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.


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