Bamboo, buckets and stones

Sunday, day 75 (Boxing Day)

Lospalos has a much-loved community of nuns living in its midst. Known by the initials ADM, it is an Indonesian Catholic order that provides a home for young people from the villages who are in Lospalos in rder to attend school. It also runs residential vocational training for twenty young women who have had to leave school early, for numerous reasons. In amongst all of this good work, the sisters have a well-established garden that includes many medicinal plants. They make some natural remedies, one of which was given to my mother while she was visiting, when she had a nasty bite (or what looked like a bite) on her arm.

I first met the sisters and their volunteer helper Brigitte (from Germany) by chance. We were in Com at the beach, and got chatting to the sisters while chilling out beside the water. Later that afternoon our car broke down on the raod home. A replacement car needed to be sent from Dili, our driver needed to wait for it, and my friends and I decided to see if we could flag down a ride home. It was the nuns and their party of young people who stopped for us. That’s how we got talking about why I was in Lospalos, and of course once we realised the similarity of our missions, I offered to come and do a workshop with their young students and the neighbouring children.

On Sunday Tony and I went to ADM to lead that workshop. We weren’t sure who we would be working with. We understood there was still a small group of teenagers living at the residence – many others had already gone home for the holidays. But Sunday afternoons are well-established among the local children as a time when activities are on offer, so there was a chance that some of those youngsters would also come along.

We took some of our favourite instruments with us – the black buckets to use as drums, and the pieces of bamboo we’d cut the other day. In order to draw the youngsters before us I played a bit of clarinet on the verandah outside the workshop room. This caught their curiosity, and eventually drew them inside, and into a circle. We started our workshop with about 15 participants – a mix of children and teenagers – but it soon swelled to about 45, including several of the sisters. We began with a song – Mobako meeno fway, from Africa – which is now established as a firm favourite for me, as it has been such an engaging, well-received song in all my workshops here in Timor. It has a simple dance step that goes with the chorus, and the movement always inspires lots of giggles and gets people relaxed and less inhibited.

Then I tried passing a clap around the circle. By now our group numbers were starting to swell, and people were joining in with this game cold. It therefore took awhile to establish, but I explained in Tetun the importance of eye contact, and it was wonderful see little children who had at first been quite unsure what they were supposed to do, start to figure it out with each successive round of the circle. We built up speed and changed direction, but I didn’t add any further layers to this game.

From here we did some call-and-response rhythms. I clapped and tapped rhythms on different parts of my body for them to echo. I tried to  use a big variety of sounds – they particularly enjoyed the hollowed-cheek taps.

From here, I established two separate rhythms and divided the circle into two groups. I did this without any words at first, but in the end needed to clarify my intentions briefly in Tetun! Two rhythms, one clapped and syncopated, the other stomped and grounded on the beat. We repeated a few times, then switched parts.

Next I introduced a whole-ensemble stop. I showed them the countdown signal I do with my fingers – “1, 2, 3, 4, STOP!” – and we started to do this. This led to a counted-in start cue as well and before long they were creating some very slick starts and stops.

Now it was time to bring out the instruments. We started with drums, sticks and shakers, keeping to the same rhythms, and passing the instruments around the group so that everyone got to play something.

Then we called a short break, where we sent people outside to get a pair of bamboo sticks from Tony. Meanwhile, I got 3 of the older boys to help me arrange all the chairs in a large circle. When everyone came back in, they could select a seat with a bucket or shaker in front of it (organised into sections) or sit with their bamboo sticks in any of the other seats. We found we had more participants than instruments, so invented a new sound from two smooth flat stones being tapped together (these stones were plentiful in the garden immediately in front of the workshop room).

I explained to them that we wanted to create new music, and asked for their ideas for possible rhythms. This kind of question is always risky – there is the possibility that no-one will suggest anything, that they will either feel too shy, or won’t really understand what it is you are asking them to do, or how they should set about doing it. If everyone stays silent for too long, it can result in a tremendous loss of energy among the group. However, you only ever need one suggestion. You can seize upon it enthusiastically, and get the group playing it, and others will start to feel braver, and begin to offer forth their own ideas. So I always feel it is worth the risk, even if it is easier to just teach everyone rhythms that you make up yourself.

We did indeed get one suggestion – from one of the bucket players. We established it with the pulse and got the whole bucket section playing it in unison.

“There’s a bamboo player over here who’s come up with something,” Tony announced, gesturing towards a young girl sitting with her legs dangling from the chair, not reaching the floor. I crouched in front of her.

