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.

I’ve been based in Timor Leste for the last 4 months, working as a musician with communities in both Baucau and Lospalos. I’ve been joined by another musician from Australia, Tony Hicks. For me, in my practice, community music is about doing – I am interested in projects that enable active participation from everyone. My projects here have emerged in two main ways, and today I want to talk specifically about those two models of engagement.

In Baucau, we worked with a partner organisation, Afalyca Arts. We also had funding support from the UN Human Rights Education unit, and the idea was to develop a creative music project for children aged 8-14, where they would compose music and songs about human rights and children’s rights and perform them as part of International Human Rights Day celebrations.

The Afalyca project coordinator and staff worked with me to help recruit child participants via the local schools, and to secure an appropriate venue for the project. In this project model, we worked with a group of children that became a community for this project. Many of them knew each other, however, they were all from difference schools and different parts of town, and they came together in this particular formation in order to take part in this project. They did not exist as a group in any other context.

The project lasted only four days. The group of children and adults (staff from Afalyca, Tony and me) met everyday for three hours and each day we composed a new piece of music. On the fourth day we revised, rehearsed and performed. We composed the music collaboratively – a process in which the leader (usually me) puts forward an initial idea to get everyone thinking, and asks the group for responses, or to develop this idea further. Everyone contributes their thoughts. The children’s voices are at the centre of the process, and the music is developed and then learned by everyone, rather than taught.

In this project, too, we engaged the group in discussions about human rights, and used this as a starting point to developing lyrics for songs. You can see the lyrics of the songs that the children wrote on the wall over there. [I had stuck all the poster pages of lyrics on the wall of the conference room].

The project culminated in a public performance of the music that the group had created together. Parents and family members came along to hear. After that, Tony and I left Baucau. The project had ended.

In Lospalos, we worked far more informally. In Lospalos, we were not able to build the same relationship with an active arts-focused NGO the way we could in Baucau. Instead, we began by playing music on the verandah of our house, and invited anyone who wanted to come and join us. At first the local children just watched us from the road. But later, gradually, they began to walk up the drive and eventually began to join us. This is how our community music-making began in Lospalos.

People of all ages were welcome to join us. On some days, the group would be made up of very young children. On other days, teenagers and even adults came along. Often it was a big mix. The group was self-selecting – people came if they wanted to, and left when they wanted to. We had no particular plans or musical goals at the start of these Verandah Jams, but the music that we played was varied – including Timorese music, Fataluku songs, pop songs, and music and rhythms invented by the group.

The Verandah Jams were a staple part of our music-making activities in Lospalos. In time, we developed relationships with other organisations (such as ADM convent, and the English and kindergarten classes at Esperanca NGO) and developed music workshop projects for them, and we also planned one large, joyous outcome for the whole community that we hoped would draw new and old participants together.

The challenges that a community music project might find include the question of instruments. Ideally, there will be instruments for people to play, but groups should also keep in mind that you can do a lot of music with very few resources. We made instruments out of used and recycled materials that we found in the local environment. We also made bamboo instruments according to traditional designs and engaged our jam participants in this process.

However, I think the most significant challenge to be aware of is that of developing projects in a spirit of exchange and reciprocity. Particularly when outside (foreign) people are involved, it is easy for projects to fall into a pattern of ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’. However, perhaps the creative arts are one of the few areas where everyone – malae and Timorese – can work on equal footing, because creating new art is about ideas. It is about what is in our heads, and everyone has something to offer, and something to learn. The spirit of exchange or reciprocity is what makes a project most likely to succeed and be effective, and for its effects to be longlasting and positive for the community.

Our successes were many and varied – from building a new collection of traditional kakalos to give to the community, to facilitating a live-to-air performance on community radio by members of the Verandah Jam community, to a large-scale Jam, attended by around 500 people, to developing an original set of songs about human rights and children’s rights, to identifying a local man with instrument-making knowledge and skills, and calling upon this expertise, to seeing the confidence of a young child grow, as he becomes a musical leader among his peers, the one to watch if you want to learn a new riff or rhythm.


1 comment so far

  1. Timothy Jones on

    Hi Gillian, thanks for your positive comments, and it has been great following your work.
    I just wrote to Chris Walters, the new editor of the UK Music Teacher magazine because what you write is 10 times more interesting than most of the magazine’s offerings…
    Hi Chris,
    Now here is an interesting topic. Gilian Howell has been working in Timor Leste for several months. She is a community creative musician in the Sean Gregory tradition. She writes beautifully and passionately about her work.

    2nd best option: You can read a summary of her writing on my blog:

    Best option: read her own work at:

    A good starting point is this post:

    Best wishes,


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