Archive for the ‘Post-conflict arts’ Category

Access All Areas: Researcher

The Galle Music Festival was an intense whirlwind of activity. For me it started with the “Inspiration” workshop that Sevalanka asked me to lead – this was a session for all the artists the day before the Festival, designed to welcome them and get them interacting and relaxing together. Some of them had been travelling many hours and Galle Music Festival would be their first major event. They were tired, very serious, and not sure what to expect from it all. But the games and creative tasks I introduced worked a treat, getting them singing, clapping, sharing rhythms, songs, and other musical ideas from their traditions and their imagination, as well as laughing and connecting with each other.

Then there were soundchecks for me to do. I’d spent the last few days observing a drumming collaboration between two all-female drumming groups (one from the North, one from the South), and I’d ended up being roped in to play as part of the act. That was enormous fun, and a very different way to connect with the musicians in the group than simply as an outside observer.

The Festival began with the Morning Program, held in a lovely market square in Galle where a weekly artisan market is held. Stalls were created for the different performing groups where they could display their instruments and costumes, and they gave informal performances in front of their stalls or on the small stage at one end of the market square. The Morning Program at the market had a lovely, chilled vibe, and I was happy to see that it also gave the musicians a chance to interact with each other a bit more, check out each other’s instruments, performances, and so on.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s hard to see what is happening in this picture – but she is balancing her head-dress while crouching down to get eye level with the tomato. There is a NEEDLE stuck in the tomato. She then blinks the needle out with her EYE-LID! This was an uncomfortable trick to watch, didn’t look so comfortable to do either.

At the Festival I had two particular researcher tasks – I had a small team of volunteers to help me administer an Audience Survey, and I remained backstage throughout the evening concert to ask each group of performers to complete Performer Surveys. This meant that I was part of the energy and excitement of the performers, as they gathered at the side of the stage waiting for their turn, and afterwards, as they milled about, buzzing with adrenaline, but also (for many) rushing to get their equipment together and their costumes packed away in order to start their long journeys home as soon as possible.

I therefore never really got to see the Festival from the audience’s perspective. That night, it started raining heavily (in fact the rains that came continued unabated and were the cause of Sri Lanka’s devastating floods just a few days later), so the audience was mostly seated further back from the stage under weather-proof awnings. I wonder how it was for them, seeing these performers of diverse folk traditions, many of whom were only experienced in performing for rituals in their own communities? There was an impressive amount of elaboration. I loved these leopard costumes, from a folk theatre group from Mullaitivu District.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Unfortunately I couldn’t get a photo where he turned to look directly at me – but you can get a sense of the detailed face-painting from this shot hopefully.

My role backstage, and following on from the ‘Inspiration’ workshop on Friday, enabled me to interact closely with all of these musicians. After attending my workshop, many of the artists greeted me warmly when they saw me backstage, wanted to chat and to have photos taken with me.

Some of the groups that I’d spent quite a lot of time with – like the all-girl drumming group from Kilinochchi – were particularly sad to say good-bye. One of the girls gave me her pottu (Tamil word for the forehead decoration). We’d first met about 7 weeks earlier, when I came to see one of their village performances and interviewed them about their experiences in the previous year’s festival.

GMF 2016 Me and Thappu girls

In the end, I had a satisfying amount of Audience Survey completions, and an even more pleasing number of Performer Surveys. My backstage pass for the Festival said “Researcher” on it, which was a definite highlight of my whole time in Sri Lanka! How many researchers can boast such Rock Star-like validation?

IMG_0445

Access all Areas: Researcher

Advertisements

The Paraiyers’ drums

IMG_0405

Another part of the Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation is the ‘village level performance’ program. Village-level performances give village elders that are custodians of rare and endangered folk forms (music, dance and theatre) support to put on a performance of their traditional work. Support can include funds to purchase instruments, for artist rehearsal time, to prepare costumes and props, and travel costs. This year, one of the village-level performances was in the Eastern province near the city of Batticaloa, and involved musician elders from four different villages.

The model that was used this year was particularly interesting. The musicians were all performers of the Parai drum tradition, which has for a long time been regarded as the instrument of the low-caste Paraiyers (see here for an interesting history of the Paraiyers). Because of this, members of the Paraiyer caste often reject this musical tradition, seeing the drum and its rhythms as markers of lowly status, and indeed, a marker of membership of that caste. Yet the musicians involved in this year’s village-level festival are adamant that the traditions and instruments should be preserved, and they have continued to play for rituals (usually funerals) despite the dismissive and often hostile responses from others in their community.

