Monthly Archives: August 2010

A Short History of Perkutut


A Short History of Perkutut, the Singing Dove.  By Kian.

By the time of the Hindu Majapahit Kingdom (1292-1468) the Javanese aristocrats were already raising perkutut. When Prabu Brawijaya, the last king, travelled from East Java to Yogyakarta, his perkutut, Joko Manggu escaped from the cage. The bird reappeared in front of him at his destination near Yogyakarta. His descendants, who founded the Muslim kingdom of Mataram, kept raising perkutut in their courts into today. When perkutut sings, the Javanese use the word manggung, “to sing on stage.”  When other birds sing, they merely ngoceh, “chatter.”  Ancient Javanese wisdom prescribes five things a Javanese man should pursue for a complete life: garwo (wife), curigo (Javanese keris dagger, weapon),wismo (house, residence), turonggo (horse, transportation) and kukilo (bird, hobby). The last requirement can only be fulfilled by owning perkutut. Prince Prabukusumo, brother of Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, told us that Sultan Hamengku Buwono VII (1877-1921) started Sanden, a perkutut listening event, in the palace. His son, Sultan Hamengku Buwono VIII (1921-1939) grew it into Lurugan Beksi Perkutut, a perkutut competition, wh ere aristocrats and the upper class would be invited to bring their perkutut. This is the precursor of the modern perkutut competition. The biggest perkutut competition today is the Sultan Cup, held in August in the Yogyakarta palace square. It is in its 21st year. It might seem like yesterday but Indonesia only grabbed their independence from the Dutch in 1945 after 350 years of brutal colonialism.

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The Boy from Flores


Guest blog by Kian –


After an intense day of shooting with Cak Nur in Surabaya, we decided to take the next half-day off. We negotiated our way across relentless traffic in front of our hotel. Loud, hot, fume-ridden highway. Soon we found a small alley to escape the noise and the heat. Midway in we heard the now familiar perkutut song, Klau koo koo koo koong… The sound brought a certain calmness and tenderness to me. We looked up and not far away were two poles, each with a perkutut in its cage. The hobby is pervasive.


Further down the narrow alley there was a small open space, roofed with tiled floor. The sign said that the pavilion was used for village meetings and a make-shift infant clinic (Posyandu). Next to that was a tiny “Taman Bacaan”, a kid’s library.


We left the alley and we noticed a little boy was following us on his bicycle. He stopped when we stopped, usually when Jim was taking pictures. Jim smiled and waved at him and held up his camera to ask if he could take his picture. The boy, dressed in a brown school uniform, smiled and nodded. I read the name tag sewn above his shirt pocket –Ignatius R.R. “Ignatius, are you Kristen?” I ask. “Katolik,” he answers. In Indonesia, Kristen usually means Protestant.

His extracurricular class was cancelled so he was out early. The R.R. in his name is the initial of his church. This is the first Christian we met in Java. We continued our walk and he followed a few yards behind. We passed a warung, a street-side stall, and I turned to ask him if he would like us to buy him food. He nodded and we all went in to sit on the bench.


Ignatius ordered Mie Ayam, chicken noodle soup, and a sprite. “How is it?” I ask. “Enak dagingnya,” he replied, scooping the last of the tiny bits of chicken in his bowl. The meat is delicious, he said. That brought back my childhood. I remembered not eating much meat at all growing up. We had little resources. Yet now that I could afford a lot more meat, it doesn’t bring more satisfaction.

Ignatius is the oldest of 3 kids, the youngest is a girl. His father works in a plastic factory, mom’s a kindergarten teacher. No school allowance, the money is for tuition and food. Ignatius cooks a lunch of rice with fried eggs every day for his younger siblings. Sometimes he adds fried tofu. His parents came from one of the islands east of Bali, Flores, famous for its ikat weaving. There is only one other Christian family in his neighborhood.


Ignatius is not shy like Javanese boys. He a nswers straight without giggling. I say you must be good at school. “Rangking delapan,” he answers. He is ranked 8th in a class of 40. He is also very good looking, composed and polite. In his face I read a determination to survive. I respected him. I wish I had a son like Ignatius.

Rice Farmers and Pedicab Drivers


Outside of the cities in Java, you can see the ever present rice fields at different stages of their life cycles. First, rice grains are sown tightly in a field nursery. The slender new plants form bright green patches in the field, surrounded by water that reflects the sky. These are replanted in rows in a flooded field. As they mature, they change into different shades of green before rice stalks appear. These too start as green and then turn golden yellow. To mature properly, the flooded field must be drained or the rice grain won’t fill. Rain is not wanted during this time.

