Last night I attended a screening of Timor-Leste’s first feature film, A Guerra Da Beatriz (Beatriz’s War). The screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s co-director Luigi Acquisto, and co-producer Lurdes Pires.
It’s a very moving film. It presents a retelling of the old French tale of Martin Guerre, set against a backdrop of Timor-Leste’s recent history of conflict, with the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesians, the brutality of life lived under occupation, and of the early months of independence. In this tale, a man disappears during a war, returning many years later to his wife. All the others in their village believe he is who he says he is; his wife Beatriz realises that he is an imposter, but falls in love with this new man nonetheless. (I hope that’s not a spoiler; it’s a pretty well-known story).
The Q&A session offered some fascinating insights into the making of the film. The story is set alongside a number of real events that occurred during the years of Indonesian occupation. One of these is the massacre in the town of Kraras in 1983, when Indonesian forces killed all the men and male boys (including babies) in retaliation to an ambush on Indonesia soldiers by the Timorese resistance fighters. They filmed this part of the movie in the actual town of Kraras, and many of the members of the cast were members of the Kraras community. The female extras were women who had witnessed the massacre and lost their menfolk. The male extras included people who had been young boys at the time of the massacre who had survived the killing. Read more »
Last weekend ArtPlay presented and hosted a wonderfully stimulating 2-day event – Engaging with Quality, a ‘learning exchange’ for Teaching Artists (artists who work with young people and communities, often in informal or non-formal contexts) that examined diverse approaches to practice.
One approach was through demonstration and observation. Another was through hands-on experiences of artist workshops, accompanied by explanation of the thinking behind the approach. The weekend also included group discussions and presentations, including a summary of a potential framework, called ‘The Qualities of Quality” that could inform planning, reflection, and evaluation of projects.
We were invited to present Nests as part of the two-day program. Parents booked tickets for their 3-5 year olds in the usual way, and delegates sat around the edge of the darkened Nests space, and observed the 30 minute ‘immersion experience’ that the young children and their parents have when they explore the Nests and play the instruments that they find.
Following each session there was a discussion with the delegates about what they’d noticed – noticed in the children’s responses, in the parents’ responses, in the musicians’ responses, and in the way the entire environment worked in sympathy (or not) with the participants. We were deeply gratified and moved by people’s responses – we were given so much extremely positive feedback about Nests! It has been a beautiful project to develop, and the three of us in the creative team have felt confident that we have created something very special; nevertheless, it was wonderful to get so much positive feedback, and have all those people’s experiences of Nests reflected back to us.
I also got to take part in other artists’ workshops. It was very difficult to choose which workshops I wanted to do – I opted for a stencil-making workshop with Daniel from Junkyprojects first. This was so much fun. I have long been fascinated by stencil art and print-making, as I love the idea of creating something that is reproducible, and that is accessible art, easily shared. I created my first ever stencil. What to draw? As you can (hopefully) decipher below, I created an image of an alien, peering over the top of a brick wall. I have no idea why this was the image I thought of. But there you go. Figuring out which bits to cut out (“windows”), and which bits would be the “bridges” that made sure the stencil would hold together with all of its detail, was an interestingly abstract mental process. I could feel my brain going into momentary ‘hangs’ and ‘freezes’ as it picked its way through this.
Next I took part in Briony Barr’s ‘Drawing and Undrawing’ workshop. Briony is interested in art that is created by following rules, an interest that is underpinned by her understanding of complexity and systems theories, and the importance to these systems of emergence – those properties that emerge when the rules are being followed by everyone in the space, but according to their own whims and choices.
We worked with coloured electrical tape, and created a wonderfully intricate group work on the floor of ArtPlay’s main space.
The ‘Undrawing’ part of the workshop involved us making another set of works, by ripping up (“undrawing”) the tape from the floor, and using it to create something else. I created a ball, that I then painstakingly sawed in half with a hacksaw. The interior of my ball looked like a beautifully multi-coloured cabbage. Or perhaps a large colourful crystal. It is now sitting on a shelf in my home.
Taking part in other artists’ workshops is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get to engage with their ideas and approaches to practice – which is always inspiring, and gets you thinking about your own processes and choices afresh – you become a learner yourself. You place yourself once again in the hands of someone else, trusting them to guide you, but also aware that you will gain the most from the process by making your own decisions and jumping with both feet into the process, ignoring any lingering reservations you may have. It’s good to feel those moments of vulnerability mixed with anticipation and even excitement – they are a very real part of the workshop experience for many participants.
