Archive for the ‘East TImor’ Tag

Research and reciprocity

When I lived in rural Timor-Leste (East Timor), I observed a researcher approaching the local people for interviews. She took care to explain to them that she was a pesquisadora, using the Portuguese word for researcher seeing as no such word exists in the national language of Tetun. She had information sheets to give them (as is required by university Human Research Ethics Committees), written succinctly and translated into the local national language.

It was difficult to tell what meaning the research participants drew from her explanation and the subsequent interviews that took place, which were ethnographic interviews related to their experiences and opinions of particular recent events. They may have wondered what was so interesting about this everyday stuff? Moreover, how would this research be of use to them in their lives, after the researcher had completed her research?

Discussion and planning

On Friday last week I attended a seminar about doing ethnographic research and heard a very interesting presentation on doing fieldwork in a remote community in PNG (Papua New Guinea). Working in Development Studies, the researcher was exploring environmental risk, and talking to people about the way their lives had been impacted by a large mine operating near their village lands.

I asked him about how he had explained his work and purpose. What did they understand he was doing there?

In response, he said that there was quite a long history of researchers coming to these small remote villages, usually connected to the mining companies or development organisations. Therefore, the villagers were “used to” research, and familiar with research processes, so they were unfazed by his presence or by the research interview process.

Later, he mentioned that when he was preparing to leave the village at the end of his 3-week fieldwork visit, people began to ask him when he was coming back. It became quite a heated conversation, he said, that took awhile to resolve. He was a self-funding Masters student, and with his fieldwork completed, there was not necessarily any need for him to come back, so he hadn’t made a plan for this.

But if the villagers had a concept of research formed by their prior experiences, where ‘researchers’ generally came to do an assessment or evaluation of some kind, that would be followed up by some kind of material change, it’s not surprising that they associated research with follow-up visits, and tangible outcomes of some kind. In other words, “research” was conceptualised as ‘questions followed by action and outcome’.  What should the researcher have done when this expectation revealed itself?

These questions are of particular interest to me at the moment, as I am preparing to return to Timor-Leste to undertake fieldwork for my PhD. TImor-Leste is a very poor country, where many people live traditional village lifestyles (or are strongly influenced by these traditions) and access to formal education for many people has been extremely limited. I can see that it’s critically important that I am able to communicate what I am researching, why I am doing it, and how I will do it (through interviews and asking about people’s experiences, opinions, and memories) in ways that make sense to the people who I am inviting to participate. It’s also important that I ensure I give back as well as ask for things, in order to acknowledge and reciprocate the time, knowledge, and energy given to me in interviews. I need to do this in some way that is of relevance and value to the research participants.

This has also been pointed out to me by contacts in Timor-Leste. “We are happy to help you, but we ask all visiting researchers to contribute to our learning environment in some way, with seminars, workshops or trainings”, said one contact in a university. Another, from an arts organisation, was even more direct:

“We have had a few ‘PhD students’ in the past who fly in, ask lots of questions, don’t give anything back (skills, shared experiences etc) and then fly out again… with us (who are very much in need of skills sharing/exposure to international music/arts/whatever) left feeling a little ripped off. Know what I mean?”

I am therefore planning and imagining reciprocal offerings that I can make to the communities where I conduct interviews, and plan to talk about and agree on these early in the negotiations. My research concerns music learning and participation, and my research interviewees are for the most part people with a strong interest in music. I am therefore hoping to share my skills as a music leader with them and their communities by leading workshops or projects, so that the research visit becomes more of a cultural and knowledge exchange, rather than something more one-sided. Reciprocity is a core cultural value in traditional Timorese society, but it also just makes sense as the right way to honour the effort that someone is giving you and giving value in real-world (their world) terms.

Nose rub with village elder

Teaching music for well-being

I’ve given five presentations over the last couple of months and many of these have discussed my ideas about teaching music for well-being, rather than simply for excellence. A striving for excellence is in fact part of well-being, so rather than being alternative approaches, a focus on well-being is simply a broader, more inclusive understanding of education.