Here too the climate is behaving more and more unpredictably. It should be the dry season now, lasting 6 months from April to September. But the sky is cloudy and rain comes every other day. You can see why they don’t want rain. Whole fields collapse, sometimes before they’re ready for harvesting. Even if they’re mature enough, you have to harvest them in three days or the new grains will start to germinate.


We stopped whenever we saw rice harvesting to shoot some footage and to talk. We the workers were farm laborers, people without land. They get a small share of the rice they harvest. When there is no farm work, men go to cities like Solo to drive pedicabs. You can see so many of them in Solo. They offer their service by saying “Becak?” every time we pass. We shake our head and smile. They smile back generously.


We didn’t see enough people using their service. Most are idle or asleep in their pedicabs. We rode in a becak once in Solo. The compartment felt tight. Had we been eating too much Indonesian food? Then he started pedaling from the back; we in front facing traffic. It felt a little unnerving but our driver was so happy he was giddy laughing, almost all the way. Life must be harsh but he knew how to be happy.


When we were in Jogjakarta, Jim was so curious about volcanoes. Jogjakarta is near an active volcano, Mount Merapi, but we couldn’t see it. I remember seeing Mt. Merapi from Jogjakarta when I was there fifteen years ago. Maybe it’s the pollution.


Growing up in Indonesia, I have seen enough mountains and volcanoes. I climbed a few in my twenties. I say to Jim, they are overrated triangular things with smokes coming out of the apex. Let’s move on! But he refuses to be convinced.

So we rent a car to go to Borobudur, the giant Buddhist temple from the 9th century, situated on a hill closer to Mt. Merapi. The temple is magnificent. I’ve been there three times, each time I am overwhelmed. Jim snaps away at the reliefs. A lot of depictions of birds, especially Kinara and Kinari, a pair of half human half bird. May be we can use it in the perkutut film.



But it is so crowded! Everyone wants to  have photo with Jim. As soon as we stop, the requests come. You have to stop. It’s damned crowded. We can see more than one mountain from the temple. There is Mt. Merapi, Mt. Merbabu and the Menoreh Mountian range where people still hunt the green jungle fowl (see next posting).

So you think Jim is happy now? The next day, our driver, Pak Amin, took us to Merapi Pass, the highest point drivable at Mt. Merapi. The site has a restaurant and a theater where you can see the last eruption of Mt. Merapi. The stone tablet was signed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Everywhere you look, the hills are carved by vegetable and strawberry fields. Every eruption brings incredibly fertile volcanic ash.

Green Jungle Fowl


Jungle fowls are ancestors of domesticated chickens. Indonesia has two species, red jungle fowl and green jungle fowl. Green jungle fowls are indigenous to Java. The rooster is beautiful, with a green and blue metallic face.

Do you remember Pak Aris Munandar, the bekisar farmer, husband of Sri, who was leaving Aris and their three small kids, to work in Egypt? Aris told me that green jungle fowls could still be found in the Menorel Mountain Range in Central Java. They are hunted for food and for the caged bird market. I have a weakness for roosters.

Green jungle fowls are monogamous. Their habitat is the edge of forest near an open field. The Menoreh Mountain range provides this ideal habitat – the valley to forage and the mountain to hide.

We didn’t have a chance to see the birds in their habitat. We only saw them in Taman Mini in Jakarta and in Pak Aris’s cages. It’s very difficult to keep a jungle fowl captured from the wild. Humans stress them out. They soon refuse to eat and die. So the Javanese hunt for the eggs and have them hatched by domesticated hens. The chicks are less finicky although you still have to keep them away from too many humans. You have to feed them organic insects, those caught in the grass, not from the rice field. They cannot be overweight. You cannot transport them in cages or they’ll jump uncontrollably and injure themselves to death. So, Aris binds his with sarong before wrapping it inside his rooster carrier when he sold one to a customer in Semarang, 5 hours away with motorbike.


The Javanese also cross green jungle fowl rooster with a certain kind of domesticated hen to produce bekisar – a rooster that crows only in two syllables. They find the crowing beautiful. This I don’t get. I’ve listened to them crowing in a competition for half day. Eventually I recognize the good crowing, “Aw Eh”. The first syllable has to be loud and low, the second high and effortless.


Some bekisar enthusiasts understand the issue of species extinctions and have started breeding the green jungle fowls. But as of now, the price of wild caught green jungle fowl is still lower than the one bred in captivity. I have come to accept that a lot more species will go extinct in my lifetime. But still it hurts to watch. What shall we do?

Stew Roosters with Painkiller

Everywhere in the island of Java, Madura and Bali, native domesticated chickens roam free, crossing the street whenever they want. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “Which road?” says the chicken.


My late father used to raise these chickens in our backyard. Maybe because of that I am always fond of watching chicken roaming free. From our car, we can see them scavenging for insects on the shoulder of highways. Most of the time, you see a mother hen with a few cute chicks tugging along. Single parenting is prevalent in chickens too.

