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.

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