Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Back in Melbourne, back to school

Ah… home from four months in East Timor. I’m back in my flat, and back at work, reconnecting with friends, family, colleagues and workplaces, and putting plans for the year in place.

The day after getting home I did two days of workshops at ArtPlay, as part of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble year-long program of activities. These workshops were focused on “express composing”, where a group of children creates a new piece of music in an hour, and performs it to their parents at the end of that hour.

We had so much fun! We asked each group to invent a story of some kind – a tale that had a beginning, a middle and an ending. We divided into three groups and everyone went away to create music for their assigned section. At the end of the hour we performed the music in order, from the beginning section, to the middle section, to the end section.

Some of the stories were wildly inventive:

Beginning: People are in a shopping mall, wandering around, doing their shopping. Suddenly an alarm sounds. Panic ensues. It is a cyclone warning.

Middle: People stampede the exits. The cyclone approaches [this story was written in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi in northern Australia]. Suddenly a gigantic platypus lands on the roof of the shopping mall. [Be truthful. None of us saw that offer coming, did we?]

Ending: It’s Bob, the Gargantuan Platypus, here to save the day. He picks himself up from the roof of the shopping mall and flings himself at the cyclone, squashing it completely.

The following week I started a new year at the Melbourne English Language School, my fifth year as an artist-in-residence there. The idea is to create music projects with each class that support their English language and literacy development in some way. (More info about this school here).

Planning with the class teachers is an essential part of this. First, I met with the three primary teachers, in order to discuss the kinds of themes and project work they had planned for their classes this term. We also talked about different students in their class – who has been there a few terms and is preparing to make the transition to mainstream school; who is new or recently arrived; what languages are spoken in the class; and how the class works together as a group.

All three primary classes have the broad theme of “food” this term. They will be talking about healthy eating, and doing some cooking in the classroom. In Lower Primary, I liked the teacher’s description of the categories of food they are learning – ‘every day’ food, ‘sometimes’ food and ‘never at school’ food. I can imagine building a simple, repetitive song out of these phrases, with different foods being promoted as belonging to one category or another.

The teacher of the Middle Primary class is keen for them to build up their oral language skills. I find a good way to do this is to develop rhythmic phrases from the syllables of words and sentences, and get the children to repeat these over and over, as a way of memorising and internalising the rhythms. We started with this idea in our first class and developed two lists of five food words each (pushing our rhythmic phrases into 5/4, which I love). We developed body percussion patterns for these phrases in our first lesson; in time, we will transfer the rhythms to instruments and develop melodic lines for them on tuned percussion.

In Upper Primary the students have also started their unit of work by discussing ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods. On the day that I was there, ‘pizza’ was under discussion. Is pizza healthy or unhealthy? I have a feeling that with this class, they will start to categorise their foods in more sophisticated ways, considering how the food is grown or prepared. I can imagine our composing work growing from these discussions. Perhaps we will develop different modes (in ‘dark’ or ‘light’ moods) for each category of food, and develop songs and instrumental music around these ideas?

Other projects that are in the planning pipeline are with Pelican Primary School (my pet name for a school I teach in regularly). Pelican’s school renovations have only just finished and it will be a few more weeks before instruments will be out of storage and the music room will be ready.

I’ll also be working with the Australian National Academy of Music again this year, and met this week with the senior artistic team to start fleshing out the kinds of projects we want to offer the students this year. After their much-talked-about participation in my work in East Timor in January, hopefully similar work in other challenging environments can be part of the 2011 program.

Meanwhile, my chikungunya virus is still kicking around in my system and giving me all sorts of joint stiffness and pain, so I’m also making the rounds of doctors and other health professionals. It’s a very exotic souvenir from Timor Leste to bring home with me, but on the bad days, it’s pretty painful and I hope to find if not a cure then a reliable way to manage it.


One song I have mentioned many times in my Timor blog posts is Mobakomeenofway. Some weeks ago a reader asked me for the words to this song, and I have added them in a reply to her comment; however, the words on their own have limited use if you don’t know the melody. I’ve been mulling over ways to share the melody with you too.

I learned this song years ago, when I was a student in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I think Sean Gregory taught it to our group, and there was a little dance step that went with it. I have kept the dance step the same over all these years – I love it! It is easy to demonstrate and teach, and throws a few coordination challenges out there for the students, and it is kooky enough that no-one looks better than anyone else when they are doing it. A great leveller, in all sorts of ways.

I think Sean said it was Ghanaian. But I could be wrong. I recall that the words mean something like:

Leader: Will you come out and play? (O wene maka lay, mobako meenofway?)

Everyone: Yeah, yeah, we’ll come out and play (Yeah, yeah, mobako meenofway!)

You repeat these lines again (bars 2-9 in the score below), then everyone sings the chorus while doing the dance. The chorus is repeated twice.

Everyone: Mobako meeno fway, Mobako meeno fway,

Mobako meeno fway, Mobako meeno fway,

Aim for a nice swoop downwards on the slur in bars 12 and 16, it gives it a full-throated appeal. The dance requires you to stand side on, so that one foot is pointing toward the centre of the circle (I forgot to say that this is a song that works well in a circle, and that is how I always teach it) and the other foot on the outside of the circle. Your stance is only about hip width – or a little wider – apart, though. No gargantuan side-splits required. Stamp the inside foot, and clap your hands in that direction at the same time, on the word Mobako. Stamp the outside foot, and clap your hands in that direction at the same time (twisting at the waist), on the word meeno, then stamp/clap with the inside foot again on the word fway. You see? Not so hard, but takes a bit of a try-out for the first go.

Try the words out with the Noteflight score I’ve made, here. I’m supposed to be able to embed the score into this blog post but it’s not working so well. Here is a link to the score – let me know if it doesn’t work. I’ve just discovered Noteflight, late on this Sunday night. I think I need a bit more time with it to get properly acquainted.


Conference in Dili

Before leaving Timor, I presented at a conference on Working with communities through the Arts. This event was organised by Many Hands International (my host organisation) and presented to a packed room of representatives from different Government Ministries (Culture, Education, Tourism) and NGOs.

I was the final speaker for the day and gave a presentation about my work in both Baucau and Lospalos, comparing the two models of engagement that I used, and talked about community music in this context being particularly characterised by active participation (as opposed to passive consumption by an audience). As I spoke, a slideshow of photographs played behind me, on a loop. Tony told me later that there were several fortuitous moments in the slideshow where an image would be displayed that gave a visual example of exactly what I had just been describing in my talk! But in any case, the photographs were far more powerful than any words I spoke.

There were many Tetun speakers in the audience, so I worked with a translator. I would say a sentence, and he would translate it. Perhaps due to the nature of what I was talking about (and the fact that it is unfamiliar territory for many Timorese) the translations took at least twice the time that the original language required. It was an interesting presentation experience. You can read my presentation at the end of this post.

Q & A

After each of the speakers had presented, questions were invited from the audience. I was asked three questions by a Dili-based arts worker:

You’ve been involved in some great initiatives here, but now you are leaving. Do you have plans to come back?

I would love to come back! This has been an amazing time, and I’ve learned as much from being here as others have learned from me. So I’d love to come back, but I would need to be invited. In Australia I am a freelance artist and educator, and I work with many different organisations. I don’t have a salary; I get paid each time I work. This means that I have a lot of flexibility to build projects in Timor into my schedule, but I don’t have the means to take time away from work under my own steam.

Similarly, the invitation is important because I don’t want to be imposing anything on the Timorese. This is a rich musical and artistic culture, and it is up to the Timorese people to decide if they want further input from outside people. An invitation is an important indicator of that.

How sustainable has your work been? Will the children continue to play music now that you are gone?

I hope so. But I have to accept that as an outsider, and someone who is here only for a short time, it is not ultimately within my control. I hope that playing music with us each day might have inspired some of the children to seek out these opportunities again, and to recognise their talent and capacity for this kind of work. Maybe one will take the initiative to start his own group – we’ve suggested that to them! I hope that we have sufficiently modelled our strategies, processes and techniques for developing music-making among new groups and particularly with children, so that other Timorese musicians and teachers might be able to adapt some of what we have done for their own purposes.

But ultimately, the sustainability of what I have done in my residency here is dependent on the Timorese people. We have modelled ideas and processes, built instruments using local materials and knowledge, and put groups in contact with makers. I hope, I truly hope, that they will act on the momentum from our visit and keep these activities going somehow. But in the end, it is not something that we can take responsibility for.

What do you think are the tangible or measurable learning outcomes for the children in these projects?

Measurement in music learning is a very complex and much-debated thing. You can measure how many notes someone knows, or how quickly they can move their fingers – but this just tells you about one aspect of music-making. It doesn’t necessarily indicate the student’s command of musical understanding.

Our music-making projects were not focused on learning outcomes, they were focused on participation, inclusion, and the collaborative development of musical ideas. Naturally, learning and skills development is an outcome of this participation, but it’s not the primary focus. Therefore, we didn’t set up tools to measure participants’ learning progress.

However, I know that much was learned! If I think about the Lospalos project, then I can think of indicators in the children’s demeanour that suggested a growing sophistication in their understanding of music, of instruments and of collaborative group processes. For example, in the first few jams, the children were very chaotic. They would snatch at instruments, and grab them from each other. They would hit them very hard, almost as if to see what it would take to break them! Their concentration would waver just a minute or so into jamming on a rhythm or riff.