IMG_0369

Therefore, building up the status and importance of the parai drum, and recognizing the work of the elder musicians in preserving it was one objective of the village-level festival. The next objective was to increase knowledge of the drum and its rhythms among young students of Tamil music. The Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies (SVIAS) at Eastern University was a co-presenter of the village-level festival, and arranged for the elder-musicians to rehearse at the university each day in the weeks leading up to the performance. Students and lecturers of Tamil drum and dance worked with them closely, studying the artform. They worked outdoors, under big trees with a circle of benches surrounding the rehearsal space.

Bringing it into the University was a new initiative for the Music Cooperation, but it served two purposes – of helping to preserve and celebrate the knowledge of the elder musicians by training the next generation of performers, and of sidestepping the hostility towards the Parai drum within the musicians’ own communities.

I was able to observe two days of rehearsals during my research trip to Batticaloa two weeks ago, and these photos are from that visit. I saw a fascinating level of exchange taking place between the elders, the students, and the lecturers. Sometimes it was hard to see who was the authority, or the director of the project. One of the students explained it to me this way:

The elders are the experts in how to play this drum. They know all the rhythms and techniques and forms, and the students are eager to learn this from them. However, they have only performed for village rituals up until now, and they are not experienced in creating a performance for the public. So the students and the lecturers are contributing those ideas.

It reminded me that finding the balance between support and instruction, agency and collaboration, the authority of knowledge and the authority of institutions, and when to be expert and when to step back and give space for the content to emerge and evolve, is complex, messy, and somewhat infinite and imperfect pursuit. This project was tackling these challenges in what seemed to me to be courageous and thoughtful ways. I’m sure they all learned a great deal, and for me, it was an intriguing and thought-provoking process to observe.

IMG_0404

Commonalities across boundaries

The two young women move swiftly and gracefully to the front of the stage, arms outstretched. In the centre of the stage a young man holds a stylized pose. He is supposed to hold a deep knee bend but it is his first time in this role, and the group’s esteemed director kindly, affectionately tells him he can use a chair for this first day. (Observation journal)

I spent the weekend with students from three Sri Lankan state universities – Eastern, Jaffna, and Peradeniya – as they prepare a performance act for the forthcoming Galle Music Festival. They are working under the direction of Dr Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan, and faculty members from their respective Performing Arts departments. The focus is on traditional music and dance, but Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic population means that these traditions vary widely across the island. What’s more, with the three universities based in geographically distant and somewhat war-isolated areas (one in the North, one in the East – both areas were epicenters of the civil war that ended in 2009 – and one in the central, mountainous region), opportunities for cross-campus exchanges and collaborations are not in the usual course of student life.

IMG_0316

What’s been fascinating to observe this weekend are the points of commonality – social, cultural, and aesthetic – and how these are found and navigated.

The first point of commonality is the students’ shared love of music and dance, and Sri Lanka’s traditional folk forms in particular. If they weren’t interested in these, they wouldn’t be here, because the Galle Music Festival is primarily a festival of folk and traditional arts. (There’s a bit of fusion and rap going on to – but folk traditions are the foundation). The students from Jaffna and Eastern Universities are enrolled in Performing Arts degrees; the students from Peradeniya are members of the ‘Music Society’, a university-wide, student club for those with an interesting in performing music together.

IMG_0314

Another commonality is their age and stage in life – they are all university students, young people coming of age in a digital era with phones, photos, selfies and Facebook making up some of the artefacts and shareable commodities of their modern lives.

Finding a common language is more problematic. All of the students are being educated in Sinhala or Tamil at university. Some students can speak both Sinhala and English; some speak Tamil and English. A smaller number speak both Sinhala and Tamil (although most of this generation are across the basics of both languages, they tell me). Therefore, conversations happen in second or third languages, or with the help of mime and gesture and a lot of good-natured laughter.

Each of the groups was asked to prepare a musical number to contribute to the workshop. Some had prepared songs with instrumental accompaniment, others had songs only, others had dances.

IMG_0340

In the full workshop with Dr Sri Ranganathan, they each first presented the music they’d prepared. Dr Sri Ranganathan made notes, and then proposed a form that would flow from one song or dance to the next. As they worked through this proposed form, students were roped into different roles. Four girls from Eastern University who’d come along to the workshop as singers found themselves dancing alongside the dancers from Jaffna University, who instructed them in the steps. In the very vigorous and rousing ‘Kavedi’, all of the boys had to dance, with very physical choreography requiring lots of jumps and deep knee bends, and Cossack-style kicks while crouching low to the ground. Impressive – and demanding!