“Want to help save a music tradition?”
This was how a friend shared a recent Kickstarter campaign on social media. The campaign was in support of an enactment of a traditional music-theatre ceremony in Timor-Leste that hadn’t been performed in over a decade. The knowledge about this ceremony – how to perform it, the musical material and how it is structured, the rules and protocols surrounding its performance – was in danger of being lost. The two elders (cultural custodians) who knew it in detail were ageing – if a performance didn’t take place soon it was possible that they could pass away without their knowledge having been passed on to a younger generation.
The ceremony isn’t performed very often because it is really big and requires a huge amount of preparation and logistical planning. It can involve 80-100 performers, who need to travel and stay overnight (possibly for multiple days in a row) and set aside their other day-to-day work and responsibilities in order to take part.
The event is called Maulelo, and while I was Timor-Leste I was able to travel to the site and observe the final day of rehearsals. The setting was halfway up a mountain, near the small town of Hatubuiliko, and in the foothills of Mount Ramelau, Timor-Leste’s highest mountain and a sacred site of pilgrimage and Timorese national identity. To get there, we walked for a while out of Hatubuiliko town, and then at a critical point we left the path and scrambled our way up a steep, narrow, twisting goat track. This took us above the clouds that had descended upon the town to a clearing on a narrow saddle, ringed by pin-straight, narrow eucalypts, reaching toward the sky.
A few weeks back I wrote a post on reciprocity in research. In that post, I shared my resolve to find ways to engage my research participants in Timor-Leste in an exchange of knowledge and information of mutual value. I discussed with different organisations the possibility of leading training workshops for their staff, in order to ‘give something back’ to people, so that taking part in research was beneficial to them, as well as to me.
I did lead these workshops, and they seemed to be appreciated and valued. However, I also observed there were other ways that I could make a tangible contribution to people’s work and lives, simply through having conversations and sharing observations. Two conversations stood out for me as being of particular value to the participants.
The first conversation was at a remote rural school. In 2009, this school had been chosen by a local Catholic organisation to participate in a pilot music education project. Everyday for a week, all the students in the school had music classes, playing percussion instruments, and learning to read rhythms and perform in a piece. At the end of the week the older classes were invited to perform at a concert in Dili, at the Presidential Palace.
The teachers told me that they had understood that they would be given the musical instruments that the students had used at the end of the pilot project. They would be able to continue doing music with their students with these instruments. However, when the pilot project ended, the instruments were taken back to Dili. “We felt incredibly sad,” admitted one teacher. “We did music teacher training too, but without the instruments we didn’t really know what to do in the classrooms. It meant that everything just stopped.”
This story made me feel sad too. I knew that the instruments used in that pilot project were high-quality classroom percussion instruments, available to buy (if you have money) in Australia, but certainly not available in Timor-Leste. I also felt disappointed that, if the instruments were to be taken away, efforts hadn’t been made to ensure the training the teachers had taken part in modeled some locally-available musical instrument alternatives. (I acknowledge that there are many reasons why this may have been complicated to do at the time, particularly with traditional instruments in Timor-Leste and the rules that surround their usage; but I still feel disappointed to hear the teachers’ stories of essentially having their excitement and interest built up, only to lose what they understood to be the essential tools for the continuation of the project).
The teachers told me they had time to stick around a little longer, so I talked to them, via my interpreter, about the experiments with instrument-making that my partner Tony and I had done in Lospalos, back in 2010-2011. I told them how we’d discovered that our next-door neighbour had instrument-making skills, making for us a simple bamboo log drum called a kakalo. Kakalos were ‘work instruments’ – noise-makers traditionally played by children charged with guarding crops against foraging animals. I told them how, when he made the first kakalo for us, his own children seemed to look on in absolute fascination. It seemed to me that they didn’t know their father had these skills and knowledge. It was as new to them as it was to us.
Perhaps, I said, there are people in their own community who have similar instrument-making knowledge. They may not know about them. We found out about our neighbour’s skills because we were already experimenting with bamboo, and he was jolted into action after observing our (somewhat feeble, albeit well-meaning) efforts.
I played them a video I’d made that showed us making the kakalos, and the local children playing them.
The teachers were fascinated by this story, so next I showed them video of some of our other instrument-making efforts – making shakers by putting stones into empty plastic bottles, or making agogo-bells from empty plastic bottles pumped hard with air so that they gave a bell-like tone when struck with a stick.