The first presentation I gave, right before I left Melbourne for five weeks in Singapore, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brisbane, was as guest speaker for the Scotch College Music Auxiliary Annual Luncheon. Scotch College is one of Melbourne’s most privileged private boys school, with a superb track record of training young musicians, and with some of the best resources and infrastructure (eg. a state-of-the-art, purpose-built music school) for music in the country. I was asked to speak about my music work with refugee children and in post-conflict countries – environments that are typically very poorly resourced in comparison to the Scotch College facilities!

These are the notes from that talk, with some of the videos I played to illustrate my ideas. I note here the huge influence that music therapy researcher Even Rudd’s ideas on qualities of well-being supported by music participation have had on my thinking. They have allowed me to condense what for me have been quite broad, detailed, and endless ideas of music’s beneficial impact under four neat headings.

Scotch College presentation notes

We are all here because we believe music is important. The reasons why we think music is important might be very varied across this group –because beliefs about what music is and why it matters are usually culturally-constructed, informed by the environments we have grown up in and our life experiences thus far.

I believe music is important because of what it can to contribute to human well-being. I see music as an important part of human flourishing, and that everyone has the right to engage in musical participation and development, and to express themselves freely in music. Music is an essential and universal part of being human. It’s not just for the talented!

My work as a music leader, educator, and facilitator is about drawing people together to make music, and I do this is all sorts of contexts using improvisation, composition and other creative approaches – with symphony orchestras, with arts centres and community centres and music academies that want to engage with communities in creative and participatory ways and build flexible musicianship among their professional musicians.

What I want to talk about today is the experiences I have had in working to bring people together through music who have been through some of the most extreme human experiences. I’m talking about children and young people who have been through experiences of war and conflict, and how music participation can support them to increase their sense of wellbeing in body and in mind.

I believe that music participation contributes to wellbeing in four key ways, and each of these four ways are in great deficit in conflict-affected communities:

Bonding and belonging – music brings people together in order to play, and the act of sharing music together can create experiences of social connection that can be very enduring. Music participation can therefore increase experiences of social connectedness, and create social networks.

Vitality and pleasure – music makes people feel happy and relaxed, in their bodies and their emotions. Playing music allows people to ‘lose themselves’ in a state of flow, where time passes without them really noticing. People forget their worries. Dopamine fires up, oxytocin is released, and the body is flooded with feel-good hormones.

Agency – this is to do with a sense of oneself as valuable, as having the capacity to contribute and develop, having a voice and being able influence others even in small ways. The idea of mastery and excellence is contained within this quality of agency – the sense of achievement and therefore pride that can come through developing new skills and learning to do something difficult that takes time, patience and focus. It also includes a sense of recognition and visibility – important when many of life’s choices have been taken away from you.

Meaning and hope – this quality refers to the sense of identity, empowerment and transcendence that can come through participating in music. The meaning of the music experience has resonance and relevance beyond the musical act itself. Committing oneself to learning new skills, and the investment of time and focus that learning an instrument or being in an ensemble requires is a hopeful act. The act of hoping is a health-promoting process in itself. In “Musicking” (1998) Christopher Small talks about the act of making music as a kind of ritual in which we enact a version of the world as we want it to be.

There are three main places I’m going to talking about – post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I worked in 1998 as a musician in a large community music therapy and education centre; in Melbourne with newly-arrived refugee children; and in rural Timor-Leste.

When I worked in schools and kindergartens in post-war Bosnia, children were extremely traumatised. They had experienced many deprivations and traumatic events, had trouble sleeping, maintaining concentration, with temper, and anxiety.

Music in such a fragile situation is a very secure, friendly, self-regulating activity. People participate if they choose and at the level that is comfortable for them. We learned to recognise all kinds of levels of participation – from heads down, eyes shut, to extremely hyperactive participation. Shared group music-making could bring those extremes together into safer, healthier expressions, through emotional entrainment, and energetic or rhythmic entrainment. Music helped children to feel a little safer, more relaxed, and less on alert.