The students stayed in Colombo overnight, so I asked one of the Peradeniya students to keep an observation log of the interactions for me, as I’m interested in the ways that music collaborations can foster more positive intergroup group bonds and relations. She reported back to me the next day that in addition to lots of conversations in different languages, a highlight of the evening was an impromptu jam session, lasting into the wee small hours, when the instruments came out and everyone sang each other’s songs, played each other’s instruments, and generally just hung out and immersed in music the way music-loving young people do everywhere.

IMG_0344

The collaborations are one of the new programming strands in this year’s Galle Music Festival. Next week there will be workshops for the collaboration between two all-female drumming groups, one from the North, in the Kilinochchi area, and the other from the Academy of Music and Dance in Colombo. They will be joined by Sri Lanka’s premier women’s vocal ensemble – and possibly by me on clarinet, because the piece that is planned needs a Western melody instrument. It’s a bit of a departure from research observations, but what I love about my work is the constant interplay between music, ideas, collaborations, and intercultural learning. Whether I’m watching, writing or playing, that intersection is where the magic lies.

Music development as reconciliation?

I’ve clarified the shape of my research project this last week. After feeling initially stalled by the idea of examining music activities that were created as music development activities rather than peace and reconciliation activities using music (so many variables! so open-ended!), I came to realize that the question to be answered is about the relationship between music development (the strengthening and development of the skills of different sector actors) and peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Are the music activities having an impact? If so, where, and how, and what are the indicators of this, according to the people taking part? How do these vary across different subgroups of participants?

P2220579.JPG

The connective logic or ‘theory of change’ that can be inferred from the activities goes something like this:

  • Sri Lanka’s music sector (including traditional arts practices and the local (professional) music industry) has suffered great damage through the three decades of war.
  • By building the capacity of musicians, supporting professionals (e.g. event organizers, audio engineers, lighting designers), and up-and-coming talents (through mechanisms such as performance opportunities, provision of resources such as instruments, training workshops, event experience, etc) you’ll raise the status of the music, and create more engaging and attractive gigs and events. You’ll also facilitate meeting, friendships, and potential collaborations between people of like minds, skills, and interests who have been divided through the recent war.
  • As the events become more professional, they will attract people from all cultural groups who will be attracted by the music on offer and to the idea of spending time in a safe, depoliticized space that facilitates meetings with people of other ethno-religious groups.
  • The performances of traditional music are also a platform for recognising all that is shared across the different cultures, as well as the value and interest of diversity. Performances and workshops are conceived as ‘culture learning’ platforms, where people can learn about other groups in a holistic way that encourages appreciation and engagement.
  • The combination of culture learning and meeting in depoliticized spaces, and the potential for new intergroup friendships and collaborations to be made mean that the Music Cooperation’s impact could also be considered in terms of building peace and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society. However, this potential outcome is somewhat speculative as it has not been sufficiently tested or scrutinised.

Initially I thought that the Contact Hypothesis (from Allport 1954, utilized by social psychologists frequently since then, and further developed through multiple iterations; Arild Bergh used it very effectively as an analysis tool in his 2010 thesis examining music and conflict transformation) would be a useful framework. Contact theory posits that mere contact is not sufficient for reducing prejudice. Certain conditions relating to the context of the contact act as ‘facilitating conditions’, so that mere contact becomes optimal contact. However, a drawback with contact theory is that, over time, the number of facilitating conditions has increased to the point where the actual contact experience bears little resemblance to the conditions that govern the more banal intergroup contacts that are likely to take place in everyday life.

Furthermore, definitions of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘peace’ are undoubtedly contested. People with vastly different lived realities (e.g. those living in the most war-affected locations, or belonging to minority groups) are likely to have differing ideas of what these ideals look like in their lived experience – so whose definition should be used when considering how the music activities have impacted peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka? Grappling with these questions has led me to a research design that lets the research participants (performers in the annual festivals, primarily) define peace and reconciliation at the outset, and then invites them to explore how – if at all – their lived experience of intergroup interactions, co-existence, and cooperation might have changed through the Music Cooperation activities.