In Bali, the chicken population seems to be significantly higher. Maybe because Bali doesn’t have as much heavy industry like Java?

Anyway, in Gunung Kawi, Bali, we are sort of followed by 2 young juvenile roosters. They are tiny but you can see that their tails start to curve, a sign of rooster. Everywhere we turn, we see them. They get along so well, too. Hmmn, gay boys?

The Balinese love cockfights. It could be part of the religious ritual. Our driver, Awan, is a very good informant. After the main ceremony in the temple ends, the cockfight starts. The owner of the winning cock gets to cook and eat the loser. “Have you even eaten one of those roosters,?” Awan asks me. I shake my head. “Enak sekali,!” Awan says. It’s very delicious.

I tell him rooster meat is chewy. Awan explains. First you rub spiced oil in the rooster spurs, i.e. the weapon located at the feet. One strike will weaken and kill the loser immediately because of the oil. And it makes the meat so tasty. What about the chewiness?  You cook it with sliced young pineapple and one tablet of Bodrex, Indonesian-made painkiller.



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Song of the Fire Ants


It is about 10PM.  I’m already tired and know that at four the next morning we have to be on the road to the rocky island of Madura for the next perkutut competition.  Our black, late model car slowly circles the streets of downtown Surabaya looking for the hidden entrance of our destination.  Cak Nur (pronounced Chock Noor, which I remember by thinking of 80’s martial arts star Chuck Norris) and Tarjo confer in the front seat, finally pulling into a little driveway.  I see before us a two-story building with a tiled lobby lighted by medieval style fixtures with a flickering orange light.   Several young men in white shirts and black bowties guard the entrance.

We pull  right up to the edge of the lobby and Cak Nur guns it a little to get us over the tile lip.   The men step aside as we drive indoor and park in the middle of the lobby.  Scantily dressed women wave and wink  to us from behind a registration desk.

We have arrived at Indonesian karaoke.


One of the men takes the car and drives it deeper into the structure to the valet parking.  We are led down a dark hallway and a door opens revealing ten or so giddy perkutut farmers laughing and singing in a haze of smoke and Casio-driven pop songs.  “Oh no,” I thought.  “I hate karaoke.  And I know they are going to make me sing.”  Kian smiles.  “Chalk it up to experience,”  he says.

Cak Nur said he used to have to do a lot of karaoke entertaining when he was a contractor for Lapindo, the company that caused the Sidoarjo mud volcano.   A non-drinker, he would carefully monitor the level of his coca-cola to see if anyone had slipped him some spirits.  Tonight Cak Nur was in form in our private karaoke room belting out Indonesian favorites.


Kian and I sat next to each other on one of the side couches until one of our grinning perkutut hosts showed up with two young women on his arm indicating that we should sit boy-girl-boy-girl.


My denim mini-skirt clad call-girl (all innocent mind you) went by the “easier-than-my-real-name” appellation of Esther.  She smiled and stroked my arm hairs (we don’t have these in Indonesia) and asked me why my drink was so full. “I’ll drink and then you drink,” she giggled.  I smiled and nodded and took the smallest sip I could.  She chugged half of her glass.  “You won’t be able to keep up with me!” she chortled.  “That’s the idea!” I smiled.  (All this was said in shouts above a sound system which could rival any mosque’s loudspeakers.)

We were moved to a larger room and a vivacious young woman named Cindy – bleach-blond hair and denim short-shorts – became the animateur.  She butchered Love me Tender, but she had spirit.  I had hoped that the room change would enable Kian and I to sit next to each other again but we were again ordered to separate as the girls plopped down in between.

“So, Esther,” I decided to make small talk after I nodded yes that my wife would be angry if she held my hand. “Do you like this job?” I said.

“No,” she answered. “I get drunk every night and hate the smoke.  But I do this job because my father died and the family needs the money.  Beer?”

At that moment Cindy shoved a mike in my hand.  It was a song in English, so I guess she thought I must know it.  I pecked along behind her in a stunningly horrible rendition of Welcome to my Paradise (never heard of it before),  but the well-lubricated perkutut men laughed and cheered all the same.


Around midnight, with hoarse voices and tired eyes, we went back to Cak Nur’s house to catch some sleep.  The DDT had cleared from our room and we settled in for three-and-a-half hours rest.  Well before dawn, in a  steady rain, we were on our way.  Just after crossing the new Madura bridge (one of the longest in Southeast Asia) I could feel my neck resisting the sleepy bob of my head.  My head seemed to have won as I woke up in Sampang, the location of the match.