(This video shows Professor Nigel Osborne and some of his team of musicians at work in Mostar in 1996)

When I returned to Australia, I began working as an artist-in-residence with English Language Schools in Melbourne, which have quite high intakes of refugees and humanitarian entrants. These are schools for new arrivals, and support them to learn English and prepare for classroom learning in mainstream schools.

Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 290

Many of the children arriving in Australia from refugee backgrounds had had little or no access to schooling. They had finely honed survival skills but had very little experience in manage themselves in a classroom or group learning situation. Their experiences had taught them to be very self-focused, to be alert to opportunities, and to push others out of the way if necessary, in order to not miss out. Skills like taking turns, or making lines, or not fighting to solve problems, need to be learned, as do looking at the teacher, focusing attention for longer periods of time, and listening.

Music can help with all of these skills, as well as with establishing and reinforcing language and important vocabulary. The opportunity to play music created lots of excitement and happiness. No matter how little English a child knew, they could participate meaningfully in music, because it is not language-dependent. They can participate by looking and listening, and copying what they see others do. Children who struggled in academic subjects like developing literacy would often shine in music, often because they had been exposed to lots of music in their communities.

Playing music was the motivation for learning to work as a team. In music the children discovered the intense joy and satisfaction of making sounds in a simultaneous way. I would construct the composition work slowly over many weeks, using strategies that got children creating all their musical ideas and then weaving these into a larger structure. Hearing the music take shape in this structure was the motivation to take turns, or listen carefully. And without effort, they would find themselves concentrating for long periods of time.
Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 227
Most importantly, music made the children feel happy and relaxed. Class teachers often reported seeing a new student smile for the first time in the school when they were in a music session. Creative music workshops were also social experiences – I use lots of games and playful tasks to get the children to experiment and take creative risks, so there would be lots of laughing and interaction.

In 2010 and 2011 I had the opportunity to return to a post-conflict country to work as a musician – I was invited to spend four months as a visiting artist in a rural town in Timor-Leste. I developed a program of community music projects that evolved very organically, on the veranda of the house I was renting.

We made instruments out of local materials and according to traditional design, and over the weeks we learned how to play together and connect with each other through music.

This video shows one of the short projects that I led there, in the last week of my residency. These clips come from a series of consecutive days, and lead to a live performance on local radio. You can see the sense of agency, mastery, vitality, bonding, and personal meaning that is taking place here.

This year I’ve embarked on the next stage of my journey in exploring the relationships between children and music in conflict-affected society. I’ve started PhD research into post-conflict music interventions – schools like the one I worked with in Bosnia that were set up as part of post-conflict recovery. Next week I fly back to Bosnia to interview former participants of the music projects I worked on. They are young adults now. Next year I will similar research in Timor-Leste, and in Afghanistan, where an amazing institution of music has been inaugurated.

Finally, I urge everyone here to remember the importance of music to each of us – not just for a well-rounded education, or the mental discipline that may stand us in good stead for future challenges, but because it contributes so deeply to the wellbeing of all people, and can play a profound role in the journey back to wellness for people who’ve gone through major traumatic life experiences.

Post-colonial tensions in music-making and learning

A second theme that wove its way through both the Community Music Activity commission seminar and the main ISME conference in Greece this year was that of the (musical) tensions that continue to play out in post-colonial contexts between the former colonisers and the colonised, and the value of indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing alongside Western knowledge. It is a big theme and a complex one, but when I reflected on the two weeks’ presentations it was interesting to see how often it emerged, even if the post-colonial tag wasn’t part of the paper’s title or abstract. My reflections here consider specific projects in Brazil, South Africa, Timor-Leste, indigenous Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

On the first day at the CMA seminar, we heard about a project in Bahia, Brazil, to give wind players of the many community bands throughout the region some expert tuition in playing their instruments. Presenters Joel Luis Barbosa and Jacob Furtado Cantao explained that these ‘band courses’ are provided by the Brazilian government and involve teachers from the city conservatories and schools of music. However, the experts tend to come from a more formal, ‘concert music’ playing tradition – a legacy of the era of Portuguese colonialism, connected in style and approach to European/Western art music.

