Maulelo – witnessing the enactment of an ancient ceremony

“Want to help save a music tradition?”

This was how a friend shared a recent Kickstarter campaign on social media. The campaign was in support of an enactment of a traditional music-theatre ceremony in Timor-Leste that hadn’t been performed in over a decade. The knowledge about this ceremony – how to perform it, the musical material and how it is structured, the rules and protocols surrounding its performance – was in danger of being lost. The two elders (cultural custodians) who knew it in detail were ageing – if a performance didn’t take place soon it was possible that they could pass away without their knowledge having been passed on to a younger generation.

Maulelo in rehearsal (G. Howell 2014)

The ceremony isn’t performed very often because it is really big and requires a huge amount of preparation and logistical planning. It can involve 80-100 performers, who need to travel and stay overnight (possibly for multiple days in a row) and set aside their other day-to-day work and responsibilities in order to take part.

The event is called Maulelo, and while I was Timor-Leste I was able to travel to the site and observe the final day of rehearsals. The setting was halfway up a mountain, near the small town of Hatubuiliko, and in the foothills of Mount Ramelau, Timor-Leste’s highest mountain and a sacred site of pilgrimage and Timorese national identity. To get there, we walked for a while out of Hatubuiliko town, and then at a critical point we left the path and scrambled our way up a steep, narrow, twisting goat track. This took us above the clouds that had descended upon the town to a clearing on a narrow saddle, ringed by pin-straight, narrow eucalypts, reaching toward the sky.

I was part of a small group of malae [white foreigners] taking part. The Kickstarter campaign had funded a documentary crew who were filming and recording the rehearsal and performance, and interviewing elders about the ceremony, in order to create a document that the participants could use in future years to preserve and share their knowledge, as well as to share this unusual ceremony with people from other parts of Timor-Leste. I had been able to tag along with this crew.

Participants and performers arrived at the site gradually over a 45 minute period – some had walked for two hours to get there. Others may have walked for even longer.

Waiting to begin the practice (G. Howell, 2014)

There was a large drum fixed beside a tree that lots of young kids were playing, taking it in turns and passing the sticks to each other. They were taking advantage of the opportunity to play it – normally this would have been restricted to initiated people. There was also a metal bar, leaning on a horizontal diagonal against the same tree. This was another instrument, played by tapping two stones against it, in rhythmic unison with the drum. Two gongs completed the musical ensemble.

The drum and metal pole, Maulelo (G. Howell 2014)

Once the performers had assembled, they gathered in a group. They seemed to be discussing the work for the day. One elder – the lia nain, or ‘keeper of the word’ – initiated discussions, gave instructions, and clarified details from a cross-legged position on the ground, while others stood or sat around him in a circle.

Then the rehearsal began. It involved men and women standing close together, with a second group of men standing separate to this main group, behind them, near some small huts made of sticks and branches. The lia nain was positioned in the front and centre of the main group, calling a song, or telling the story with dramatic flair. At key points the whole ensemble responded in song, or with whoops, yells, and unison movements. Responding to cues within the story (I assume) the musical ensemble would begin to play, accompanying dance and movement.

Much of the movement work was stylised representation of battle. Many of the men had swords. The women held a fan-shaped piece of cardboard or hardened animal skin (like a drum skin, but much stiffer) in their hands, which they held in the air when they danced. The Mauleleo tells the story of an ancient mythological battle between the light world and the dark world. It shows the head of the keeper of the dark world being cut off. I was relieved to see that for this part of the ritual, a dummy had been made. Later, the ensemble kicked the head of this dummy (represented by a taped up bundle of plastic bags, the size of a large ball) around the group. In earlier, pre-European colonisation times, heads of enemies would be kept as part of the spoils of battle. Traditional beliefs held that the spirit of a person was held within the skull, and greater power could be retained if the head of an enemy captured in battle was not returned to its land. The spirit would be unable to rest, and the enemy would thus be weakened.

We observed the way the lia nain would stop the rehearsal in order to correct things. At one point he gave a lot of attention to the musical group, correcting and instructing them. He was forceful, almost angry or impatient in his tones sometimes! Among the observers, we imagined that he was the person who knew the ritual best, and this was why he was the teacher. Later though, a Timorese man who is an expert musician and who has documented and studied many of the music traditions of Timor-Leste, watched my video footage of the Maulelo rehearsal with great interest and suggested that it wasn’t as much a question of knowledge as one of seniority. This man, the lia nain, might not be the only person who knew the necessary information about the ritual, but he was the oldest knowledge holder, and the responsibility to teach and pass on this information therefore fell to him. In order for the ritual to be successfully learned, the younger community members needed to receive the specific information and instructions from the oldest knowledge bearer. He was the only person allowed to transmit the information.