By the end though, I could see a great many changes. The children took tremendous pride in their ability to play rhythms and melodies on all the different instruments. They were still highly energetic, but they knew how to recognise and respond to music-making cues. They were far more rhythmically attuned to one another, noticing when music was starting to fall apart, and listening acutely while playing in order to bring it back to the groove. They learned from each other, watching as one person played, in order to learn in and memorise it prior to taking the instrument themselves.

These are all things that show an awareness and understanding of the musical principles that make ensembles sound coherent, and of the skills required for collaborative music-making. It also shows they were highly engaged and keen to learn.

Meanwhile, there were changes in the community around us. Among our neighbours, quite an array of instruments were starting to appear. People didn’t necessarily come to us to show them or share them, but they certainly played them, sometimes from dawn til dusk.

Therefore, I am sure there was lots of learning going on. You’d need especially designed tools to isolate particular aspects and measure their progress, and this wasn’t our role or interest. But the progress made in musical understanding was clearly visible and audible, when we compared the demeanour of the first participants, to their demeanour in our last sessions.

Click here to read a summary of my spoken presentation in Dili on Tuesday 25th January. Continue reading

The dilemma of donations

A dilemma that comes at the end of many projects in developing countries is what to do with the materials you have been using, or that have been donated, once your project ends. It’s a dilemma about realities and likely scenarios, about ownership and power, access and equity.

Years ago, when I worked with War Child in Bosnia-Hercegovina, all the kindergartens in East Mostar had just been refurbished. A donor gave every kindergarten a collection of instruments, the idea being that when the War Child musicians came in to lead workshops, each kindergarten would have instruments for the children to play. But when the workshops started some weeks later, almost all the instruments had gone. Where, no-one seemed able to say. Stolen? Perhaps… but when people are poor, and suffering, and have so little, it is also likely that donations like this can end up in people’s houses, available only to their children and no-one else. Perhaps this is under the guise of safe-keeping. Another common occurrence with donations in developing countries can be how quickly things get broken or damaged. Perhaps this is because equipment of the kind we are used to in wealthy privileged Western countries is completely unfamiliar to the people receiving these donations, and they don’t know how to use them with care or awareness of their potential fragility. Perhaps it’s because there is no suitable place to store things when they are not in use, so they get shunted and knocked about. It might also be that the quality of the donated goods was not robust enough for the local environment. Many things can happen, some of which are within people’s control, and some that are not. Bear in mind too, that the energy required to take on responsibility for something new, can be enormous, especially when you are functioning on just one meagre bowl of rice a day.

So therefore, it is tempting to leave them in the care of an organisation or institution that has the capacity to store them and protect them. I’ve seen this before too. It can mean instruments that were designed for children to play with, explore and experience get kept locked in a cupboard, with no-one considered special or important enough to use them. It can mean that the custodians see them as a money-making opportunity, charging exorbitant fees to those who wish to use them, whether for educational purposes or otherwise. (I had direct experience of this kind of entrepreneurism in Baucau).

Basically, I think there are no great solutions about who to leave your things with, and certainly no hard-and-fast rules you can use to find your ideal solution. Ideal solutions would be – a safe place where instruments can be stored, where other people can access them freely, but where someone is assuming a custodial role, ensuring expectations for care and responsibility are met by those borrowing the instruments. In that way, donated things become a local resource, and can be used by the people they were intended for.

In this project, we had made a number of instruments from recycled materials (bells from bottles and drums from buckets), from local materials (the kakalos, using Maun M’s design and guidance), and from donations (the chime bars). We weren’t planning to take any of these with us, and the question of where to leave things was one that generated much discussion between Tony, Kim and I.

Tony was the person who had made the kakalos, and he pointed out that they were in fact easy to make. Surely the most significant thing here was that we knew the maker! If the instruments got broken or lost (or burned for firewood, or any other such event), they were easy enough to make again, as they only required bamboo (locally available), a saw (easily borrowed or purchased) and a machete (the number one can-do item in most Timorese households). We could just distribute the ones we have out into the community, he suggested.

But, I countered, there is value in having a set. It creates the possibility of an ensemble. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as a result of our time here, some of the local boys decided to continue playing, and created an ensemble? That would be much harder to do if the instruments got disbursed widely. Also, we know that new things in any household get shared by everyone, and the youngest children in the household are rarely in any position to lay claim to them, because of the way the family hierarchies work.

The kindergarten we had visited at Esperanca Lorosa’e had impressed all of us. The staff were clearly well-trained, motivated and incredibly professional. They wore uniforms to work, and led the classes as a team, all participating and encouraging. Their response to our music workshop had been one of excitement, tinged with disappointment that there wasn’t more opportunity to work with us again. They’d told Kim they were interested in using some of the instruments we’d demonstrated in that workshop in their classes – they hadn’t seen anything like my music workshops before and were excited. They’d loved the thunder-makers and the bottles in particular.

Therefore, we decided to give all the bottles, buckets and the four smallest kakalos to the kindergarten. I also gave them the sets of pastels I’d bought in Dili and some of my left-over drawing paper.

We decided to keep the chime bars together as a set of three complete sets. They were the hardest to find a home for, as it was easy to imagine how quickly the sets could get dismantled – individual bars could get lost, mallets misplaced or broken, bars divided up among a family so that everyone got one coloured bar each as a way of being fair, but without realising they’d be destroying the potency of the set by separating them…

In the end it was decided to ask the local education authority to store them, with the understanding that they were to be accessible by schools and groups in the area (including, I hope, visiting malae working with local children). Tony and I felt sad that we hadn’t been able to find a more community-based home for them. Would the Motolori children ever see them again? They loved playing them so much! And had developed such strong skills on them. We also remembered the way some of the teenage boys from the Plan International band recording program had dropped by the house one afternoon, and after watching the local youngsters playing the chime bars, been eager to play them and utilise them in their own songs.

Tony decided to give the kakalos to Maun M and his family. After all, he had been the inspiration for making them, he seemed to be the most engaged, music-minded adult we had met locally (the recorders Tony and given them were played constantly in that house, usually well past midnight), and his large family had been part of our jams from the very beginning.

I had some misgivings. We’d gathered, even from before the event of the burglary, that people seemed to distrust this family. And at the certificate presentation, I felt unsettled by the cockiness some of those boys seemed to be displaying to the others. When the other regular boys heard of the plan to house the kakalos with that household, they looked distinctly dismayed, even horrified.  Does everyone know who came into our house? I wondered to myself. Do they think that it was someone from this family Are we being gullible fools?

But we’d never know the answer to this. And in the end Tony had the right response.

“Just let the community sort it out. If we’ve made the wrong choice, then the community will put it right. We’re in no position to ever make a decision with all the facts to hand, because we’ll never know all the facts! And we can’t control what happens after we leave anyway.”

So that was how we dispersed all the musical materials. And despite my concerns about the fate of the kakalo collection and the opportunities the local boys might have to play them – or any other instruments – from now on, I couldn’t help but nurse some small hopes. Wouldn’t it be great, I mused to Tony and Kim, if, when we or Many Hands come back, there is a kakalo ensemble here in Motolori? Maybe they will organise themselves and continue to play. Maybe someone will take notice of them, and they’ll get to perform. Maybe in a year or two, the Lospalos kakalo players will be invited to Ramelau Festival, or the Dili Independence Day Cultural Festival!

That would be a great outcome indeed. We also gave Maun M’s name to the kindergarten teacher. “This is the man who can make more of these instruments”, we told her. Another wonderful outcome, therefore, might be about a change in status for this family and for Maun M in particular, recognised as cultural contributors, as the go-to guy for all bamboo instruments and musical ideas. This too, would be a great thing.

Legacies are hard to attribute or predict! In any case, this residency was more about cultural exchange and learning, than about me leaving some kind of legacy in Lospalos. But during the time that we were there, some things did seem to change. From the time that we started to play our instruments on the verandah, other wind instruments began to appear in the street – bits of pipe, a recorder, even an ancient old buffalo horn. These were heard everyday, at all times of the day. People also sang a lot. They do this anyway, but lots of the songs that we heard them singing were songs we’d taught or sung in our verandah sessions.

Also, children played games together in our garden who at the beginning, didn’t play together at all (such as the landlord’s children, who at the beginning always went back to their house as soon as the dirty, noisy, rough boys from over the road turned up to play). Maun M came with us to play live on Community Radio, after having a recorder for just a day, and his skills as an instrument-maker attracted the attention of all the ANAM students as well as us. (This may have resulted in resentment towards him from others in the street, which may be why he was fingered as the culprit in our burglary – this was one theory that was posited).

Who knows, all of these things may have happened anyway. Or they might be part of the natural cycle of life and activities that is always unfolding in Lospalos. But there we were, living amongst that community for one small part of that life. We instigated some new activities, and I do hope that those experiences and interactions with us have created some new senses of possibility and change for those we met and engaged with. I hope that all the people we worked with have been changed by the experience as much as we have.

Final celebration

For our last day in Lospalos – Sunday – we knew we would have a Final Jam with all our regular participants. But I had a further plan in store – for the last few days I’d been making a list of everyone’s full names (Timorese full names tend to be very long and very Catholic), and Mana Kim had brought over a number of Many Hands International certificates with her, so on that last day we decided to present certificates to everyone.

Things took a dodgy turn early in the day when I showed Valda the list of names I had. There were a couple of spellings I wanted to check, but as Valda read through the list she started to exclaim and scold the two nearby children in tones of immense outrage.

Aat liu!” she shouted [=terrible; very bad]. “Very bad words they have written here!”