The group of teachers were smiling and nodding a lot as this conversation progressed. At the end one teacher said, “I feel happy to have seen these videos and to get these new ideas. I feel like we shouldn’t keep waiting for things like instruments to come from outside. We need to just do it for ourselves.”
I also told them that, at the time of the music education pilot program, other music projects by this organisation had also stopped. I felt that I was picking up a sadness that they had been left behind because they are far from the capital city, that they had missed out because they are remote. I felt that it was important that they knew it wasn’t just them. This didn’t make their situation any better, but perhaps it would help them to feel less isolated or specifically disadvantaged.
The second conversation I had that felt like it was giving valuable information to the participants was with a young group of music leaders. They were members of a local rock band, and taught eager young teenagers how to play guitar, bass, and drums, three days a week at a local arts centre. I led a workshop on rhythmic notation with them and their students.
At the start of the class, and at the end, one of the members of the band said to me, somewhat apologetically, “we don’t really know anything about music reading, or other theory. We just play completely by ear.” In his voice I could hear a hint of feeling inadequate. I wanted to address this directly.
“You know, this kind of thing”- I gestured towards the pages we had filled throughout the workshop with music notation – “this is just one part of music knowledge. It’s not the most important thing. It’s useful, for sure, but there are other parts of music knowledge that are also very important. Things like playing by ear, and being able to copy and memorise, create harmonies, and make original arrangements and compositions.”
I told them that in fact, most of the world’s musical cultures don’t use music notation in their traditions. They didn’t know this, and looked surprised to hear it. I listed musical cultures from different parts of the world that don’t use notation. I didn’t want to downplay the usefulness of music notation knowledge, or to suggest they didn’t need it – if they are interested in learning it, then they should have the opportunity to do so, as far as I’m concerned!
But this was not the first time I had heard a skilled Timorese person downplay their own skills due to not knowing how to read music. It wasn’t the first time that I’d heard a hint that knowledge of music notation was considered by many to be the pinnacle of music knowledge – perhaps because not many Timorese people know how to read music. In the past, only those who studied in the seminary were taught to read music. I wanted to remind these guys of the very strong skills they already have, that they already share with their students.
I told them about the Musical Futures program:
“In the UK, for a long time the music education in schools was very focused on this kind of music learning – note-reading. But this kind of music was very different to the music that young people loved participating in outside of school, and students became bored, and stopped doing music in school. Then a researcher named Lucy Green did some research into how popular musicians – musicians that play rock and pop music – learned their musical skills. She discovered that they learned music by ear, from CDs, that they formed bands, and learned through playing with their friends.
“Now, in lots of schools in the UK, they are changing the way they teach music. They are getting the students to learn to play by ear, to copy from CDs, and to form bands. They are trying to teach them in exactly the way that you guys are already teaching your students!”
Later, on the way home I asked my translator what she thought the band’s reaction to this story was. She smiled and said without hesitating, or pausing for thought,
“I think they really liked it, because as soon as you said it was just one part of music knowledge, they started to smile a bit. And they were very interested to hear about this research in the UK. I think it made them feel more confident.”
These kinds of interactions are important. It is easy to forget how isolated many people in Timor can be from the outside world. It is rarely shared with them through their media, although increased access to the internet may see this start to change more in the future. Thinking about these post-interview conversations, it seemed like one of the most valuable things I could offer was to reflect a different version of themselves (and their knowledge) back at them, and to validate their efforts, or suggest manageable alternatives that they can imagine themselves doing. Showing videos offers a kind of proof that it is possible. And describing the situation in other parts of the world helps them to see their own efforts in a bigger context, and hopefully means they start to give themselves credit for all that they have achieved so far.
Thinking of travelling to Timor-Leste? Here are some useful things to add to your travel information:
You can buy great second-hand clothes at the markets, so don’t stress about bringing everything you think you might need with you from home. It’s easy to find dresses, tops, pants, and even warm things at the markets. There are several major market sites. I went to Manleuana a couple of times on this recent trip; Hali Laran is also huge and very popular… a sprawling, rambling market with lots of makeshift stalls. From the road it looks like the size of a small suburb. Manleuana is a purpose-built market space. The stall holders used to have their market in the hustle and bustle of Comoro but that market was closed down and everyone moved to this new site, which is much further out of the city. We went there in part to support the stall-holders. Also because the smaller number of shoppers meant that we might find amazing clothes. My co-shoppers found some real treasures – Yves St Laurent shoes and a sequinned Max Mara evening top, very stylish. Lots of things to fit the big bodies of well-fed foreigners.
