The instrument maker

Lospalos, day 96

We have discovered that our next door neighbour is a culture man, someone with knowledge about traditional instruments and how to make them. Timorese instruments are intricately connected with both the local environment and local rituals. For example, the kakalos we made on the weekend (following his design) were used by children in the fields, with the job of scaring away birds that might try and eat the crops. The hooters that he makes by twisting long coconut palm fronds into circular pyramids, with a folded piece of leaf making a double reed in the mouthpiece, also probably had a use originally as a ‘scarer’. Other instruments and music are connected with the rituals of every day life – such as the stone griding songs (I haven’t found any of these), and others are connected with more sacred rituals and celebrations.

He looked at my clarinet in detail one day, examining the way the silverwork keys allow you to close and open holes that are too far away for your fingers to reach. He liked this design – I understood him explaining it to someone else, “Look, see how this key here is augmenting the instrument”.

When he makes instruments – the small hooters, the kakalo, or a flute from narrow pieces of bamboo, his many children and other family members also gather round. We got the impression they might not have known that their father could make these things. Or perhaps our presence next door, with all our blowing instruments, have reminded him of all the things he knows how to make.

Certainly, in the time I’ve been here, quite a number of ‘blowing’ instruments have appeared in the street. We’ve seen kids blowing pieces of tubing, or on bottles, and even a plastic recorder has made an appearance, passed from person to person.

He made a comment about the complexity of the clarinet compared with his bamboo flute. If my Tetun had been up to it, I’d have liked to be able to talk more about this with him – about how the instruments we play were developed for their own specific environment and set of rituals, as well as the way that they denoted power and status to those who could employ them. The Timorese instruments have also developed in response to their environment and the rituals in which they were used. What I like in traditional or indigenous music settings like Timor is the way that music performance is so often participatory, and linked to key community events. Western art music, on the other hand, has developed along a presentational model, and this – along with a perceived ‘higher status’ – is one of the things that can make it so excluding or remote for the general population.

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