Oops. Looked like some naughty participant(s) had written some very rude words in Fataluku on my list of names, hoping they would get written onto certificates and called out during the presentation by some unsuspecting malae. Tony and I both had to suppress a giggle at the thought of this; but Valda was really appalled, and she insisted on writing the list out again.

The trouble was, when she gave her list to me, there were only 18 names on it. There’d been 52 names on the list I’d been compiling throughout the week – Valda had obviously culled some.

“I’ll still need the other list back,” I explained to her and the boys. They looked around them confused. What had they done with it? “I need to check it,” I told them again.

“But mana, very bad words,” Valda said. “No good.”

“I know, I know,” I reassured her. “It’s okay. But I still need to check that the real names are the same.”

The three of them then retrieved the list from the front garden, where it had apparently been screwed into a ball, ripped up, and flung out in many small pieces. We set out reconstructing it, tiny crumpled jigsaw puzzle that it was now, and eventually I was back to a list of about 40 names.

Even so, I had a horrible feeling someone would be left out, and as Tony and I wrote out the certificates, we kept a few blanks aside, just in case.

At presentation time, which was after our last local jam, all the children sat down on the verandah on my large workshop mat. They started by sitting in a circle, out of habit and expectation, but I told them they could use the whole mat, so many other children who’d been waiting at the edge of the verandah came and filled up the middle of the circle.

A small group of parents had also come along to watch (at the end of the Jam I’d asked the children to go home and bring back a parent or ‘significant other person’ to watch the presentation. A few had done this, which was lovely, as we had never really got to meet many of their parents). Tony, Kim and I stood at the end of the verandah facing the children on the mat. Sarah emerged from her malarial sick bed to be part of the proceedings too.

I held the stack of certificates, and read out each of the names. The crowd greeted each name with a round of applause and further hearty congratulations (eg. “Celestinu, yeeaah, whoooo!”), and the recipients stood up and walked to the front and shook first my hand, and received their certificate, then went on to shake Tony’s , then Kim’s then – quite often – Sarah’s.

It was lovely! Perhaps it was more formal than people might have expected for such an informal program of music-making on a verandah, but I liked the way it really did feel like an ending. Earlier in the week, I’d had the impression that, despite us talking about it as our last week, that we were soon to leave, people weren’t really taking it in. We’d come and gone from Lospalos a few times already in the recent months – perhaps people thought we were taking another short trip away. This presentation, late on a Sunday afternoon, had a sense of finality about it.

At the end of the presentation I looked across the group of children on the mat, checking they all had certificates. There was one boy who didn’t, and at this stage his big dark eyes were looking incredibly anxious and glassy, and he didn’t seem to trust himself to speak, he was so upset. I apologised to him, trying to reassure him that of course we knew he was part of the verandah jam group. I explained to everyone the confusion there had been with the lists earlier that day. We found out his full name and wrote a certificate out for him.

At that point, unsurprisingly, it turned out there were many among the assembled crowd who also thought they should probably have a certificate.

“Mana,” said one young regular to me, with great solemnity and authority. “This girl here doesn’t have a certificate yet.” The child in question was aged about 2 and I’d never seen her before. I explained to her benefactor that the certificates were really just for those who’d participated, and that she hadn’t actually participated in anything. I added, “She can have one next time we come, when she is old enough to join in. At the moment she can’t even read!” We kept writing until all the blanks were gone.

Certificates are important in Timor Leste. I don’t think people get to see their names in print very often, there is perhaps not a lot of celebration of people’s individual contributions or developent of new skills, and certificates are much-prized acknowledgements. People don’t mind what it is they are getting the certificate for, and they don’t get too old or mature for certificates. And are never too young, it turns out!

The last verandah jam

Kids were hanging around all day that last Sunday, waiting for us to start playing. It was a busy day for me – there was a whole house to clean and pack up, people to farewell, and certificates to write out. We told them we’d start playing at 4pm.

Rain started to pour just as we started the jam. As always, the udan boot [heavy rain; literally, ‘rain big’] was heavy and noisy and relentless, the kind of big, wet rain that drenches the ground in minutes and that always seems to inspire Timorese children to fling off their clothes and run around naked. It inspires the same in me, truth be told, but I exercised great restraint and stayed clothed and dry under the roof of the verandah.

On this day, the kids came over and got the instruments out themselves, and just started playing. I loved it when this happened – it showed what a wonderful learning journey these energetic, slightly chaotic boys had been on with us, and how their approach to the instruments and music had changed since they first started joining us on the verandah. They established their playing to the backdrop of the udan boot thundering on the roof and ground.

Tony has a memory of one very satisfying moment in that jam:

They’d got started playing, and they were all sitting in the groove for quite a few minutes – all without any guidance or leadership from us. But then – as if all their concentrations had started wavering at once – the groove started to get shaky. But before anyone called attention to this, and before it fell apart completely, it pulled back together, and locked in again. It was as if they all realised they were about to lose it, and with their intuitive sense of ensemble, rescued it and got themselves back on course.

“Let’s keep this jam for just the kakalos and buckets,” Tony suggested. The chime bars were packed up and in their boxes, awaiting their transport to their new home. The kids hadn’t got them out.

Tony and I decided to play our instruments, Tony on the now famous alto sax (that which had got away, and come back to us), me on the clarinet. This too, was a development for our jams. Any player of wind instruments will tell you how tricky it can be to get to play your own instrument in a jam session that you are also leading… leading nearly always requires use of your hands and your voice, as does playing! But on this occasion, the boys were solid enough to give us space to play with them and not throw them off course.

We improvised all together for a while, and then Tony put down the sax in order to lead some call-and-response rhythms with the boys. I continued to improvise in the gaps, and somehow, what I was playing began to morph into Oh hele le, one of the most well-known Timorese anthems. We hadn’t worked with this song before, but of course everyone knew it, and they began to sing along as they played. The rhythms changed too, so that they became a simple, pulse driven accompaniment for the song. Other people – new faces, including some girls – started arriving when we played Oh hele le.

This morphed again, into the traditional Fataluku song we had sung in the Toka Boot the day before, and again the boys sang along. Mostly we all just sang for ourselves, not necessarily projecting our voices out into the group. This felt like our most organic jam yet, and perhaps the most equal. It didn’t really need a lot of leading.

At the end, we told them about the certificate presentation. We asked them to help us put everything away, and then to go home to get a parent or someone important to them, to come and watch them receive their certificates. We would start again in 30 minutes. The boys gathered up the instruments, now well-schooled in how to do this without dropping them, or rushing and pushing each other. Certain boys automatically assumed roles of authority, collecting all the sticks, instructing others where to put things. Then the group dispersed, and we cleared the verandah and put out the mat, ready for the presentation.

Workshop in Kakavei

On the last Friday in Lospalos, we went to a village named Kakavei for the day. Kakavei is in the mountains outside Lospalos, and has a population of just a few thousand. It is one of the places that we learned about in the English conversation classes where we asked the students about the villages they came from. We struck up a friendship with one of the students in that class – a man named Tomas – and he invited us to come to his village for the day to make some music with the local children.

Tony and I were joined by Lina and Rachel from ANAM. We travelled to Kakavei in a ute, three of us riding in the back, the other two in the cab with the driver. It is about an hour’s drive from Lospalos.

Kakavei is a long, skinny village, laid out along a ridge on the road to Iliomar. We started by visiting Tomas’ family, eating lunch with his wife, neighbour and children, and trying on tais that his wife had woven. Then we drove to the home of the Village Chief, wanting to introduce ourselves and ask formally for permission to do the workshop in one of the village’s public spaces. The Chief wasn’t home, but two of his kids jumped in the back of the truck in order to join in.

As we drove slowly back towards the town centre, we called out to children, “We’re going to play music together! Come along!” Children along the road would stop what they were doing and run to catch up with the truck.

Making a parade

A couple of hundred metres from the venue we hoped to use, we all got out of the ute. Lina began to play the flute, and Tony tapped rhythms on one of the kakalos we’d brought with us. “Lina, can we lock into this groove,” he suggested, demonstrating. “It’s one of the rhythms I learned last week from one of the Kakavei elders, that she played on the gong.” (Tony had made a visit to Kakavei with his daughters the week before, and recorded a performance by one of the elders, which he later transcribed). Meanwhile, Rachel and I were scanning the roadside, finding coconut shells and smooth flat stones to clap together, and offering them to the more willing and curious of the children who were now trailing after us.

When we reached the proposed workshop site, an earlier health education workshop was just packing up, so there were lots of people milling around. School had finished just a short time earlier, so there were also many children, in addition to those that had joined our impromptu parade.

However, the Village Chief had not yet been found, and Tomas was reluctant for us to use the covered workshop space without formal permission from him. We chose a shady spot on the grass in front of the building, rolled out the large workshop mat and brought all the instruments from the car.

Starting the workshop

By now, my one-off workshop plans were beginning to lock into a familiar shape. We started with Mobakomeenofway, with all the children standing in a circle around me, the other musicians mingling with the group. First we learned the words, then the dance step, and then we put it together. There was lots of laughing and self-consciousness at first, and we never quite got full participation with this first song. However, I knew by now that that didn’t matter. The Timorese are often shy at the beginning of unfamiliar activities like these workshops, and like to watch for a while, before they really get involved.