Around 1.30pm, the rehearsal stopped, and everyone sat on the ground for a lunchbreak. Some of the women had prepared donuts for everyone – these were freshly-made, all light and puffy, and only slightly sweet. These were passed around to all the performers first, then the visitors, then to the onlooking crowd of women, children, and teenagers. A bottle of tua mutin (a local brandy – very strong!) was also offered to various people.

The afternoon rehearsal was exciting to watch. People’s energy was lifted – perhaps because of the tua and donut, but also, I suspect, because the performance was really starting to come together. You could see the people’s excitement and confidence growing, I thought. This was their fourth or fifth consecutive day of rehearsal and learning. The following day was the day of the performance, so this energy was a natural part of the progression towards that culmination of their work.

The afternoon was when we got to see the horses in action too. We had already noticed various young men riding up to the site on their Timor ponies – hardy mountain ponies that are quite small in stature. (Australian readers may recall the mention of Timor pony breeding in the Banjo Patterson ballad ‘The Man from Snowy River’. I never fail to get a buzz out of seeing Timor ponies in Timor). There were 12 ponies all together. The young men who were the riders had been sitting on the grass, hanging out, laughing and joking and generally just chilling, when the lia nain marched up to them and said what I think may have been the local equivalent of, “Guys, get your arses in gear, get on your ponies and get into position!” Because they scrambled up pretty quickly and did exactly that after he barked some sharp, post-lunch words at them.

Timor ponies ready for their entrance, Maulelo reh (G. Howell 2014)

I loved watching the onlookers. There were many small children there, watching and observing all of the activity. There were older siblings too, and groups of teenage boys whose interest quickly moved from the activity of the elders, to the ponies, to the big fire that had been started up to the back of the performance scene. The young boys near the fire deftly climbed the nearby trees (without the help of branches… just impressively articulated toes and feet) and stomped more branches down to the ground for the fire. They were learners too – absorbing all the information and activity and seeing the importance and respect being given to this event by everyone present.

Towards the end of the next block of activity things seemed to morph from structured rehearsal into something freer. Everyone was gathered around the tree with the instruments, just jamming and dancing. Different individuals took up positions at the instruments and others danced. It seemed completely in the spirit and energy of the event, while not necessarily part of it.

Not long after this, everyone sat on the ground again, or gathered closely around those seated in order to hear what was being said. There was strenuous discussion between the elders and the film crew, then the lia nain began to sing (what sounded like) his opening chant once more. The assembled group sang their response in turn, and then the lia nain clapped his hands, dropped them to his sides, and the rehearsal was clearly over. The group dispersed.

Some people gathered around me, interested to watch me click back through the photos I had taken throughout the day. Another photographer in our group had had the foresight to bring a Polaroid camera with her, and she took portrait photographs of people, in order to give them the image to keep. People loved seeing the photographs of themselves and of the group. They asked me if I could give them copies of the photos I had taken. I explained that I could get copies printed in Dili, and that I would arrange for them to be sent back to the community. (There is no postal service in Timor-Leste, and few people own their own printer, so getting things like hard copy photos to people is kind of complicated. But it is important. As an aside, when I returned to Timor-Leste this year, I brought with me hard copies of photos I had taken in 2010 of people in the town of Com, who had asked me to take their photo. I figured that I would probably meet someone from Com, I could give them the photos, and ask them to pass the photos on to the right people. Four years later – but they will still appreciate it, I know, because they get to own so few photos of themselves these days).

Portrait of performers, Maulelo (G. Howell, 2014)

The sun was already starting to set when we headed back down the mountain. I was departing for Dili the next morning, but others were staying on to record the performance of Maulelo. Later that week, when the documentary team returned to Dili, I was able to catch up on the events of the performance day. There had been a lot of rain overnight and a huge amount of cloud and drizzle. There was strenuous discussion about where the performance could take place that day. In the end, it did take place. Apparently all the clouds and mist added beautifully to the atmosphere captured in the documentary footage. They also had the inspired idea of putting a Go-Pro camera on the head of one of the performers, which has provided some extraordinary footage of what it was like to be right inside the performance itself. Much of the dramatic activity (like cutting the head off the leader of the dark world) happened inside a tightly-closed circle of performers. The Go-Pro footage provided some vision of that, and it’s really cool to see!

What an experience this was! I feel incredibly lucky to have seen it, and to be able to include some first-hand observations of the teaching and learning of traditional music knowledge in my PhD research.

End of the day, back down the mountain

End of the day, back down the mountain

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