You may wonder why one needs to buy warm clothes in a tropical country. You will need them if you go to the mountains. I bought a warm puffer jacket with a fur-lined hood at Manleuana for $10 and I was extremely grateful for it when I went to Hatobuiliko (near Mount Ramelau, Timor’s highest mountain which is just 2000 metres below the snow line – pretty high and cold for a tropical island) for the weekend. I also bought a warm roll-neck top, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a pair of leggings to wear under my jeans. I couldn’t find any socks in the market place – bring your socks from home, perhaps, or buy them new in one of the supermarkets.
You have to pay attention to mosquitoes in Timor-Leste – they are abundant, and carry lots of horrible viruses and illnesses. In the last month, I heard of two people who had chikungunya (the virus I caught when I was there in 2010, very unpleasant), a friend of a friend who got dengue within a week of his arrival in-country, and another friend who came down with malaria. In one month.
It’s difficult to avoid getting bitten. I had always placed my trust in Tropical Strength Rid, but the roll-top bottle I bought just before leaving Australia turned out to be faulty – the roller-ball wouldn’t roll, which is a fairly critical design fault. I had to turn to a locally-available alternative, and that is how I discovered Soffell. The bottle is pretty and pink (a very different style of visual communication to the robust aggression of Tropical Strength Rid). The lotion is scented with geranium. It costs $1.50 in local pharmacies and is apparently an Indonesian brand.
Soffell really keeps the mozzies off. I was very impressed. I am one of those people that is bitten often. I will be slapping away at the mozzies and scratching my bites while others in the room won’t have been bitten at all. But with Soffell, I was bitten far less often. In my last week in Timor-Leste, I didn’t get bitten once. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was slathering myself in Tropical Strength Rid.
Pronunciation of supermarket names (for Australians)
There are several big supermarkets in Dili, and people with Australian accents should take care to pronounce the names of two of these with care, for the sake of clarity and accuracy, and to make sure your taxi driver takes you to the right place. Leader (with a D and an R) is near Comoro. Lita (with a T and an A at the end) is in Lecidere, near the beach and past the World Bank building. Standard Australian pronunciation (which, let’s face it, can be a bit sloppy on certain consonants and turns lots of vowels into vague schwas) can make these store names sound pretty much the same. If someone says the name of the shop to you, it is worth clarifying: “Do you mean LeaDER [with strong R sound], or Li-TA [with carefully enunciated T-sound, and an open A-sound at the end of the word]?” Friends taught me to do this when I first arrived in Dili in 2010, and it is still useful to keep in mind.
Otherwise, you might find yourself on completely the opposite side of town to what you were expecting.
Last time I was in Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) I spent most of my four months outside of the capital city Dili. That was in 2010. I had a total of three weeks in Dili at the beginning of my trip, during which time I attended Tetun language classes and jumped through the bureaucratic hoops associated with obtaining a visa extension (most of which involved finding the correct office, building, person, or form, and standing in queues), but otherwise I lived in rural towns.
I enjoyed the buzz of Dili for those first three weeks. There was always something going on. I stayed with friends and completed my Tetun language homework every afternoon with the help of local children. We would chat, and sing, and just hang out together on the veranda of my friends’ Dili house. However, I was only there for a short time, and I never felt like I got to know Dili all that well.
I feel like I have made up for this now, having just spent a month in Dili doing fieldwork for my PhD. I spent each day visiting music programs and interviewing individuals with interesting experiences to share with me. I caught lots of taxis, and grabbed meals wherever I was at the time I was hungry. I stayed with friends again, who drew me into their social circles, so I met lots of welcoming people, each engaged in interesting work, good for a story, and happy to offer suggestions for further contacts for my research.
At the moment in Dili there is a huge amount of building and construction work going on. Much of this must be completed within a tight timeframe, as it is part of an effort to smarten up the city in readiness for the forthcoming Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries [CPLP] Summit. Timor-Leste currently holds the rotating Presidency for the CPLP, and thus will play host to the Summit, which brings the Presidents and high-ranking officials from all the countries in the CPLP together. The Summit is scheduled for mid-July, and Dili is in the throes of major upgrades, renovations and improvements. Everywhere you go, roads are being dug up, at least along the routes that the Presidential vehicles will drive. Piles of rocks, stone and rubble are commonplace. There is huge amount of dust in the air, and many people walk the streets or ride their motorbikes wearing surgical masks.