I led the workshop from the centre in Tetun, and every now and then, one of the adults standing around the outside of the circle would translate an instruction into Fataluku. Language is such an interesting challenge in Timor Leste. Tetun may be one of the national languages but it is not the native tongue in many parts of the country. People learn to speak Tetun if they are going to school regularly, and adults may speak it if they have worked in Dili, or have spent lots of time with people from other parts of the country. It means that when leading a workshop, the reason people don’t understand may be because of my clumsy Tetun, or may be because they don’t actually know any Tetun!

Working outdoors

As an outdoor workshop, it was much harder to build a strong sense of shared focus among the group. My voice would not carry far, and there was lots of chatter and talking going on – both among the young participants and the older people who were watching everything with curiousity and amusement.

Building response to rhythm

I followed the song with some call-and-response body percussion rhythms, keen to try and get everyone working from visual cues and creating sound as a massed ensemble. We then divided into three groups, based on where people were standing, and named these ‘Tony-nia grupo’, ‘Lina-nia grupo’ and Rachel-nia grupo’ [Tony’s group, Lina’s group, Rachel’s group]. I taught each group a body percussion rhythm, made up on the spot, with one derived from the gong rhythms Tony had learned the previous week. We set these rhythms to different body percussion sounds – thigh slaps, chest thumps, claps, etc. We tried layering these rhythms up, which was not completely successful – as I have frequently found in Timor, people are quick to imitate rhythms and melodies but they are so attuned to imitating what they hear that when multiple rhythms are played, they tend to copy whichever is the most dominant. Still, the group of participants was highly engaged and filled with energy and excitement about what was taking place. We used this rhythmic task as a precursor to instrument-playing.

Working with instruments

We gave out the instruments one by one. Chime bars were given out one by one, and we kept back the Bs and Fs, so as to have a pentatonic scale/chord. I kept one full set back initially, in order to have something to demonstrate melodies on for the musicians. Also, I felt a bit uncomfortable about our outdoor working space – it was hard to contain the energy, but it was also hard to keep an eye on everyone taking part. I was fearful that one of the chime bars could easily go walkabout, and for that reason didn’t give out bars from the third set. Illogical, I know! And it is worth pointing out that in all the workshops we did with the chime bars, we never lost a single bar or mallet. Everything always came back, so my fears and cautions were unfounded.

We tried transferring the body percussion rhythms onto the instruments. At this stage we realised it would have been good to give out the instruments in sections – instead, we had given them out quite randomly, focusing more on spreading the different sounds around the group so that participants would be exposed to a range of instruments and colours. With a group that size, and with the difficulties we were having in talking over the thick buzz of ambient sound, there was no way of getting individuals to move places and position themselves within a section. So we let this idea go, and instead began to work with unison rhythms.

Given that we were now set up in a pentatonic mode, I decided to work with So-so feeling, a pentatonic song I wrote some years ago with English language students at Collingwood English Language School. The tune is one that came about after listening to lots of Malian blues music with the students, in particular Boubacar Traore’s music. I got Tony to play this melody on the sax, and the ANAM students and I demonstrated to the group where to place two syncopated claps/beats at  the end of each phrase.

Moving indoors

By this stage what had started off as a shady grassy workshop space was now in the full sun, and we – the musicians and the participants and onlookers – were all getting hot and burned. Tomas caught my eye.

“Let’s move into the building,” he suggested. None of us needed any persuasion (although I hoped it was okay for us to use that space, given we hadn’t been able to get formal permission from the Village Chief). We picked up our workshop mat at each of its four corners and the group moved swiftly to the shelter of the building. Ah! The relief of a contained space! Things began to pull together much more quickly now.

Creating a song

“We need some words for our song!” I suggested to the group. “It’s a song about feeling good, feeling happy. Who can suggest some words in Fataluku?”

No suggestions came at first, and Tomas stepped in both translate the request, and clarify with me what it was we were wanting.

“Just one word each from a few different people would be great,” I told him. “They don’t need to flow as a sentence, just as a series of words about feeling good.”

“Maybe… feeling good singing?” he suggested. “Something like that!”

So our words for the song in Fataluku ended up as

Vaci inica rau-rau kanta vaihoho

(‘Today we are feeling good and singing’)

We were now fully in gear, and charging toward the end of the workshop. The ‘B’-section to the pentatonic melody is a short repeating riff in A minor. I asked Tony to play it, and the other two musicians also picked it up quickly. The crowd of participants joined in with the unison rhythm.

Now we were ready to move from one section to the next. “1-2-3-CHANGE!” I would call, and the group would switch sections – either playing their instruments, or singing the words of the song. Tony played some charged improvisations over the instrumental sections, and we had a satisfying whole-ensemble massed singing feel to the sung chorus sections.

Sharing the familiar

It was time to bring things to a close. “Why don’t you sing the song I taught you in the car?” suggested Tomas.

“Will you sing it with me?” I asked him. “It’s in your language – can we do it together?”

There was no way Tomas was prepared to sing in front of his community in this context though! Fair enough – he had way more too lose, and we were still something of an unknown entity. Also, Tomas has a certain social standing in his community, as he is a missionary, and also quite politically engaged. Add to that the fact that he may not be an enthusiastic singer, and it was quite reasonable for him to refuse my suggestion.

Therefore, I took the words for the song that I had scrawled into my notebook during our bumpy, rattling ride to Kakavei, and introduced the song the crowd as one that “I think you will all know. I just learned it this morning. It’s something we can sing together.”

I sang through the words hesitantly. The tune was familiar to me, but the words were hard to read and given that I’d tried to learn them from Tomas over the noise of the car engine, I wasn’t sure I had them all written correctly. I was therefore heartened and gratified (and secretly thrilled) to be given a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd when I sang through the song that first time. The Timorese aren’t great clappers (this is both my experience, and something I’d been warned to expect before coming here) so that burst of applause seemed particularly heartfelt and appreciative.

After singing together, it was time to pack up the instruments. We gathered them together in sections (in marked contrast to the way we’d given them out), calling for each instrument type in turn. When it came to the chime bars, I called for them by colour – “I need three big red chime bars” – and this proved a very effective, orderly way of gathering together all the sets of instruments.

Reflections on chaos and stress

As I write this reflection on Kakavei (some two weeks after the event), I remember in particular the overwhelming sense of chaos the workshop had for me, right up until the time we were able to go into the covered building. I don’t mind chaos so much, but the sense of starting to lose the hold I have on the group can cause me worry at the time, especially when there are lots of instruments spread out among the group and no-one seems particularly contained.

In Timor, though, I’ve learned that showing stress or worry is difficult for the Timorese. I’m not sure if it is because it scares them if your voice seems to change pitch or tone, or if your anxiety makes them feel uncomfortable or guilty that things aren’t going better for you, or if it just makes them dislike you.

There was a point in the Kakavei workshop where things had just become really noisy and no-one could hear me. I could feel my voice fading on me, getting tired due to working outdoors. I was doing my best to keep smiling and looking relaxed, but said to the group (to whoever could hear me), “ Wait, wait… Just listen… If you speak when I’m talking then you won’t be able to hear what I say.” One of the watching men took pity on me and called to the group in Fataluku to quiet down. I thanked him with a grin and we continued on.

At the end of the workshop, Tomas said, “I could see you were getting stressed for a while there. I’m sorry they weren’t listening so well at that time.”

“Oh, yes… I’m sorry about that,” I replied, pretty unconcerned for myself by that stage, but suddenly on alert that I might have upset Tomas, our host. “I just couldn’t make myself heard. But that’s okay – it’s a normal situation, especially when you are doing music outdoors and everyone is getting tired.”

“No, I mean, it’s okay for me,” Tomas clarified quickly. “I was just worried for you, that you weren’t enjoying yourself, or that you didn’t think it was going well.”

I reassured him that getting a bit stressed in the middle of noisy, chaotic moments in workshops is fairly normal for me, and something I hope I am getting better at managing, with age!

But I also remember the delight that we all felt just about being in Kakavei, and sharing our music and our workshop with these people whose lives are really quite isolated. Lospalos is the ‘big smoke’ for them, and that town is over an hour away by truck. The young people here have probably spent all of their young lives living on this ridge, in this long, narrow village. Visitors like us are the kind of thing that people may talk about for ages afterwards.

At the end of the workshop, I asked Lina, Rachel and Tony to play together. They played a solo each, and then improvised together, the crowd of young and old people gathered around them. The most musically magic moment for me was when they improvised – lightly, sweetly – on the kindergarten song I’d learned from young Dona in Lospalos, Ikan hotu nani iha bee. The melody is open-hearted and innocent, and the three instruments (oboe, flute and saxophone) floated, twirled and glided around each other, improvising around the melody and harmony. I don’t know if anyone recognised the melody in Kakavei – there is no kindergarten program there, as far as I know – but the audience was as entranced as I was. It was a peaceful and uplifting way to finish.

Final parting gesture

As we began to move toward the car to go, one of the elderly women who’d been watching the workshop came up to me. In fact, this woman had been a participant in the workshop, playing a chime bar for much of the time. She came towards me and at first I thought she was going to press her cheek against mine, the traditional warm greeting between women and friends. But she brought her head closer and closer to mine, and from the buzz in the crowd around us I knew that others were enjoying seeing this exchange. She leaned forward so that her face was close to mine, and I did too. Then she dipped her face slightly and rubbed her nose firmly against mine. The crowd roared their approval.

“Do it again, do it again,” Tony urged. “I want to photograph it.”

The woman completely understood his desire to document this moment, and happily obliged with a repeat nose-rub especially for the cameras. Once again, I felt the warmth of genuine appreciation in Kakavei and climbed back into the back of the ute feeling myself glowing.