Kian pointed out the piles of white limestone which is the foundation of this island.  Piles of the stone cut into blocks lay in lanes on the road and every house seemed to be built of the stuff.


We had been warned that Madura was not as friendly as Java (which has got be the friendliest place I’ve ever been).  In fact,  we had been warned that Madura was not at all friendly and I thought of the tough faces of Albania I had seen in National Geographic.  Hmmm, are these people akin to the dour pusses that sharpened every fence pole in their country to stave off a possible parachute attack?  The faces on the street did look hardened.  We’ll see.

We found the competition site and unloaded the special cage we had made to house a camera. It was an old cage of Cak Nur and my hope was to be able to mount it up on a long pole to get a bird’s eye view.  The risk, however, was that one of the 600 competitors would protest and we could have trouble.  We had bought a ticket in the corner of the field and we picked our way through the puddle-ridden grounds to the site.  I delicately reached into the cage and turned the camera on.  Tarjo hoisted the cage up on the rope and we waited for the competition to start.


A Madurese traditional band was playing and I went to film them.  In front of the band stood the two racing bulls that would be awarded as a door prize.  I stood shooting the band and bulls when I felt something crawling on my sandaled feet.  Fire ants.

Shit!  I pulled the velcro and started slapping dozens of ants off my afflicted peds.  “Damn those hurt!” I bellowed.

“You were standing on their nest, what do you expect them to do?” Kian offered in a none-too-consoling tone.  “We grew up with them.”

I would stand on fire ant nests about five more times during the day.  Basically, I deduced, they were anywhere the ground was dry, just like me.  Filming the local Madurese band – fuck! Fire ants.  Interviewing the head of the competition – bastards!  Hang on – I’ve got fire ants again. Why isn’t anyone else ripping off their footwear??

I went to look at the cage and indicated to Cak Nur and Tarjo that it was pointing away from the field.  We collectively grimaced.  Do you think we could put it in the middle of the field?  I see some free poles.  Let’s just do it, suggested Cak Nur.  I pressed him to ask Gunawan who was here representing the national organization and he agreed we could mount the camera on a free pole on the middle.  The bell rang for the end of round two and I followed Tarjo into the field to retrieve the camera cage.

“Jim! Jim!” Cak Nur urged me back.  He explained to Kian that the rules stated that no cages should go up or down during the 3 hour match.  Tarjo would try to get the cage up as quietly as possible. He slid a cage cover over it and hurried onto the field.  Instantly calls rang out from the crowd. “Jo, Jo, what are you doing!”  We ran over and explained what was happening and that it had been approved.  The cage, camera already running, went up and we watched as Jo rushed off the field.  Phew.

The sun had come out and I continued to film in the hard rays.  Many of the competitors, Henry Manila included, threw a frilly bird cover over their heads to shield the heat.  Round one, two, three and four.


The cages came down and Tarjo delivered our stealth cage to the edge of the field.  A man flagged me down and it wasn’t long that I realized he wasn’t one of the many people delighted to talk to me.  When Kian arrived to translate he was yelling, “you made my bird lose!  How dare you mount that cage among the birds! You cost me money!”

I conferred with Kian.  Should we offer him the price of admission?  How should we handle this?  Cak Nur came to the scene and took the man by the shoulder and listened to his complaint.  Lots of nodding and apparent sympathy later Cak Nur came over to us and said, “no problem, all taken care of.”  He warned us later that if we had offered him money the man might have been insulted that we were trying to buy him off.

Back at the front the band started playing again and winners were being announced.  I went up and one of the organizers who had greeted us was doing a swaying dance in front of the racing bulls.


Men started pulling out bills and handing them to the dancer.  A hand reached over my shoulder waving a bill and the man came and took it in his mouth directly in front of my camera.  Gunawan, the culprit, was standing behind me laughing.

A big toothless man, who was apparently the richest man there and the winner of the contest, grabbed at my camera to shoot the scene.  I smiled at him but wouldn’t give it over.  He laughed and pointed to the dancing guy.  And then a man with a revolver took it out and pointed it at me.

Woah!  My instinct, oddly enough, wasn’t to move but to take a picture.  The moment reminded me of standing on the roof of a tall building and flirting with the drop below. Frightening, but alluring.  Then it dawned on me I should move away from the gun.  Cak Nur later assured me that this fellow was  a bit nutty and doubted the gun was real.  Nutty and gun – great combination!

After a few more bouts of fire ants and trophies the competition ended.  As in Solo everyone disappeared quickly and quietly – except for the man who won the racing bulls who led them away kicking his heels and singing, an entourage of kids running behind him.

We headed back to Surabaya for some lontong balap (see the food entry) and a good night’s rest.  The next day Cak Nur would drive us to the airport.  We would be bound for Bali.

Assorted Pics

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