“Can you show me?” I asked her in Tetun encouragingly. At first I thought she was going to refuse, but then, without making eye contact, she began to tap out her idea. It fitted beautifully with the bucket rhythm and we taught it to all the other bamboo players in her section.

Things progressed quickly from this point. Soon we had a rhythmic groove happening with 4 different parts to it. We jammed on this for awhile, Tony and I playing clarinet and saxophone respectively, and adding pitch to some of the rhythms.

Next we decided to write a song, a short song that we could include as part of this piece we were creating. Again, I explained our intention in Tetun, as best I could:

“We want to write a song with you, a song that you can help us write. We want to learn new things in Timor Leste, so we are interested in your ideas. First let’s decide what our song should be about. What do you want to write a song about?”

“Timor-Leste!” someone suggested (I think it was one of the sisters).

“Diak los!” I enthused, and wrote ‘Timor Leste’ as a heading on a big sheet of paper.

“What can we say about Timor Leste? Its history? The land and environment? Things that are special to here?”

Everyone thought hard. Then one of the boys suggested,

“Rai Timor Lorosae”.

Delighted to have our first lyrics offered so freely, I wrote them down straight away. The boy continued:

“Rai ida bee hau moris….. hau hodomi deit… ho mesak doben… Rai Timor Lorosae”

I wrote them all down, then held up the page so that everyone could see. Tony strummed a pair of chords, one after the other.

The sister sitting beside me murmured to me, “Mana, will you now teach us the melody to this song?”

“Well,” I answered, in Tetun so that everyone could hear. “We are going to make the melody now, all together. I want this to be a song that everyone has helped to write. What we will do is, read the words together, but say them with a rhythm. And gradually, a melody will start to emerge.” (Actually, I didn’t say emerge – I don’t know that word. I said things like arrive or enter, and hoped that I was making enough sense. People kept nodding and smiling at me, so that was encouraging).

We read the words several times, accompanied by Tony on guitar. In truth, no melody emerged. So again, I spoke.

“Does anyone have an idea for a melody?” No-one spoke. I paused.

“Every time I sing by myself, I feel shy – really! It is difficult to sing by yourself. You need to have courage! But, it is the only way that we can share ideas with other people. When we share our ideas, we can inspire others too. So this time, Maun Tony will play, but I want everyone to sing the words together. We won’t be singing the same melody, but that’s okay. I will listen carefully and find the melody that you sing.”

I find this is a very successful approach for me, but whenever I introduce it to a group, I know they feel doubtful. The important thing is to try it straight away. So I cued Tony, and asked him to play “Very strongly!” to give us courage.

Finally, a melody of our own began to emerge. I played it on the clarinet line by line to clarify it (and also to memorise it for myself). Then we sang it several times in a row, to lock the phrasing and pitches into everyone’s memories.

And so we reached the final part of our workshop. We structured the music so that we went from playing the rhythms to singing the song, back to playing the rhythms, back to the song – in a ‘looped’ binary form, essentially. We added some expressive dynamics, building up to a bar of suspension and silence, and used our by now well-established whole-ensemble stopping and starting skills to great effect. We filmed the final performance of the full piece.

We ended the workshop back in a circle, with the song Mo bako meeno fway. The sisters loved it, and made me repeat several times more than I’d planned! Later, one of them said, “When you come back, please bring us more songs from Africa! They have such great rhythm and energy – like the songs from Papua!” I promised I would bring more. Certainly, after a such a warm reception from the sisters, ADM is a place I definitely plan to bring more workshops.

Post-script: Further to my ongoing Timor theme of Things never being quite what they seem, I learned at the end of this workshop that the words offered up for our song actually already exist as a different song. No wonder they were created so swiftly and painlessly by their volunteer! No wonder this group of Fataluku-speaking, barely-at-school children learned them so quickly! Oh well… it wasn’t quite what I’d intended but it was a catchy song just the same.


3 comments so far

  1. kamil on

    looks very fun, gillian! so happy that your project is progressing well. hope you and tony are having a good time there in Lospalos with the children!

  2. victoria Ryle on

    So nice to be able to picture the Convent and where the workshop took place! Sounds wonderful. You’re chalking up lots of successful experiences in Lospalos now.
    Just about finished two little books from the verandah workshop. Will get them published by the end of the week and send them out with Kim – she’s working on the translation…
    When do you go to the Island?

  3. sally bartholomew on

    Thanks for posting this up. I was really inspired!

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