The goals of the research are pragmatic. I hope to identify the key mechanisms and indicators for whatever changes are reported, so that this can inform and shape monitoring and evaluation. There will be other outcomes as well – such as building the evidence base that informs the program logic or theory of change (we may find we need to modify it accordingly). Also, the design allows for unexpected outcomes – things that are not currently part of the picture, but that are of importance to the participants, and therefore could be considered in future Music Cooperation programming.

Meanwhile, Colombo remains hot, hot, hot. Sometimes, travelling home on the bus at the end of the day, I make a mental list of ‘essential’ things I need to buy from the supermarket, just so that I can go and stand in the icy coolness of the local Food City for a few minutes to cool down and just not feel hot. They tell me it is only going to get hotter, these next few months. It’s the best reason I can think of to never buy groceries in bulk.

References:
Allport, G.W., 1954. The nature of prejudice, Cambridge, Mass : Addison-Wesley Pub. Co
Bergh, Arild. (2010). I’d like to teach the world to sing: Music and conflict transformation. (PhD dissertation), University of Exeter.
Dixon, J., Durrheim, K. & Tredoux, C., 2005. Beyond the Optimal Contact Strategy: A Reality Check for the Contact Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(7), 697- 711.

 

 

New project – music and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

At the end of last year I was awarded one of the Australian Government’s Endeavour Research Fellowships to develop a research project examining music development activities as a vehicle for reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Fast forward a couple of months and here I am in Colombo, sitting in a small apartment in a seaside suburb, getting my research project off the ground.

I’ve been here a little more than a week now. In that time, I’ve stayed in a guest house in the seaside suburb of Mount Lavinia, flat-hunted in two different suburbs eventually moving into a flat in Dehiwala, jogged on the beach at sunrise several times, eaten different varieties of rice and curry on a daily basis, attended a Carnatic Music Festival and a performance by the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka, and joined the masses at the February Full Moon Perahera (Procession) Gangaramaya Temple in central Colombo. I’ve also had long conversations with colleagues here, mapped my way through the different activities that make up the Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation [SLNMC], and begun to scope out what the research project should include.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation is, of course, the reason I’m here. It’s a partnership between Concerts Norway and Sevalanka Foundation in Sri Lanka that aims to revive and support traditional music practices, build practical and logistical skills among music industry professionals to raise standards of live performance (for example, supporting the skills development of audio and lighting personnel, music event management professionals, and field recording producers), and engage different sectors of society in music participation. The flagship events of the Music Cooperation are the Jaffna (in the north) and Galle (in the south) Music Festivals, held in either city in alternate years. The festivals attract tens of thousands of visitors, and gather together traditional and contemporary music performers from across the country. Other Music Cooperation activities include workshop programs in universities, a Children’s Festival, training for the next generation of folk musicians (i.e. children) to encourage them to feel proud and excited by the traditional instruments, music and dances of their local area and ethno-religious heritage, a radio program, development of a comprehensive online music archive, and partnerships with three national orchestras (symphony, youth, and oriental) based in Colombo.

So where do peace and reconciliation come into this program of music development? Anecdotally, in all sorts of ways – through the opportunities it provides for performers from around the country to be exposed to each other’s traditional practices and instruments, to present their music to diverse audiences, meet in safe, welcoming, and depoliticized spaces, and importantly, the chance to talk and potential form friendships and collaborations. For audiences, it is in the cultural learning, and the demystifying of the ‘other’ (for during the three decades of civil war, the northern and eastern parts of the country became increasingly cut off and isolated from the capital city, central, western, and southern provinces). The different activities have not necessarily been designed to explicitly address peace and reconciliation needs — they are music activities first and foremost, and they have broad appeal for this reason. But participants and organizers alike feel they have witnessed and experienced positive changes in intergroup relations during the 7 years (so far) that the Music Cooperation has run, and there is a pressing need to examine more critically what impacts the program may be having on reconciliation between country’s divided communities.

And that’s where I come in. My role is to document the changes taking place in peace and reconciliation outcomes, as experienced by participants and organisers across the range of SLNMC activities. I’ll be developing research tools to best capture these changes and also allow for unexpected changes and outcomes so that we get a multidimensional picture of the different ways these music activities may impact people’s lives. I’ll then write a report that can inform future NSLMC activities and establish the baseline for future program evaluations. I’ll be doing this alongside my PhD work which examines music schools in post-conflict countries. There are lots of contextual similarities but also anomalies, and I’m curious to see if and how the emergent themes from my PhD research might play out here.