Who were these Motolori boys?

I’ve written quite a lot about the ‘Motolori boys’ who were our main participants in Lospalos. In this post I want to try and assemble what it is that I know about them, and the kinds of impressions they made on me. Together, we went on quite a learning journey.

Motolori is a sub-sub-district – like a suburb – of Lospalos. The town is divided into these areas. Others have names like Bee Moris, Natura… Motolori (I’m not sure if I’m spelling it correctly, but this is how it sounds) is near the river, and seems to refer to the houses that line the main road leading into town. Thus it is close to the town.

The house I live in is solid and old, from Portuguese times. It’s on relatively high ground, and is surrounded by grass. When it rains, the land surrounding the house isn’t immediately reduced to mud. Most of the other houses in Motolori aren’t like this. Most of them are simple wooden structures, with dirt floors and walls made of palm leaf shingles and flat rooves. No ceilings. Most of the land is not grassy, but bare earth, so on rainy days there is a lot of muddy, or slippery brown earth.

Over the road from us, there is a long row of houses – I think of it as a kind of family compound. To reach the houses from the road, you have to cross a stream – perhaps more like a drain, in a deep ditch. There is a rather precarious looking crossing point a little further down the road (a bridge made from bits of scrap wood, it seems), but if you want to cross over immediately opposite the block that my house is on, you have to scramble down the ditch and jump across the stream. I think this is the way the kids usually do it, because who could be bothered going all the way down to the crossing point?

On either side of our house are other family compounds. One side has families that are the relatives of my landlords – the women often sit together with the youngest children in the shade of the trees that border the two properties, and it was on this neighbouring block of land that Tony and I bought our first long piece of bamboo. The houses in this group are a mix of Portuguese brick houses, and more recent wooden structures.

On the other side lives the family of mostly boys that my landlords didn’t seem to like much. We got to know this family one evening when Tony was offered a coconut from their tree and went around there to seek their help in opening it up with a machete. That evening they had a visiting family member, a young woman who’d only recently returned to Lospalos from working in England. She was pregnant, and as she and I chatted, I asked her about her plans. She explained that after the baby had reached six months her plan was to leave it with her family and that she would go back to England. Such is the scarcity of work in Lospalos and Timor, and the significance of what she could contribute to her family by continuing to work in England. My heart ached for her when I thought how difficult it would be to return to England without her baby, her first-born.

The first time children from our local area came to jam on the verandah with us, they were a big, noisy group. They were excited to play music, but they snatched and grabbed at instruments, and weren’t very good at listening. In those early jams, we did a lot of unison rhythms and call-and-response patterns. On the days when some older boys came too, we tried out some more structured ideas – these would only work if we had a critical mass of people who understood what we were trying to do.

I’d noticed way back in Dili in my first verandah jams that there was a marked difference between the children who had experience of school and those who hadn’t. In Dili, the difference tended to be revealed by the children’s ages – there, some of the group were too young to have started school. Here in Motolori, I started to get the sense that some of these boys (and they were nearly always all boys), no matter what their age, had had very little experience of schooling. They weren’t used to being organised as a group, and they didn’t know Tetun. It took me a while to figure this out. The lightbulb moment came when I realised the boy who was telling me the words for “it might break” in Fataluku wasn’t doing this for my benefit, but in order to translate what I was saying for the boys who didn’t understand Tetun.

I wasn’t always sure I liked these boys at the beginning. They were hard to read. They didn’t like making eye contact, and sometimes they were so rowdy and aggressive with the instruments it worried me, and made me want to pack everything up and send them away. They would hit things until they broke, if we let them (which by the way, I know to be a standard thing for some kids, the world over. It certainly happens at Pelican Primary where I teach in Melbourne). I also found their apparently short attention spans frustrating, and wondered if, with this group, we would ever be able to develop some more detailed musical ideas. Also, they were all boys. I’m particularly sensitive to how quickly music can become a very ‘gendered’ activity, with girls electing not to take part if it becomes dominated by boys. I had hoped to avoid this kind of all-boys scenario, and wanted to model female music participation for the local girls and young women who might be looking for ways to get involved but needing a female leader to guide them.

For Tony, it was a bit different. They loved calling out to “Maun Tony” in the street, and giving him high-fives. He was a bloke, he was twice the height of most men they’d seen before, and he had a pronounceable name. I used to grumble good-naturedly about Tony’s apparent charisma for the children but actually it was an important part of the relationship-building in the local community. I was just as friendly and approachable, and I was the person with the language skills, but I know that without Tony and his bloke-iness, we might never have built the in-roads we built.

Basically, our impression was that these kids were the ones with few opportunities. Only some of them went to school, when school resumed in January, and even then, they didn’t seem to go everyday. When I began to compile my list of complete names for the certificates, one of the boys came up to me to say that “those boys there can’t write their names, because they don’t go to school.” “Well, can you write their names for them?” I asked, and he was happy to do that. Another boy’s ‘complete name’ turned out to be just one word, one name. This seemed highly unlikely in Timor, where a typical ‘complete name’ will honour various Catholic saints and relatives and can have up to four names in it. But the boys writing the list said to me, “He doesn’t know it.”

Whenever all these boys turned up at our house to play, the landlord’s two children would quickly and quietly leave the group and head back to their house, behind mine. I asked their mother if everything was okay.

She told me, “They don’t really like playing with those other children.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Oh you know…. They are very dirty. My two don’t really like to play with children whose clothes are so dirty.” She looked at me and explained, “In Timor, if you go to someone else’s house to visit, you should put on your clean clothes. When these children come to your house in dirty clothes, you should tell them to go home and get changed.”

I laughed in surprise. ‘I couldn’t ask them to do that!” I said. “I’d feel embarrassed to say something like that. I don’t mind what clothes they are wearing.”

“No, you should tell them this. You don’t need to feel embarrassed, it’s your house. And that’s the way it works here.”

It started to seem like a division of class and advantage and I didn’t want any part of it. I thought about how there could be loads of reasons why these kids might not have clean clothes to wear very day. There might not be easy access to water in their homes, so water usage might be prioritised for washing food, drinking, and washing bodies, rather than clothes. They might be the children of a single mother, who was doing the best she could just to keep looking after all her children. And, given the way these children seemed to spend most of their time hanging around the street, just entertaining themselves without any adult input, I wondered how many of their parents even knew they were coming to our house each day. The kids weren’t likely to think of changing their clothes all on their own. Music on the verandah was just another activity in the day of play.

In time, I began to see how the group of boys who came to us most regularly were becoming the leaders of the jam ensembles. They were the ones most familiar with the instruments and with the cues Tony and I used. They could still get rowdy, but they knew how to quiet down when asked, and they were beginning to shush others who were less familiar. I saw how, as Forever Young became part of our repertoire, they took it in turns to play the chime bars, and would watch all the players before them very intently, memorising the progression of eight chords so that they had a good idea of what to play by the time it was their turn.

In fact, I’d say the Forever Young chords were a big motivator for the Motolori boys. It was something that initially seemed complicated and difficult, and that sounded very musically proficient, and yet, one by one, they saw how each of their peers was mastering this pattern. They took me by surprise too – I hadn’t imagined everyone learning how to play this pattern. In fact, I’d only taught it to two of the older boys and had expected they would be the only ones to play it. Instead, others began to pick it up, and would take over the mallets at every opportunity once they’d learned it.

At one jam early on in the last week, a melody appeared that I knew had been invented in the very first jam by a teenage girl named Linda who’d never returned to any subsequent jam sessions. Amongst ourselves we called it the Brown-Eyed Girl tune, as it reminded us of a riff in the Van Morrison song. One of the Motolori boys must have been there that at that first jam, had learned the melody, and was now rejuvenating it with a new group. As with the Forever Young chords, it was quickly learned, peer teaching peer, by others in the group and became part of the repertoire.

The changes in the group that I am writing about now are things I am becoming aware of only in hindsight. At the time, we were just responding to the groups day by day. They were always noisy, highly energetic and exhausting groups – the fact that there were small but significant changes taking place was not always immediately apparent in the jam itself. Only later, thinking back, would I realise that there was a level of musical independence and clarity emerging in the way the group worked together.

A key day for me started with a boy sitting on the bridge into town calling out to me, “Hey malae! One dollar!”. This kind of thing could happen in Dili but I’d never experienced it in Lospalos. I don’t like being called ‘malae’ in this way, and the ‘one dollar’ thing is not something any of us should encourage. Culturally, begging is something that is frowned upon in Timor and it’s unlikely any parents would approve f their children asking neighbours for money. I looked with annoyance over at the boy and saw that he was one of the boys coming regularly to my house. I gave him my usual joking response to that request (“One dollar? Why should I give you one dollar? Or do you mean you are giving me one dollar?”) but he could see that I was angry that someone like him, who knew me, would ask this and he ducked his head down quickly.

I was so cross! I imagined barring him from all future jams as I continued on my walk to town. But when I saw him again later, my irritation had subsided and I was walking chatting with Sarah and waving to the kids I knew. I waved to him, and he flashed me such a cheeky smile that Sarah commented on it. “Hmm, yes,” I said grimly. “He knows he was out of line with me. I think he’s relieved to see he’s forgiven.”

At the jam that afternoon, this little boy held my eye when he smiled at me. Others did too. I felt like a good, trust-based relationship was starting to build there too, finally.