Most striking is the shiny silver corrugated iron that has been wrapped around many sites, shielding them from view. Some say that these barriers are to give the turf that is being laid time to grow, and to “protect it from Timorese children!” (Poor little Timorese children, being scapegoated like this!). It may also be designed to hide unsightly construction sites from view.
The corrugated iron is so shiny, and so silvery! It gives the city a slightly surreal, space-age look. It reminds me of the cake decorating accoutrements we had in my family in the seventies, in particular the frilly, silvery wrap-around-the-cake thing that we used to decorate family birthday cakes. It looks like Dili is being populated by multiple oversize 1970s birthday cakes.
A more disappointing outcome of the city’s current facelift and spruce-up is that the food sellers that used to congregate on the beach every evening, selling barbecued chicken and ‘fish-on-a-stick’, have been moved on. In fact, people have been warned that, by the time of the CPLP meeting, any non-permanent structure on the Beach Road will be dismantled. It seems such a shame to lose these street stalls. The food they sold was tasty and inexpensive, the stalls were popular with Timorese families and visitors alike, and they gave this stretch of the city a lot of personality and character. It is sad that these hardworking people would be seen as eyesores, or as creating an unsanitary environment, rather than as contributing to the unique and attractive qualities of the city.
I stayed near the Beach Road (it does have an official name, but everyone, locals and visitors alike, calls it the Beach Road). This road now has a nice paved pathway that runs alongside the beach. It’s a relatively new addition, and I was impressed to see the large number of Timorese people jogging along it in the early evening. I don’t remember seeing many Timorese people jogging or doing other fitness or health-focused activities when I was here last time. I remember feeling quite self-conscious on the odd occasion I donned my sports gear and went out for a fast walk or jog. But there are many runners now. I also saw them running, with great stamina and grit, up the mountain road at the back of Dili, heading up towards Dare. Dili has the Dili Marathon each year – perhaps they are in training for that. Exercising suggests an optimism and faith in a controllable future (just as learning to play an instrument suggests a similar act of hopefulness and optimism). These are important steps in a city’s recovery from trauma.
Four years ago, there weren’t a lot of places that had internet access. Now, it seems like many more Timorese people are connected. Facebook is the most common platform. But also, I would say that mobile phones and mobile internet access is perhaps more affordable and accessible now; there are now competing providers which has presumably brought the costs down for consumers. Timorese teenagers seemed as connected to their phones and messaging as any of their counterparts in Australia.
I think the arrival of Timor Plaza has also added to this access to internet. When I was here in 2010, Timor Plaza was a construction site. Many people I spoke to felt unconvinced about Timor Plaza – a big shopping mall, Timor’s first, with a posh hotel and conference facilities, and a cinema, and a food hall. Would the average Timorese person be able to go there? Would they be able to afford to buy anything?
But it turns out that Timor Plaza is quite a buzzy place to go. There are always lots of teenagers hanging around, taking advantage of the free wireless (it never worked when I was there, but apparently it is usually reliable), sitting around on benches with their netbooks and laptops, doing what teenagers are supposed to do in shopping malls (hang around and not buy anything).
It is also air-conditioned. And non-smoking! (apparently the owner is an passionate anti-smoker). There is a pharmacy there, and a couple of supermarkets, a food hall where I ate a wonderful chicken biriyani, and which also includes a gelato stand, flagship stores for Timor Telecom and Telemor (or whoever the other carrier is, I can’t remember their name), I think I even saw an Apple store there! You can get printing and photocopying done, and shop for gadgets, and traditional Timorese souvenirs… even have a music lesson (there is a shopfront private music school, where kids learn piano), or a massage or a pedicure or manicure. It’s a shopping mall. It appears to be a better fit for Dili than I (and many others) originally thought it would be.
By being present in an environment, you become part of the context and things will subtly shift and adapt in response. Ethnographic and social science researchers need to be aware of this. By asking questions and showing interest in people and events, you are in effect asking people to direct their thoughts and focus in particular ways, and this can in turn affect their actions. These are the rules of interaction in action. It makes the research process fascinatingly messy and multi-layered.
