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Iwan and Adek of the Bamboes record songs in their home-made studio - photo by Julia Gerlitz
Iwan and Adek of the Bamboes record songs in their home-made studio - photo by Julia Gerlitz

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 2 | Feb. 2, 2006

Student Brings Music of Street Children to the World

By Brian Lin

Julia Gerlitz can hardly contain her excitement. Her favorite band has just finished recording its first album.

But The Bamboes is not your run-of-the-mill teenage garage band. Most of the band members, aged nine to 21, are homeless and panhandle the streets of Indonesia between practice sessions. They play on instruments made of recycled vodka bottles, beer caps and plastic buckets.

Gerlitz, a fourth-year Psychology and Political Science student, was just starting an internship last spring at Indonesia's Education and Information Center for Child Rights (KKSP), non-governmental organization focused on helping street kids, when she was introduced to a group of children who "hang out" at KKSP's shelter in the northern Sumatra capital of Medan.

"The shelter's manager asked some of the kids to play me a song they had written to break the ice," says Gerlitz, who at the time spoke no Bahasa Indonesia, the national language.

"I didn't know what the songs were about, but something happened as soon as they began singing -- their body language changed, they transformed into a more confident and joyful version of themselves."

As time went on, 13 of the kids who live at the shelter began "jamming" regularly at Gerlitz's urging. Then she met Reza Kowsari, a UBC engineering graduate student who was in the area doing seismic guidelines research, and a plan was hatched to record an album.

"A good friend of mine, Siavash Dezvareh, is a professor at the Sound and Audio Engineering school (SAE) in Kuala Lumpur," says Kowsari, who is now looking for sponsors to produce the CD in Canada. "When I told him about the kids and their music, he volunteered to come to Medan to work with the kids. He also convinced SAE to fund the equipment rental and studio time for post-production."

With specifications and instructions from Dezvareh, the kids went to work building their first sound-proof studio in a corner of the shelter. They collected recycled materials and enlisted their friends for the handy work.

"Before this project, the kids were just living day to day, their biggest concern being where their next meal would come from," says Gerlitz.

"Building the studio and recording the album gave them the motivation to look past today, and for the first time in their lives, they had a reason to strive beyond just surviving what's dealt to them."

The kids chose 12 songs and came up with their band name -- The Bamboes. "They picked bamboo because it can survive almost anywhere and it grows stronger in groves -- just like the street kids themselves," says Gerlitz, who has translated the lyrics into English.

"What truly amazes me about these songs is how altruistic they are," says Gerlitz. "There is so much compassion and sympathy in their songs, even when they depict some of the most gruesome situations, which is remarkable considering everything -- poverty, war, abuse and natural disasters -- the children have been through."

As the project progressed, Gerlitz has also noticed more hopeful notes in their songs. "They want to use proceeds from the CD to build a music school for street children," says Gerlitz. "Since I left them in December, they've organized a charity concert in the tsunami-ravaged town of Banda Aceh, where they raised money and taught other street children to play music."

"That's the most amazing part of this journey. I saw the positive impact on children when they felt someone believed in them -- how it motivates them into doing great things," says Gerlitz, who is visibly proud of the kids who affectionately call her "Bunda" which means "mama" in Indonesian.

Born and raised in Nelson, B.C., Gerlitz says her parents, a teacher and a nurse, have always instilled in her the importance of giving, a concept reinforced when she arrived at UBC and saw an emphasis on global citizenship in the curriculum.

"You get so much more back when you give. It's a cliché because it's true, and in the case of this internship, I learned so much about myself, about the world around us, and about how to overcome adversity."

As for the album, Gerlitz, who along with Kowsari funded part of the project out of their own pockets, is aiming for a spring / summer release, provided they can find a Canadian distributor.

"It just goes to show that even young students can initiate projects that make a difference," says Kowari.

"For everyone involved with the project, where the music came from and how it was made is as important as the songs themselves," says Gerlitz, who is designing a booklet with lyrics and profiles of the band members.

"We want the world to hear their songs and know their story."

For pictures and a song clip go to www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/ubcreports/slideshows.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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