That’s the broad brushstroke picture of what’s planned; we are now working to narrow down and tighten up the scope. I am only in Sri Lanka for three months (I’ll be doing the write-up in Norway when I am there end-May to mid-July). One very interesting development that I learned of this week is that the presentation I gave for Bangladesh Music Week (at the invitation of Concerts Norway) in November last year on music, human rights, and conflict resolution has inspired a group of students from the University of Peredeniya (Kandy) to initiate a research project on their Music Cooperation activities using Allport’s contact hypothesis as a framework (this was one of the theoretical frameworks I introduced in my presentation). Hopefully I’ll be able to work with them to shape this project and include it as a component of my research.

Gillian Howell presenting at Bangladesh Music Week - (c) 2015 Live Square All Rights Reserved

Gillian Howell presenting at Bangladesh Music Week – (c) 2015 Live Square All Rights Reserved

This is my first blog post in many months, and that is largely because life took so many unexpected turns for me in the last 6 months. Sitting here in my airy (but still hot) little apartment, ceiling fan spinning reassuringly overhead, hearing neighbours call to each other in the street below, my stomach full from the egg hopper with caramelised onion sambal I ate for my dinner, thinking about the project ahead, and the PhD, and the whirlwind of events that have made up my life over the last 6 months, I find I keep thinking, “Wow. What a life!” And what a privilege, to get to engage with things you really care about (music, and social justice) in such diverse and fascinating places. Here goes! More soon.

New publication on Music Interventions

One of the reasons that I’m not blogging very often at the moment is that I am deeply immersed in my PhD research into music participation projects in conflict-affected areas. That means that I spend most of my days (and many of my evenings) reading, writing, coding, thinking, and then reading and writing some more. I spend much of my time crafting words, including for various scholarly publications – book chapters, journal articles, opinion pieces, and so on. Sadly, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for blogging, which often requires a very different headspace.

Therefore, I’m very happy to share the news that the first of the various book chapters and articles I’ve been working on alongside my PhD has been published. The chapter, Music Interventions: Shaping Music Participation in the Aftermath of Conflict, appears in this volume:

Yearbook Arts Education 3 cover

In it, I outline the broad intentions that underpin many music interventions in post-conflict and conflict-affected places, illustrating how this looks in practice with examples from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This book, The Wisdom of the Many: Key Issues in Arts Education, was created through a very collaborative and democratic process.  The Editor, Shifra Schonmann, invited arts education academics and scholars from around the world – some extremely well-established, others like me in the early years of building their profile – to contribute succinct (2000 words) chapters on whatever we felt were the current emerging issues in research in arts education. Shifra used a ‘snowball’ technique for finding potential authors, asking the initial group of academics she approached to recommend a further five scholars each for inclusion. Each member of this expanded group then contributed a list of the critical current issues in arts education from their perspective. Later, we were asked to select one of these to write on.

The whole process took about eight months, from gathering the group of writers, to compiling the issues, proposing titles and circulating these, then writing the chapters, and reviewing each other’s work (which was a wonderful way of connecting with new scholars) – incredibly fast for an academic publication involving such a large group of writers (104)! Throughout, we were encouraged and guided by Shifra Schonmann, who deserves great accolades for the superb way she steered and maintained the publication’s steady progress, while keeping all of us so very involved throughout, and for the clarity and vision that conceived of the whole ‘crowd-sourced’, ’emergent’ publication in the first place. She really is quite a star!

Having read several of the chapters as part of the peer reviewing process, I can attest to the diverse array of issues covered (concerning music, art, visual arts and digital media, drama and theatre), and the great readability of the different chapters. If you are wanting to know what some of the ‘hot’ issues and emerging themes in arts education are in 2015-16, this book is going to be a great place to start. Click on the link below to see the Table of Contents:

Yearbook Arts Education 3 ToC

Then, head to Waxmann Publishers to purchase the e-book or paperback copy. Happy reading!

Art retelling life in Timor-Leste

Q&ALast night I attended a screening of Timor-Leste’s first feature film, A Guerra Da Beatriz (Beatriz’s War). The screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s co-director Luigi Acquisto, and co-producer Lurdes Pires.

It’s a very moving film. It presents a retelling of the old French tale of Martin Guerre, set against a backdrop of Timor-Leste’s recent history of conflict, with the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesians, the brutality of life lived under occupation, and of the early months of independence. In this tale, a man disappears during a war, returning many years later to his wife. All the others in their village believe he is who he says he is; his wife Beatriz realises that he is an imposter, but falls in love with this new man nonetheless. (I hope that’s not a spoiler; it’s a pretty well-known story).