I’ve already written about the day of the burglary  – Wednesday -and the good energy that seemed to flow on from that. That Wednesday evening was the  live radio performance and it is worth pointing out that all the participants in the community radio broadcast turned up in different clothes to the ones they wear for playing throughout the day. They were all clean and smartly dressed, well aware of the occasion.

The following day – Thursday – was the day of the kindergarten project, and a small team of local boys had very enthusiastically, proudly and professionally assisted us to bring the all the instruments to the kindergarten in the centre of town. The boys followed us into the kindergarten hall and helped us get all the instruments unpacked and set up on the table. Then they stayed in the room, milling around, their usual energy abundant and happy, but certainly not causing any problems for anyone. Lots of other parents and older siblings were hanging around in the room too.

The kinder children had started to assemble by around 9.20, I’d say. As it got time for the class to begin, the three kinder teachers very gently but firmly ushered excess parents, older siblings and our team of Motolori boys out of the room.

“That’s not fair,” Tony said to me indignantly. “Our boys should be allowed to stay. They are our assistants. Besides, we’ll need their help at the end, to get everything home!”

He was right, but I had a few tiny concerns that the boys might end up dominating the workshop if they stayed. I also felt insecure about stopping the teachers doing what they were doing. I didn’t want to tread on their toes. I also probably wanted to focus my language efforts on what we were about to do with these sixty or so very little children. But in hindsight, I should have had a quiet word with the teacher about letting these boys stay. The teachers didn’t know they were with us, and that we know and trust them, and appreciate their help. They were in fact much more disciplined and considerate (by this stage) than I was giving them credit for. This enforced departure at the beginning of the workshop frustrated Tony in its unfairness; also that he himself didn’t have the language skills to sort it out himself.

Later, he told me,

It annoyed me also because it seemed like such an assertion of class power. Our boys are the kids who haven’t been able to go to kinder, and now they don’t get to go to school. They weren’t all ushered out of the room gently – some were physically manhandled out of the room, one by his hair! It was like a support of the belief that ‘education is a privilege, not a right’. They start off with just as much potential as everyone else, but the environment and opportunity shapes who they will get to become, and what they will get to access… Still, if some boys off the street wandered into Scotch College, the same thing would probably happen. And those teachers didn’t know they were with us. But it made me angry at the time.

The last big event of my residency was the Toka Boot, on Saturday 22 January. In a way, I’d planned the music of the Toka Boot with the Motolori boys in mind. We imagined them being an important part of the event, taking on roles as section leaders, their skills and experience with us now being brought to the fore for all to be impressed. We were planning to incorporate their Brown-Eyed Girl riff (now renamed melodia Motolori) in the first big section of music.

So we were a bit alarmed to meet a significant group of them – all our favourites, in fact – decked out in football kit heading into town at 2pm, an hour before the start of the Toka Boot.

“Where are you going?” we asked them.

“Football,” they told us.

“Oh…” we said in dismay. “Whereabouts do you play football? What time does it finish? Do you know about the Toka Boot at 3pm and 4pm? Can you come?”

“Football at 2pm,” they told us. “It’s near the Old Market, we can come afterwards.” They assured us they would be there.

So we weren’t able to follow through with our plan to have a mini-parade through the streets at 3pm, bringing all the instruments to the Old Market with the wheel barrows and Motolori kids, as we had hoped. Instead, we enlisted the help of the ANAM students and some of the local children – more girls this time – and walked in a very laden way to the market. We passed the football game on the way and saw lots of our kids. They were happy and interested to see us, but made no moves to leave the game at that stage.

In the end only a few Motolori boys came along to the Toka Boot. Lots of the football boys never made it. The rest of the neighbourhood gang (including lots more girls now – interestingly, ever since the burglary affair when everyone heard me scream, more local girls had been venturing over to our place to join the music) were waiting for us at our house when we came home at the end of the afternoon. Perhaps this also tells us something about the kinds of psychological and cultural barriers that might be present for kids taking part in something in another part of town. Perhaps venturing to a more public space felt quite threatening and risky for some of our kids, despite the level of comfort and familiarity they feel with Tony and me. Perhaps some people in Lospalos are more segregated or separated than we can really understand. Or perhaps an event like this – any new event – needs a few repeats before it can really get embraced by a large group. People don’t always like to participate in something that is new – they want others to participate first, and then tell them about it.

And ideally, an event like this wouldn’t clash with something as important as the first day of the local football program! No-one in Lospalos should find themselves torn between two nice things to do. However, you obviously need to be even more embedded within a community to find out about the soccer program – I’m not sure who we’d have asked to find out it was on, and obviously no-one knew or thought to tell us. Never mind. The Toka Boot was still a huge success, and it meant that our relationship with the Motolori kids remained close to home.

Workshop at the kindergarten

On the last Thursday in Lospalos Tony and I did a creative workshop for the local kindergarten program at Esperanca Lorosa’e. We were accompanied by Kim, observing and photographing. The ANAM students and Holly had grabbed the opportunity to head to the beach with UNPOL.

We arrived there with the help of the Motolori boys. We’d borrowed a wheelbarrow to help us transport all the instruments from home into town, and as we stacked it high with chime bars, kakalos, drums and boxes of bottles, the local boys who weren’t at school jumped at the opportunity to wheel it into town.

This was the day after the burglary and its resolution, and our sense of being welcome and a part of the community continued that morning. The boys assigned one of their group to be the ‘driver’ (and indeed, the person they assigned the role was a skilled and steady driver); others carried the chime bar bags, others the buckets, and still others were happy just to walk with us and be part of the group.

There are lots of people out and about at 9am, and many people asked our little band, “Where are you going?” “To the kindergarten, to do music with the children,” came our reply. At which they would smile and wave.

As often happens when we arrive somewhere new, things were a bit chaotic at the beginning. We were there before the teachers, and before most of the children, so at first we were just waiting out the front, standing in the shade under a tree. Then one of the teachers arrived and she opened up the big room and invited us to put our things out. The room was the same one we’d used for the English language class project two days earlier. There was a large dark-blue, dusty tarpaulin on the floor at one end of the room, and the other end had some long tables lining the wall so we arranged our instruments there. Our team of helpers stayed in the room. Gradually other parents, children, and teachers began to arrive.

The teachers started the class. All the children assembled on the blue tarpaulin mat (old but not dusty, I discovered – just faded). The lead teacher, Tina, stood at the front and called them to attention. She asked a series of questions, building up their energy and motivation for their morning at school.

“Are you going to be good today or not?

“Good!” they chorused.

“Are you ready to learn or not?”


“Do you come to school to be educated or not?”


It sounds harsher than it was – I’ve noticed this kind of “or not” questioning pattern is a key part of teachers’ group leadership strategies in Timor, and it is often quite fun. If the response the children give isn’t loud or enthusiastic enough, the teacher will ask the same question again, bringing the volume or the tone of voice up a notch. I even started to use the pattern myself in some workshops!

Then they sang some songs with actions. She asked someone to nominate a song they’d like to sing. I already was familiar with the songs from this kinder, thanks to young Dona’s daily performance of them on my verandah back in my first weeks in Lospalos.

After the singing, she settled them down again, and explained that today they would have visitors. There were some very nice music teachers from overseas who were going to do some music with them. It would be fun, she told them. And, she reminded them, there is no need to be scared! These malae might be new people but they are very nice people, so there is no need to be shy. If one of them asks you your name, you can just tell them your name. You don’t need to get upset.

I was quite amused by this introduction and translated it for Tony as best I could, while listening out for the next gentle admonishment of fear she gave them.


We ventured over to the group, with just our instruments – me with the clarinet, Tony with his sax and flute. I asked the teacher if we could sit in a circle, and she quickly instructed the children to sit in a circle. The other two teachers helped, as did some of the many parents who were milling around, watching the whole class.

In fact, there wasn’t room for everyone in the circle. Some of edges had two rows of children, and Tony and I ended up positioning ourselves in the middle. We’d decided to start with just our instruments, as a way of introducing ourselves initially. We smiled at each other, and Tony started to play.

One girl almost immediately burst into loud racking panicked sobs. On reflection, perhaps it was all too overwhelming. This strange pale-skinned man, taller than anyone she’d ever seen before, making noises on a strange instrument she’d never seen before. It was a lot to take in. Other people just stared, open-eyed and tight-lipped.

I then played the clarinet. I decided to play a tune that I hoped was familiar, the song Ikan hotu nani iha bee that I’d learned from Dona months earlier. (Truth be told, I could never be 100% sure if I had the melody right. Dona’s preference is to sing all her songs at the absolute top of her voice, and the melodic contour only began to be revealed after a large number of listens – and even then, only an approximation of a contour. So perhaps my version wasn’t all that familiar after all!)

Tony unpacked the saxophone and joined in with me on this melody. At its conclusion, we put down the instruments and smiled at everyone. I introduced us, and asked everyone to try saying our names. They got ‘Tony’ fine (it’s a common nickname in Timor apparently) but they struggled with ‘Gillian’ and were very hesitant with ‘Gill’. Mine is a difficult name for people to get their heads – or tongues – around here.

Ram sam sam

I asked if they would like to sing a new song with us. “Do you want to or not?” I asked, echoing their teacher’s style of questioning.

“Want to!” they answered, uncertainly.

“Do you want to or not?” I asked again brightly.

“Want to!” they called back, this time with a bit more energy, and with reinforcements from the assembled watching parents.

So we learned Ram Sam Sam. I taught them the words on their own, the children repeating after me, with the actions. Then we added the melody, and sang the song through. They seemed to be engaging well at this point, with most people joining in with both the singing and the actions, or just one element. I decided to got further.

