.

Entertainment, I thought -- what entertainment? A lady wearing a bright green long dress swathed in glittering sequins took the microphone off the MC and started singing, or wailing, to be precise.

The sound system operators, looking at me with the sickest grins on their faces, turned up the volume of the speakers, amplifying the dangdut music to an intolerable level. Since when has this music -- a hybrid of Malay, Indian and Arab influences -- replaced traditional music at traditional weddings?

One by one the "singers" sang with all their might, some of them trying to sing songs in English, which to me sounded like a two-year-old's gibberish. I left the building with ringing in my ears.

This reminds me of my experience when I was eight years old, attending a local school. The joke was on the principal. Every time we did something nasty like hiding other kids' school bags inside the toilet cupboard or something (we didn't have individual lockers at the time), the principal always told us to stand in the sun in the school yard.

Then the funny part was the way he always shouted at us from behind his megaphone. We were less than a meter away from him, and the good part was that the megaphone protected us from his splattering saliva.

I really believe that some Indonesians' love of the black, long thingy actually, accidentally or not, was planted into their brains when they were toddlers.

I figured it out by attending the many birthday parties my five year old has been invited to. Usually the birthday child's parents hire a group of clowns or magicians, since entertaining the kids themselves would be too tough for them.

The clowns stand in front of the kids dressed, of course, in full clown attire, including the white paint on their faces, which inevitably mixes with sweat to become purple on their dark skin. They do the same tricks at every party, and give the same patronizing spiel -- delivered with a trusted microphone.

The sound is, of course, tuned so loud as if they were talking to an audience in a stadium, instead of in a 30-square-meter room. My favorite part is when the clowns ask a question to the kids, the kids scream the answer but the clowns still say, "I can't hear you?" while pointing the microphone toward the kids. The kids then scream louder into the microphone. Deaf clowns.

"Please, make sure that no one at the party will be using a microphone," my daughter always asks me now before she goes to a party. "If they do, then I won't go to the party."

Great, now my daughter is microphone-phobic.

But I am thinking of using the same method as her. Is the big bad wolf going to use a microphone at the press conference tomorrow?