The Q&A session offered some fascinating insights into the making of the film. The story is set alongside a number of real events that occurred during the years of Indonesian occupation. One of these is the massacre in the town of Kraras in 1983, when Indonesian forces killed all the men and male boys (including babies) in retaliation to an ambush on Indonesia soldiers by the Timorese resistance fighters. They filmed this part of the movie in the actual town of Kraras, and many of the members of the cast were members of the Kraras community. The female extras were women who had witnessed the massacre and lost their menfolk. The male extras included people who had been young boys at the time of the massacre who had survived the killing. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Reflecting on reciprocity, post-fieldwork

A few weeks back I wrote a post on reciprocity in research. In that post, I shared my resolve to find ways to engage my research participants in Timor-Leste in an exchange of knowledge and information of mutual value. I discussed with different organisations the possibility of leading training workshops for their staff, in order to ‘give something back’ to people, so that taking part in research was beneficial to them, as well as to me.

I did lead these workshops, and they seemed to be appreciated and valued. However, I also observed there were other ways that I could make a tangible contribution to people’s work and lives, simply through having conversations and sharing observations. Two conversations stood out for me as being of particular value to the participants.

The first conversation was at a remote rural school. In 2009, this school had been chosen by a local Catholic organisation to participate in a pilot music education project. Everyday for a week, all the students in the school had music classes, playing percussion instruments, and learning to read rhythms and perform in a piece. At the end of the week the older classes were invited to perform at a concert in Dili, at the Presidential Palace.

School in Timor-Leste

The teachers told me that they had understood that they would be given the musical instruments that the students had used at the end of the pilot project. They would be able to continue doing music with their students with these instruments. However, when the pilot project ended, the instruments were taken back to Dili. “We felt incredibly sad,” admitted one teacher. “We did music teacher training too, but without the instruments we didn’t really know what to do in the classrooms. It meant that everything just stopped.”

This story made me feel sad too. I knew that the instruments used in that pilot project were high-quality classroom percussion instruments, available to buy (if you have money) in Australia, but certainly not available in Timor-Leste. I also felt disappointed that, if the instruments were to be taken away, efforts hadn’t been made to ensure the training the teachers had taken part in modeled some locally-available musical instrument alternatives. (I acknowledge that there are many reasons why this may have been complicated to do at the time, particularly with traditional instruments in Timor-Leste and the rules that surround their usage; but I still feel disappointed to hear the teachers’ stories of essentially having their excitement and interest built up, only to lose what they understood to be the essential tools for the continuation of the project).

The teachers told me they had time to stick around a little longer, so I talked to them, via my interpreter, about the experiments with instrument-making that my partner Tony and I had done in Lospalos, back in 2010-2011. I told them how we’d discovered that our next-door neighbour had instrument-making skills, making for us a simple bamboo log drum called a kakalo. Kakalos were ‘work instruments’ – noise-makers traditionally played by children charged with guarding crops against foraging animals. I told them how, when he made the first kakalo for us, his own children seemed to look on in absolute fascination. It seemed to me that they didn’t know their father had these skills and knowledge. It was as new to them as it was to us.

Perhaps, I said, there are people in their own community who have similar instrument-making knowledge. They may not know about them. We found out about our neighbour’s skills because we were already experimenting with bamboo, and he was jolted into action after observing our (somewhat feeble, albeit well-meaning) efforts.

I played them a video I’d made that showed us making the kakalos, and the local children playing them.

The teachers were fascinated by this story, so next I showed them video of some of our other instrument-making efforts – making shakers by putting stones into empty plastic bottles, or making agogo-bells from empty plastic bottles pumped hard with air so that they gave a bell-like tone when struck with a stick.

The group of teachers were smiling and nodding a lot as this conversation progressed. At the end one teacher said, “I feel happy to have seen these videos and to get these new ideas. I feel like we shouldn’t keep waiting for things like instruments to come from outside. We need to just do it for ourselves.”

I also told them that, at the time of the music education pilot program, other music projects by this organisation had also stopped. I felt that I was picking up a sadness that they had been left behind because they are far from the capital city, that they had missed out because they are remote. I felt that it was important that they knew it wasn’t just them. This didn’t make their situation any better, but perhaps it would help them to feel less isolated or specifically disadvantaged.