“This time,” I suggested, “When we sing the words ‘ram sam sam’, we all have to stand up. When we sing the other words, we have to stay down.” I squatted down so that I was balancing just on my toes, poised to spring up. “I’m going to sit like this, so that I can stand up quickly.” The teachers bustled around, encouraging the children to copy my position.

In this way we sang the song again, springing up on the words ‘Ram sam sam’ and squatting back done for ‘goolly goolly’ and ‘ah ravi’. After a few rounds of the song, they had the hang of it well. I started to get ambitious. We had so many children, and so many helpers – could we try the next stage?

We divided the group into two halves – half with me and the lead teacher, the other half with Tony and the other two teachers. Tony’s group would continue to stand up on ‘ram sam sam’, but my group would now stand up on ‘goolly goolly goolly’.

I could see everyone – the teachers and the children and Tony, who hadn’t yet been given a translation of what I’d said – looking a bit confused. “Tony and I will demonstrate,” I proposed, and gave the bewildered Tony a quick explanation of what to do. We sang the song facing each other, and he sprang up, as required, every time the words ‘ram sam sam’ were sung, followed by me springing up on all the ‘goolly goolly goollies’. We then tried it with the whole group, and sang it through two times, and ended with laughter – some relieved, some confused, and we all sat down on the floor again.


After a few moment of general dispelling of energy (chatter, movement) I pulled the group’s focus back to me again by clapping a rhythm. It’s a common tactic in classrooms in Australia, but I’m not sure how familiar it is in Timor. The great thing about this tactic is that you only need one confident person to know what to do – everyone else ends up following their lead.

On this occasion, my one confident person was Tony. The teachers and some of the parents saw what he was doing and followed suit, and gradually the children figured it out and joined in too. Thus, without words or explanation, we segued into some very satisfying ‘call-and-response’ rhythmic work.

This got us warmed up and ready for our body percussion rainstorm. I started by tapping two fingers into the palm of my hand, and gesturing for everyone to copy, and do it at the same time as me. Taking their cues from my changes, we moved from two-finger clapping into whole-hand clapping, then into patsching [hands hitting thighs], then chest beating, and then, after counting 1-2-3-4 out loud and with my fingers, everyone did a jump, creating the sound of thunder.

We cycled through these sounds a few times then returned to two-finger clapping. There was a lot of talking among the parent group that was making it difficult to get a real sense of the sound of rain being created by the finger claps.

“Everyone can do this,” I said, “all the mums, dads, grandparents, older brothers and sisters – everyone!” A few more people joined in.

“Listen now!” I said next, in a quiet, almost-whispering voice. “If I listen carefully – very, very carefully – I can hear the rain coming. Can you hear the rain?” I paused, and I could see I was starting to get their attention with this question. It wasn’t raining that day – it was fine and sunny. To make them connect with their imaginations this way I had to completely commit to the idea.

“Can you hear the rain?” I asked again. “Try, with no talking, and only this sound. Try to hear the rain.” The finger clapping continued and the talking got a little quieter. Smiles of complicity were starting to appear on some of adults’ faces.

Magic, and the magic of sound, is such an important element in early childhood music, and that’s what we were trying to create here. We paused the clapping for a moment so that I could leave the circle. I came back with the two boxes of thunder-makers.

“Now we can make a big rain [udan boot],” I told them. “Here I have something new, that will help us to make thunder.” I’d just checked this word quickly in the dictionary, and glanced at one of the teachers to check I’d said it right.

Rai-taratu,” he corrected, and I repeated it after him. I’d said rai-tatura.

I took the two thunder-makers out of their boxes and demonstrated how to make the sound, by letting the long spring spin around in small circles, without touching the floor.

“Who would like to make the thunder?” I asked. (I got the word wrong again – rai-taruta. “Rai-taratu!” one of the smiling mums called out to me. I just could not make that word stay in my head. That same mum corrected me each time I said it wrong. I loved her – she was completely entering into the fun of the whole session and thought it hilarious that I found so many ways to get this one word wrong).

The teachers were quick to identify two children to be the thunder-makers. The length of the spring meant that these little kids had to hold the thunder-maker way above their heads in order to create the sound. Ideally, we’d have had a couple of low chairs or ArtPlay-style boxes for them to stand on.

We were ready to create our rainstorm. I asked – with a hand cue – the thunder-makers to start their sounds. Then we began the two-fingered clapping. Following my cues we went through the cycle of sounds, climaxing with the 1-2-3-4 finger cue for the jump, at which point we went back to the two-fingered clapping and performed each of the sounds again. We ended the rainstorm quietly, with two-fingered clapping, ssshh wind sounds, and the gradual petering out of the thunder.

I could see that by now other children would be wanting to try the thunder-makers out, so we repeated the rainstorm with new performers. The children were completely engaged by this piece now (though some of the adults continued to have conversations – the culture of silence during music performances is a Western thing, I think).

Instrument jam

In the last part of our workshop we wanted to give every child the opportunity to play an instrument. With Kim’s help and that of the teachers, we brought all the instruments we had with us into the centre of the circle and began giving them out. It can be hard to distribute instruments. Many children – especially girls – shy away if you approach them. You have to watch for the tiniest little signals they give out that they are actually hoping to be offered one, but need you to make the first move. Sometimes it is a tiny hand gesture, sometimes it is just the way they meet your eye. We gave out everything, including each of the chime bars individually, and lots of pairs of bamboo clapping sticks, but we still didn’t have quite enough to go around. I figured we would do a swap midway through the activity. In any case, I knew that Timorese children are very good at initiating their own swaps.

We didn’t try to establish different groups or contrasting rhythms in this activity. We revisited the ‘call-and-response’ rhythms that we’d used earlier, and I also taught them the cues “1-2-3-4-STOP!” [1-2-3-4-PARA!] and 1-2-3-PLAY! [1-2-3-TOKA]. We tried to get a really clean stop to the sound and for a bunch of 3- and 4-year olds, holding instruments en masse for the first time, they did extremely well.

I sang the song Ah ya zahn and Tony and I taught them the rhythmic responses:

Ah ya zahn [ti-ti ta]

Ah ya zahn [ti-ti ta]

Ah ya zahn el abedin [ti-ti ta]

Ya whirr [ti-ti ta]

Ya whirr in fata, baya el basadin [ti-ti ta]

It’s not completely straightforward because they need to listen carefully to the song and the length of the melodic phrases to know when to play the [ti-ti ta] rhythm responses. It takes a few tries, and by now the group was showing some early signs of tiredness.

However, they got it. The song has quite a Middle Eastern, melismatic feel to the melody and I love singing it and playing up to that quality. It got the attention of the adults as well as the children as it is such a different musical sound to their own children’s songs (although has some relationship to Arabic-influenced Indonesian pop). Some of the adults started to join in with the song as they became more familiar with the words.

We interspersed the song with whole-ensemble playing, where the group just repeated the [ti-ti ta] rhythm over and over in unison, until I called the 1-2-3-4-PARA! cue. In this way, we established a sense of structure and the discipline of not playing instruments at the same time as singing. They also improved their ability to stop together on cue, and play together on cue. Midway through the activity we called for an instrument swap so that children could try some different things.

Finishing up

By the end of the instrument jam we were all tired. We asked the children to come forward with their instruments and place them in the middle of the mat, then I suggested to Tina that we could finish with a song that the children already knew, all together. “Could we sing ikan hotu nani iha bee?” I asked. There was a little confusion at first, where she told the children I would teach them the song, but this wasn’t my intention – they already knew it! I wanted us to do something familiar, all together, as a way of finishing. Tina and I had a quick conversation where I clarified this, and asked if she was happy to lead this singing. She was, and so together we all sang the song, complete with actions.

However, I still didn’t get to clarify the intended melody of the song! It still wasn’t clear.

At the end of the workshop all the children and parents went outside for their break. Timorese schools and kinders usually have a group of women, and sometimes children, who wait outside school from before classes start and until classes end, selling things like katupa rice packs, and other home-made and mass-produced snacks.

We chatted with the three teachers for a while. They thanked us for coming, and said how much they and the children had enjoyed it. I thanked them too, reminding them that I’d only approached them the day before about doing this workshop, and how wonderful it was that they were able to make space for us so quickly and make us feel so welcome. Later, in a more detailed conversation with Kim, they told her that this had been their first experience of this kind of creative music activity for young children and they wished they could have time to work with me again. This is a very professional and serious group of teachers – they take part in professional development courses with the Mary MacKillop organisation (who do a lot of work in the area of early childhood development) and they are quietly ambitious, I would say, about the potential for the program they are running, and the possibilities they are able to offer the young children they teach. It’s a shame that my time in Lospalos has for the most part coincided with the kindergarten school holidays.

Getting home again

We were relieved to find that one of our Motolori boys was still hanging around, and he offered to drive the loaded-up wheelbarrow home for us. Of course, one of us could have done it, but I think the Timorese youngsters take pride in helping out and doing these jobs for the adults they like or have a relationship with. This boy found it heavy-going and stopped several times to have a rest. Kim bought some bread rolls and snacks on the way home so that we could thank him with some food.

As we crossed the bridge and neared our house all the other neighbouring boys appeared and took over the wheelbarrow steering. Their presence and keen-ness led to another mini-jam on the verandah because there was no way they would be happy to unload all the instruments and not get to play them. Anyway, we were truly appreciative of their help, and by now were starting to see how seriously they took on responsibility of caring for the instruments as they unpacked them, played them, and packed them up again at the end.