I’ve now completed two fieldwork trips to post-conflict countries for my PhD research into music education and participation initiatives in conflict-affected settings, and these unintended consequences of my presence and participation are interesting to document and ponder.
Last year, when I was preparing to do fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I reviewed relevant websites and information available online. The focus of my research was the Pavarotti Music Centre [PMC] and I visited their website. It was only written in Bosnian. The PMC was originally started by UK-based NGO, but today it is wholly-owned by the local government of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I assumed that having a monolingual website was a kind of assertion of the PMC’s place as a Bosnian/Mostarian institution now.
Around that time I also got in touch with the Director of the PMC, introducing myself and informing him of my research.
When I got to Mostar I spoke with the Centre Administrator, a woman that I’d worked with there in 1998, about obtaining copies of the current ‘mission and vision’ statements. She told me, “Well, of course they are on our website.” I confessed that my Bosnian language skills were too rusty to give me a complete understanding of what was on the site.
“No, it’s in English as well,” she told me. I was taken aback, as I thought I had read the website extremely thoroughly. Had I somehow missed a little Union Jack in the upper left hand corner, indicating I could read the text in English? Later that day, I revisited the website, and sure enough, there was an English language version.
Of course it is possible that Union Jack was there all along and I missed it. But it is also possible that, as I began to make contact with staff at the PMC and let them know of my interest, they began to think about the external image of the PMC that was available to people around the world. It’s possible that the site was updated with an English language version sometime between the first time I read it, my emails to the Director, and my arrival in Mostar.
It is inconsequential, of course – who cares when the website was updated? – but I use this story to illustrate the way that outsider interest can influence levels of self-consciousness/self-awareness. This in turn can generate changes of behaviour or new actions in response to the perceived scrutiny.
I have three case study countries I am investigating for my PhD research; Bosnia is one case study country, and Timor-Leste is another. I have just returned from a month of fieldwork in Timor-Leste, based mostly in the capital city Dili.
In Timor-Leste, plans have been in development in recent years to establish an Academy of Arts and Creative Industries. Staff from Griffith University in Australia consulted on the initial idea, and a Timorese implementation team is in place. However, while the government has agreed that the Academy should go ahead, things have slowed somewhat, according to some of the people I interviewed – artists, senior government staff, arts organisers – for my research.
How well known is this Academy of Arts and Creative Industries project? At various times over the last few years, there have been events – concerts, conferences, forums – that have drawn media attention to the plans for the Academy. However, you couldn’t say that the project occupies any kind of prominence in the minds of the general population of Timor-Leste. It is a possible topic of conversation among the small number of people currently engaged in areas of contemporary arts practice in Timor-Leste.
Therefore, I was extremely interested to see this piece of graffiti on the wall of the building that is the home of the Secretary of State for Art and Culture, the government department that has been driving the Academy plans. It appeared ten days after I began my fieldwork in Timor-Leste.
There are different ways of interpreting the graffiti artist’s statement. The word ‘Akademi’ could in fact be more general, and refer to the Art and Culture building, suggesting it is a “dead house of art and culture’. The words ‘Arte Kultura’ could refer to art and culture in Timor-Leste, or could refer specifically to the government secretariat.
Who might have done this graffiti? And more to the point, why do it now? There were no other events taking place, or media attention (as far as I’m aware) that might have shifted people’s attention to the Academy of Arts project at that time. Was it because I was there, asking questions, and directing people’s attention towards a project that had fallen frustratingly silent at that time? Or were there other influencing factors? Was graffiti like this a regular occurrence? While street art and graffiti are not uncommon in Dili, the reactions of many of my research participants to my photograph of the graffiti suggested that the content and its placement on the wall of a government building were noteworthy, and particularly provocative.
The graffiti remained on the wall for less than a week. I first saw it on a Sunday morning. It was gone by the following Saturday. Whether coincidental, serendipitous, or an unintended consequence of me asking questions and being interested, I am certainly not complaining! It’s a powerful image that alludes to some of the key issues impacting contemporary cultural life in Timor-Leste. Sickness. Death. Government efforts. Artists wishing for more. Hopes, expectations, and disappointment. Lots of layers to peel back and unravel here.
This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.
She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.
One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.
Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.
Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.
Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.
Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?
Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.
Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.
In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.
This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.
*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.