On the road to the rural school, May 2014 (G. Howell)

On the road to the rural school, May 2014 (G. Howell)

The second conversation I had that felt like it was giving valuable information to the participants was with a young group of music leaders. They were members of a local rock band, and taught eager young teenagers how to play guitar, bass, and drums, three days a week at a local arts centre. I led a workshop on rhythmic notation with them and their students.

At the start of the class, and at the end, one of the members of the band said to me, somewhat apologetically, “we don’t really know anything about music reading, or other theory. We just play completely by ear.” In his voice I could hear a hint of feeling inadequate. I wanted to address this directly.

“You know, this kind of thing”- I gestured towards the pages we had filled throughout the workshop with music notation – “this is just one part of music knowledge. It’s not the most important thing. It’s useful, for sure, but there are other parts of music knowledge that are also very important. Things like playing by ear, and being able to copy and memorise, create harmonies, and make original arrangements and compositions.”

I told them that in fact, most of the world’s musical cultures don’t use music notation in their traditions. They didn’t know this, and looked surprised to hear it. I listed musical cultures from different parts of the world that don’t use notation. I didn’t want to downplay the usefulness of music notation knowledge, or to suggest they didn’t need it – if they are interested in learning it, then they should have the opportunity to do so, as far as I’m concerned!

But this was not the first time I had heard a skilled Timorese person downplay their own skills due to not knowing how to read music. It wasn’t the first time that I’d heard a hint that knowledge of music notation was considered by many to be the pinnacle of music knowledge – perhaps because not many Timorese people know how to read music. In the past, only those who studied in the seminary were taught to read music. I wanted to remind these guys of the very strong skills they already have, that they already share with their students.

I told them about the Musical Futures program:

“In the UK, for a long time the music education in schools was very focused on this kind of music learning – note-reading. But this kind of music was very different to the music that young people loved participating in outside of school, and students became bored, and stopped doing music in school. Then a researcher named Lucy Green did some research into how popular musicians – musicians that play rock and pop music – learned their musical skills. She discovered that they learned music by ear, from CDs, that they formed bands, and learned through playing with their friends.

“Now, in lots of schools in the UK, they are changing the way they teach music. They are getting the students to learn to play by ear, to copy from CDs, and to form bands. They are trying to teach them in exactly the way that you guys are already teaching your students!”

Later, on the way home I asked my translator what she thought the band’s reaction to this story was. She smiled and said without hesitating, or pausing for thought,

“I think they really liked it, because as soon as you said it was just one part of music knowledge, they started to smile a bit. And they were very interested to hear about this research in the UK. I think it made them feel more confident.”

These kinds of interactions are important. It is easy to forget how isolated many people in Timor can be from the outside world. It is rarely shared with them through their media, although increased access to the internet may see this start to change more in the future. Thinking about these post-interview conversations, it seemed like one of the most valuable things I could offer was to reflect a different version of themselves (and their knowledge) back at them, and to validate their efforts, or suggest manageable alternatives that they can imagine themselves doing. Showing videos offers a kind of proof that it is possible. And describing the situation in other parts of the world helps them to see their own efforts in a bigger context, and hopefully means they start to give themselves credit for all that they have achieved so far.

Back to Dili, 2014

Last time I was in Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) I spent most of my four months outside of the capital city Dili. That was in 2010. I had a total of three weeks in Dili at the beginning of my trip, during which time I attended Tetun language classes and jumped through the bureaucratic hoops associated with obtaining a visa extension (most of which involved finding the correct office, building, person, or form, and standing in queues), but otherwise I lived in rural towns.

I enjoyed the buzz of Dili for those first three weeks. There was always something going on. I stayed with friends and completed my Tetun language homework every afternoon with the help of local children. We would chat, and sing, and just hang out together on the veranda of my friends’ Dili house. However, I was only there for a short time, and I never felt like I got to know Dili all that well.

I feel like I have made up for this now, having just spent a month in Dili doing fieldwork for my PhD. I spent each day visiting music programs and interviewing individuals with interesting experiences to share with me. I caught lots of taxis, and grabbed meals wherever I was at the time I was hungry. I stayed with friends again, who drew me into their social circles, so I met lots of welcoming people, each engaged in interesting work, good for a story, and happy to offer suggestions for further contacts for my research.