Toka Boot

This event took place in Lospalos on day 101 of my residency, but I am writing this blog post in Dili Airport, day 106, as I prepare to depart.

How do you find a way to gracefully and joyously exit a community where you have played some small part for just a small amount of time? ‘Toka Boot’ means ‘big play’ – it was the closest thing we could find in Tetun to describe the idea of a Big Jam, an event where people of all ages could come together to play music. Toka Boot (btw, the second word is pronounced more like bot than boot) was to be an extension of all the weeks of Verandah Jams (and other informal music-making) we’d been doing in Lospalos, but involving many more people, and in a large public space. It was a way of celebrating my residency in the town, and bringing as many people as possible together to do this. It was also a way of sharing the talents of Tony and the ANAM students with the wider Lospalos community. For the last week in particular, we’d been doing creative workshops everyday, in various sites around the town. Toka Boot was a way to bring that all together.

There were two parts to the day. The first part, starting at 3pm, was called the ‘workshop’ and was a way to get people involved in learning guitar parts, getting instruments in tune, and also making instruments to play. We invited Maun M, our instrument-making neighbour, to come along at 3pm to demonstrate how to make both the kokes and the kakalos, and we brought a large coconut palm leaf and several pieces of pre-cut, stubby bamboo along for him to use as his materials. Sadly, Maun M didn’t make it, so that element didn’t happen, but many people commented that they particularly enjoyed the fact that there were traditional instruments being included in the jam, available for people to play if they wanted to. If this Toka Boot ends up being the first of many in the future, I hope the idea of instrument-making becomes incorporated into the event.

The second part of the day was the ‘toka’ – the playing! We were introduced by the local Ministry of Culture representative and Mana Holly. I then took over the microphone and welcomed everyone. “This is an event where everyone is invited to play,” I told them. “We have brought lots of instruments with us, and other people have also brought their own instruments to play. You can choose what you’d like to do.”

I had a tough gig at that moment. Timorese people are notoriously shy, so no-one wanted to be the first to move from the safety of the edges of the space. I kept talking.

“Here we have some plastic buckets, but you can play them like drums. Who wants to play the drum or bucket? Come and sit in these chairs here. This next instrument is a shaker. I don’t know the Tetun word for it but in English we say shaker. People who want to play the shaker can sit in these chairs here.

On and on I went, introducing each other instruments, designating sections where people could sit, and demonstrating ways of playing the instruments we’d brought with us. Gradually people began to take their places. A group of excitable young boys quickly realised the virtues of the kakalos, and suddenly rushed to the mat where we had laid these out. Bottles and bamboo sticks were similarly popular – it’s the whack-able quality of these instruments that particularly appeals, I think!

Lospalos kakalo

We also had a sizeable group of young men with guitars who had come along. They sat as a group directly in front of me and did a great job supporting all the music with steady chords. We also had our three sets of chime bars set out along one of the mats, but these were commandeered by some of the Motalori kids (who had been coming to our house every day) and no-one else got a look-in there.

I planned the musical content to reflect three things:

  • local music and rhythms I’d learned during my residency
  • music that had been composed by the Motalori kids (as a way of acknowledging the time they had spent playing music with me and Tony); and
  • Forever Young, as the unofficial anthem of the residency, and with its Fataluku lyrics. So many people had responded with delight to the Fataluku version, and enjoyed jamming on the chords with both the chime bars and guitars, that it seemed an ideal way to end the Toka Boot.

We kicked off with some call-and-response rhythms, getting everyone warmed up, listening and participating. From here we established cues for starting and stopping, and ‘tested’ these, seeing if we could get a strong clean stop from the whole ensemble.

We began the music jam by creating a rhythmic section A with three contrasting rhythms, a melodic section B that utilised the ‘Melodia Motalori’ on the chime bars, and a sung section C that featured a traditional Fataluku song. (When I’d tried the song out on a local crowd the day before in Cacavei, I’d received a spontaneous round of applause. Given applause isn’t a typical TImorese response to music, I felt like that was a particularly strong affirmation of this choice of song).

We switched between sections A, B, and C on a cue from me. We’d hoped that everyone in the space would sing along with the songs, and that they would know the words, but they were pretty quiet. I could see some of the women in crowd singing along, but most of the teenage boys kept their mouths firmly shut! (Afterwards, I asked a friend if perhaps people hadn’t known the words, thinking we should have written them out for everyone. She told me, “No, they know it. They’re just shy!”).

These three sections also gave Tony and the ANAM students opportunities to solo or improvise over the ensemble music. Tony playing the saxophone was best-placed to do this, and he alternated between improvised solos, and playing the melodies of each section.

I also brought different instrumental sections in and out throughout the jam. The shaker-playing group in particular was excellent at stopping and starting on cue. Other groups were less confident, and tended to stop playing if a group near them was asked to stop. Therefore I didn’t get to play around with variations in texture as much as I’d hoped.

We cued a Big Finish from the whole ensemble, and then it was on to Forever Young.

This piece took awhile to get going. The boys on the kakalos and bamboo sticks were getting close to out of control – nothing was broken, but it meant that no-one could hear anything much else. Tony and Doug suggested that kakalos weren’t needed for the next piece.

While they organised that side of the room, I set about making sure everyone could see a copy of the words to the song. That morning, Tony, Sarah and I had written out copies of the words onto large white poster pages. Now I called for volunteers from the crowd to step forwards in order to hold up the words for people to sing from. We also had two lots of the lyrics up on the walls.

So there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, trying to start, then stopping because people were still not quite ready. I particularly wanted to establish the idea that the instrumental sections would be different to the singing sections – if everyone played their instruments while we were singing then no-one would be able to hear anything.

Finally, I got my eye contact going with the guitarists and the chime bars at the same time, counted them in and we were away. Two brave young women who’d sung in the community radio gig earlier that week agreed to join me with microphones in the centre of the space to lead the singing (they were very reluctant but fortunately for me acknowledged that me singing Fataluku words on my own wasn’t really appropriate, or as convincing).

Forever Young was a hit. As with our earlier song, no-one really joined in with any kind of audible gusto, but many were singing along quietly – I could see their lips moving! The guitarists held the accompaniment together well, and the boys on the chime bars also kept time remarkably well, given the density of sounds going on for most of the time. The ANAM musicians also played solos during the instrumental breaks, with the two singers holding microphones to their instruments so that the solos could be heard. Even Tony got to sing into a microphone at one stage, one of the girls came and held it beside his mouth during one of the choruses. The rest of the time he kept our drum groove going on the djembe.

The Many Hands staff took part in the event, and reported back that at least 200 people had taken part throughout the event with a further 300 moving in and out of the space. 500 people having some experience of this event is a wonderful outcome!

“Do you like this? Do think it’s good?” Mana Holly asked different people in the crowd as she roamed around with her camera. “It’s great,” they told her emphatically. Mana Kim also spoke to a number of people after the event and reported back that people had been overwhelmingly positive and excited about the event. The only negative comment was that it was the kind of event that should be happening often, not just as a one-off. One person (connected with local police I think) felt that events like this could help to reduce crime, and yet another person suggested that it was a good way to combat racism towards malae (foreigners), explaining that this was something that was on the increase. It was the first time people had seen malae and local Timorese working together in a participatory event like this. People also appreciated the instruments that were in use – they were happy to see their traditional instruments being promoted by outsiders, but also that many of the other instruments were made from things that were easily available locally – buckets, bottles and bamboo.

At the end of the jam we handed the floor over to Plan International, who have been running a music recording project for some time in Lospalos. Several of their bands had come along, and they now performed sets of their songs. They sat in the centre of the room, one of the Motolori boys taking the initiative to sit in the middle of them and be a Microphone Stand (and at the end of each set jumping to his feet to yell “Thank you very much!” into the microphone like a pro), and the audience crowded around to hear these performances too.

I made my way to the edge of the market space and sat down with Sarah (who was looking pretty wiped out from her malaria, but sticking with the gig nonetheless – what a trooper) and Oswalda and two of her friends. They congratulated me and asked how I was feeling. “I’m tired now,” I confessed. The three young girls then grabbed hold of my arms and proceeded to give me an arm massage.

Tony and some of the Motolori boys walked home, carrying all the instruments on the two wheelbarrows we had borrowed from our neighbours. I followed shortly after, and when I got home I was surprised to see a group of other neighbours (none of whom had been at the gig) crowding onto th verandah. They were awaiting our return, it seemed, keen to have their own Toka Boot on the veradah. How could we refuse? We watched with pride as they set up the instruments – with care and respect now, unlike the chaotic handling things received in the early days of the verandah jams, and began to play. They were jamming on their own, without guidance from us.

How things had progressed since that first jam, when Kamil, our Indonesian friend, had to go out into the street to persuade some of the local children to join us! Now they were waiting for us when we got home, and the only way to get them to stop playing once they started was to call for a break, explain that we needed a deskansa [rest], and reassure them that they could come back tomorrow to play some more. They would then pack up the instruments with the same care and attention as they gave to the unpacking – putting the chime bars back in their bags in the right order, painstakingly counting out eight mallets per carry bag, gathering all the kakalo sticks into their little red carrier bag and entering the music room at the side of the verandah respectfully and (for the most part) without pushing each other, and placing the instruments down in their correct places (most of the time – some of the bamboo sticks still got dropped on the floor on occasion).