In contrast, the community band players are self-taught, or have learned the rudiments of their instrument from other players in the group. They haven’t studied music formally. (We watched some video footage of the bands playing and of individuals playing. The clarinet sound had a wonderful freedom to it – big, solid, bold colours with which they ripped up and down arpeggios, or crooned insouciant melodies). Continue reading

Discovering the magic of books

Recently I put together what is probably my last Timor-Leste video – and my first iPad movie creation! It shows the book-making project that my friend Victoria Ryle (from Kidsown Publishing) led on the veranda of the Lospalos house in November 2010, with a group of local children.


Timor-Leste is a country with extremely low levels of literacy, particularly among the adult population (though there are now improved stats coming in for school-age children, which is very good news and testament to the hard work in building up the school education provision across the country in the last decade). There is not a strong book culture among the general population as far as I could tell – what books are available for sale are in Indonesian, and hardly any books are published in the national language of Tetun. The Alola Foundation has published/sells a small number of children’s books (3-4?, possibly a few more) in the national language of Tetun which I bought in Dili and took with me to Lospalos. Beautiful classic children’s books by wonderful authors like Mem Fox (you’ll see an image of one little girl pouring over a copy of Whoever You Are, as if she is trying climb into the pages). But the lack of books for children to look at means that children rarely get to see their national language in print, telling stories that are relevant to their own lives. A children’s book in their local language, Fataluku, is almost unheard of!

When Victoria and her husband Simon came to stay with me in Lospalos we decided to hold an impromptu book-making workshop. Children came along and were invited to draw pictures of things they liked, to paint and colour them, and to have their photograph taken. All of this visual material went back to Melbourne with Victoria, and less than 2 months later, two books had been created. You can see examples of the books on the Kidsown website here and here.

When the books arrived at the end of January, we held an impromptu Reading Club on my veranda. Children gathered together to read the new books, and the books I’d bought in Dili. Those who knew how to read, read to their younger peers. Children read aloud to patient, listening adults. The youngest children watched and listened, and many of them held books for the first time, learning to turn the pages when prompted.

The video shows photos of this book-making and book-discovery experience. The great news is that Kidsown Publishing has continued to work and run workshops in Timor-Leste, working in partnership with the Alola Foundation, Ministry of Education (Government of Timor-Leste), Many Hands International and World Vision. The books are part of a larger literacy and children’s literature initiative, and the flexibility of community publishing is giving the possibility of publishing books in local languages, supporting young children to develop literacy in their mother tongue first.

Talking about Timor Leste

I have a presentation coming up soon, as part of the Arts Education 2011 Colloquium series at the University of Melbourne. If you are in Melbourne, please come along:

Date:         Monday, 1st August, 2011
Time:         5.15 – 6.45 pm
Venue:      Frank Tate Room, Level 9, 100 Leicester Street, Carlton

Toka Boot [Big Jam]: Four months making music in East Timor

From October 2010 until the end of January 2011, musician Gillian Howell undertook an Asialink artist residency in East Timor [Timor Leste]. This presentation describes – through words, pictures and video– the fruits of that residency, and some of the challenges that arose. From a concert for Human Rights Day in Baucau, to informal jams with children on the veranda of her house, to workshops in kindergartens, language classes, and remote mountain villages, Gillian’s experiences revealed much about what it can be to be a musician within a community.

Gillian’s experiences also reveal the complexity of being an outsider in Timorese society. She considers this with reference to Timor Leste’s legacies of centuries of European colonialism, brutal years of occupation, times of conflict and times of fragile peace and UN Administration, and how this history has influenced Timorese interactions with malae [foreigners].

This was not a research project, but a documented music residency in a remote community. Gillian reflects on her experiences as a practitioner working in this somewhat isolated environment, with descriptions drawn from her online journal (, illustrated by films and photographs taken during the residency.