At the moment in Dili there is a huge amount of building and construction work going on. Much of this must be completed within a tight timeframe, as it is part of an effort to smarten up the city in readiness for the forthcoming Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries [CPLP] Summit. Timor-Leste currently holds the rotating Presidency for the CPLP, and thus will play host to the Summit, which brings the Presidents and high-ranking officials from all the countries in the CPLP together. The Summit is scheduled for mid-July, and Dili is in the throes of major upgrades, renovations and improvements. Everywhere you go, roads are being dug up, at least along the routes that the Presidential vehicles will drive. Piles of rocks, stone and rubble are commonplace. There is huge amount of dust in the air, and many people walk the streets or ride their motorbikes wearing surgical masks.

Most striking is the shiny silver corrugated iron that has been wrapped around many sites, shielding them from view. Some say that these barriers are to give the turf that is being laid time to grow, and to “protect it from Timorese children!” (Poor little Timorese children, being scapegoated like this!). It may also be designed to hide unsightly construction sites from view.

Lighthouse wrapped in silver, Dili, June 2014

The corrugated iron is so shiny, and so silvery! It gives the city a slightly surreal, space-age look. It reminds me of the cake decorating accoutrements we had in my family in the seventies, in particular the frilly, silvery wrap-around-the-cake thing that we used to decorate family birthday cakes. It looks like Dili is being populated by multiple oversize 1970s birthday cakes.

A more disappointing outcome of the city’s current facelift and spruce-up is that the food sellers that used to congregate on the beach every evening, selling barbecued chicken and ‘fish-on-a-stick’, have been moved on. In fact, people have been warned that, by the time of the CPLP meeting, any non-permanent structure on the Beach Road will be dismantled. It seems such a shame to lose these street stalls. The food they sold was tasty and inexpensive, the stalls were popular with Timorese families and visitors alike, and they gave this stretch of the city a lot of personality and character. It is sad that these hardworking people would be seen as eyesores, or as creating an unsanitary environment, rather than as contributing to the unique and attractive qualities of the city.

I stayed near the Beach Road (it does have an official name, but everyone, locals and visitors alike, calls it the Beach Road). This road now has a nice paved pathway that runs alongside the beach. It’s a relatively new addition, and I was impressed to see the large number of Timorese people jogging along it in the early evening. I don’t remember seeing many Timorese people jogging or doing other fitness or health-focused activities when I was here last time. I remember feeling quite self-conscious on the odd occasion I donned my sports gear and went out for a fast walk or jog. But there are many runners now. I also saw them running, with great stamina and grit, up the mountain road at the back of Dili, heading up towards Dare. Dili has the Dili Marathon each year – perhaps they are in training for that. Exercising suggests an optimism and faith in a controllable future (just as learning to play an instrument suggests a similar act of hopefulness and optimism). These are important steps in a city’s recovery from trauma.

Beachside path for joggers

Four years ago, there weren’t a lot of places that had internet access. Now, it seems like many more Timorese people are connected. Facebook is the most common platform. But also, I would say that mobile phones and mobile internet access is perhaps more affordable and accessible now; there are now competing providers which has presumably brought the costs down for consumers. Timorese teenagers seemed as connected to their phones and messaging as any of their counterparts in Australia.

I think the arrival of Timor Plaza has also added to this access to internet. When I was here in 2010, Timor Plaza was a construction site. Many people I spoke to felt unconvinced about Timor Plaza – a big shopping mall, Timor’s first, with a posh hotel and conference facilities, and a cinema, and a food hall. Would the average Timorese person be able to go there? Would they be able to afford to buy anything?

But it turns out that Timor Plaza is quite a buzzy place to go. There are always lots of teenagers hanging around, taking advantage of the free wireless (it never worked when I was there, but apparently it is usually reliable), sitting around on benches with their netbooks and laptops, doing what teenagers are supposed to do in shopping malls (hang around and not buy anything).

It is also air-conditioned. And non-smoking! (apparently the owner is an passionate anti-smoker). There is a pharmacy there, and a couple of supermarkets, a food hall where I ate a wonderful chicken biriyani, and which also includes a gelato stand, flagship stores for Timor Telecom and Telemor (or whoever the other carrier is, I can’t remember their name), I think I even saw an Apple store there! You can get printing and photocopying done, and shop for gadgets, and traditional Timorese souvenirs… even have a music lesson (there is a shopfront private music school, where kids learn piano), or a massage or a pedicure or manicure. It’s a shopping mall. It appears to be a better fit for Dili than I (and many others) originally thought it would be.

Small music school, Timor Plaza, Dili

Small music school, Timor Plaza, Dili