Warm-up activities in workshops and classes serve multiple functions. They help bring the group together into the space with a shared focus, and appropriate energy level for the work we are about to do together. When people arrive in a workshop, they may come in with baggage from the outside world – bad traffic, arguments or tension with others, problems that are hanging around, yet to be solved. They may also bring anxieties about the workshop with them – Will I know anyone? Will everyone be better than me? Will it be too easy/too difficult? I’m shy to play on my own. I’m scared to improvise/sightread/work in a group.
You can use warm-ups to:
- ‘Break the ice’ (people may not know each other and feel shy or reserved)
- Learn names (you may not know people in the group)
- Delineate this session as distinct and different to whatever has happened before it
- Establish and build communal focus
- Give you, as the leader, some insights into the skills, strengths, and responses of the group
- ‘Calibrate’ or establish a shared energy level and workshop tone for the session, including moving people towards playful, spontaneous responses that encourage people to remain present and ‘in the moment’, with the inner critics suspended.
Warm-ups need to have ‘low-stakes’ outcomes, even when they may require high-level skills to achieve! In this way, the pressure is off. People can relax, and feel free to simply explore and follow their curiosity. This is why games play an essential part of many warm-up routines.
I like to include physical elements in my workshop warm-up sequences. Physical warm-ups can do all of the above, but they also get people moving. They draw people out of their heads and into their bodies. They loosen up tight muscles, encourage deeper, more relaxed breathing, and improve posture – all important things to establish when playing music, as the body can be harmed through the repetitive movements and tense focus that can be part of instrumental music-making for some kids. It’s not about physically exhausting people or testing their strength or fitness, but about positive embodied experiences.
This week I was leading 2-hour music workshops for primary school children as part of ArtPlay and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s City Beats program. I needed a succinct warm-up routine, that would lead us into the instrumental music-making early in the session. The following sequence of activities worked really well, moving each group to where I wanted them to be for the creative and collaborative focus of the workshop.
- Make a circle. Stretch up one arm, high in the air. Stretch out your fingers. Stretch the other arm down, so that you are stretching your arms in opposite directions and feeling it across your body. Take a breath in. Release it together, in a sigh, and shake the arms out. Repeat on the other side of the body.
- Wriggle the shoulders. Make circles forwards, backwards, and in opposite directions. Wriggle the elbows, the wrists, the rib cage, the stomach (I try to include circles with body parts that I myself am not sure how to execute – just to throw in some fun challenges!). Continue these wriggles, shakes and circles all the way down to the toes – wriggling the toes inside your shoes, and drumming your heels on the floor – with floorboards this makes a satisfying sound.
- Shift the energy that’s been building into a strong shared focus now. Ask everyone to rock on their feet forwards (towards the toes) and backwards (towards the heels). Some will wobble, lose their balance – but this is a good thing. Ask them to find their ‘edge’ – the edge of their balance at which they still have control over the movement.
- Next, pour all your weight into one leg. When you do this, it becomes full, and the leg that is empty can float up off the ground. Maintain your balance with this leg in the air. Stretch it out in front of you. Bend it again, then pick up the foot, and place it across your thigh, making a Number 4 shape. Now cross your arms. Now sink down, “sitting in an imaginary chair”. It’s not an easy move, but some kids will be able to do it. For those that wobble, they have another leg to try it on, and now that they know the moves required, their focus will be stronger. They will have a goal. They will also get a good stretch!
- Next I shift the pace again. We passed a clap around the circle, focusing on speed and strong eye contact (looking in the direction that you are passing the clap to). If the group gets this going well, suggest that they now change the direction of the clap whenever they choose. This builds in a very playful element, as individuals ‘challenge’ each other, and are pushed to remain alert and present.
- Following this game, the energy is very positive and lifted, and the group has a strong shred focus. We say our names in turn around the circle, repeating each name as it is said. Then we set up a four-beat clapping pattern – Ta Ta (Rest) (Rest) – with the two beats of rest creating a space or silence. I say my name in the first space, the group echoes my name in the next space, then the person on my left says their name in the next space, the group repeats it in the next… and so on, around the whole circle. Each person speaks. Each person is heard. And musician-facilitators in the room get to learn the children’s names.
This warm-up routine took about ten minutes and by its conclusion, the groups were always ready to start on their creative collaborative work. It built focus and positive energy, reduced inhibitions and shyness, and established a playful but exacting tone for the work that followed.
How do you warm up your groups? Do you start an ensemble rehearsal the same way you might start a creative workshop? Does your warm-up routine establish foundations for the learning session, or simply delineate the session? Do you have any great resources that you turn to again and again?