Presentation – integrating Timorese music into workshops

Last Friday night I gave a short talk and video presentation to the Melbourne East Timorese Activity Centre in Richmond, inner-city Melbourne. This is a group of Timorese and Australian activists and Timor supporters who meet at the start of each month to hear about various initiatives and developments taking place in Timor, to eat together, and keep in touch.

As you can imagine, it is a lovely group to present to. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge in the room, and also an appreciation for all the work and initiatives that are taking place in East Timor. I decided to focus my presentation on the ways that I’d integrated the aspects of Timorese traditional music that I’d learned about during my residency – songs, instruments, stories – into some of the workshop work I was doing there. I created three new videos for this presentation, showing the gradual transition from a song or story being learned, to being integrated and then shared more widely.

I got some very warm and appreciative feedback after my presentation. Several of the Timorese people talked about how important it is that the traditional culture is maintained. However, they said, “We don’t really know how to use it in workshops like this. It’s an important way that outside visitors like Gillian and Tony can contribute and assist us. There are lots of music people in Timor, but they don’t have these skills of working with children and large groups of people.”

Here are two of the new videos I presented that night. The first one shows the integration of a traditional song into workshops – from the first time I learned it sitting on the back of a truck:

The second one shows a Musical Story-telling project I led in Lospalos, about the nearby Lake Ira-Lalaru:

The only time I visited Lake Ira-Lalaru (which is enormous), it was flooded, and the causeway that you travel across by car proved impassable. Here are a couple of photos from that day, taken through the car window:


New videos – songwriting about human rights

I’ve just finished editing two more videos from my East Timor residency, October 2010 – January 2011. These videos show footage from The Right To Play, a music and songwriting project I led in partnership with Afalyca Arts Centre in Baucau. The project was my first in Timor, and the musical outcomes were truly memorable. The songs were generated through discussions about human rights and children’s rights. The children played local instruments made from bamboo, drums, guitars, and chime bars brought from Australia.

You can read the descriptions I wrote at the time about the project’s creative process here (Day 1), here (Day 2), here (Day 3) and here (Day 4). Otherwise, please have a look at these two videos. The Right To Play, part 1 shows some of the work in progress towards the creation of the first song, Moris [Birth].

The Right To Play, part 2, is a collection of photographs from across the four days of workshops, backed by our second song, Education, where the children sing about all the things that an education offers a child.



Forever Young in Fataluku

Here is another video from my four months in East Timor. One of the enduring songs during my time in Lospalos was the pop song Forever Young. Initially I decided to translate the song in the local Fataluku language (with the help of local people of course) as a gift for the teenage girl who cooked all my meals for me, because she liked the song so much and wanted to know what the words meant. Later, the song took hold with the group of young people who used to gather on the veranda each afternoon for a jam session.

I created a simple accompaniment on the chime bars for the song, and a teenage boy volunteered to be our Chief Guitarist. We ended up performing our version of this song live on local radio one evening.

This video shows the progression towards that performance:

More songwriting in East Timor

I’ve just finished editing another video from my East Timor residency. This one shows clips from the songwriting workshop I led at the local English language classes in Lospalos. About 40 students took part, and elected to write a love song.

Songwriting can be a very engaging and interesting way to encourage people to use the English that they know. They discover that they know more words than they expect, and they also learn new words very quickly, because they use them in context straight away, and attach them to music (which helps embed them in the memory).

I loved the sentiment of this song. Favourite line?

I’m happy because I found another love.

We met at the market, buying some bananas.

Of course! What better place to chat up a new love interest than at the banana stall? You can read more about this project here – it’s the post I wrote at the time of doing the project.

Songwriting in Timor

My current evening task is to edit footage from my Timor residency, in order to present some of the ‘themes’ and projects that emerged while I was there. It’s wonderful to watch all this footage with the bit of distance I have now – I’ve been back 2 months this week. I feel like I am only just starting to digest my experiences, and to put them into succinct story form so that when people ask me, “So, how was Timor?” I have coherent things to say!

This video is from Baucau, and shows the initial songwriting workshop I did with the women’s centre there.


And this video from Lospalos shows some of our instrument-making activities. I love the energy and activity that this footage shows.