Archive for the ‘jam session’ Tag

Musicians in the community

We have been made very welcome here in Djarindjin-Lombadina, a small and remote Aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite remote as it is only connected to Broome by 200km of unsealed, sandy road. There are two little shops, selling a small range of groceries and fishing gear. There is lots of green grass and many handsome trees.

On Saturday evening we took part in a community jam in the school hall with a couple of musicians from the Aboriginal community, three of the teachers (a pianist, a percussionist, and a singer-guitarist), and a crowd of kids. We jammed on various popular hits (Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Michael Jackson – those universal classics). We also played around with a 12-bar blues, inventing lyrics, getting the kids to sing, taking turns with the microphone.

The jam group

Saturday night Jam, Djarindjin-Lombadina (Gillian Howell)

It was a magic evening. I gave my camera to the children and they took photo after photo of themselves, doing hip poses and pulling silly faces. Lots of photos!

Posing for the camera, Djarindjin-LombadinaLittle boy Djarindjin-Lombadina

Where's the drummer gone?I asked one little girl to take a photo of the drummer for me. She came back with this photo, showing it to me on the screen at the back of the camera. “But where’s Willie?” I asked, showing her the photo. And she looked at it again and started giggling. I think Willie must have decided to duck down when she took the photo. She would have been standing in front of him for a while, taking care to set up her photo. Such a teaser! Yep. It was a fun night.

Apparently, this is the first time that this kind of music-making has taken place between the teacher community and the indigenous community, and the teachers were so, so pleased. I don’t know that we can take credit for it happening, due to our presence or influence – I have the impression that the local elders were already planning to have a bit of a jam around now, because they have a gig coming up next week. I think we were just very lucky that it happened on our first weekend. It was a wonderful way to get to know some of the children and just hang out. Music provides the meeting ground. We build rapport and some shared experiences, and hopefully we’ll be able to extend these when our project starts in earnest next week.

In any case, being musicians in a community isn’t just about working with the kids. It’s about contributing wherever we can or wherever it is wanted. We went along to Mass this morning (the school is a Catholic school, and the mission is an old Catholic mission, so those traditions are still maintained in the community) and played music for the start of the service. Neither of us are regular mass-goers, but it is an authentic and appreciated way for us to contribute to community life. It’s a very beautiful church, by the way. It has a roof thatch made from paperbark – one of the only remaining examples of this style – and it is 100 years old.

Lombadina paperbark church (Gillian Howell)

We have also talked with the teachers about their musical interests, and there are ways that we may be able to support the music projects that are part of their non-teaching lives here in Lombadina. At this stage, it is looking like the 12-bar blues could feature strongly in our end-of-residency concert, with solos for each teacher and a song created by the kids.


Final celebration

For our last day in Lospalos – Sunday – we knew we would have a Final Jam with all our regular participants. But I had a further plan in store – for the last few days I’d been making a list of everyone’s full names (Timorese full names tend to be very long and very Catholic), and Mana Kim had brought over a number of Many Hands International certificates with her, so on that last day we decided to present certificates to everyone.

Things took a dodgy turn early in the day when I showed Valda the list of names I had. There were a couple of spellings I wanted to check, but as Valda read through the list she started to exclaim and scold the two nearby children in tones of immense outrage.

Aat liu!” she shouted [=terrible; very bad]. “Very bad words they have written here!”

Oops. Looked like some naughty participant(s) had written some very rude words in Fataluku on my list of names, hoping they would get written onto certificates and called out during the presentation by some unsuspecting malae. Tony and I both had to suppress a giggle at the thought of this; but Valda was really appalled, and she insisted on writing the list out again.

The trouble was, when she gave her list to me, there were only 18 names on it. There’d been 52 names on the list I’d been compiling throughout the week – Valda had obviously culled some.

“I’ll still need the other list back,” I explained to her and the boys. They looked around them confused. What had they done with it? “I need to check it,” I told them again.

“But mana, very bad words,” Valda said. “No good.”

“I know, I know,” I reassured her. “It’s okay. But I still need to check that the real names are the same.”

The three of them then retrieved the list from the front garden, where it had apparently been screwed into a ball, ripped up, and flung out in many small pieces. We set out reconstructing it, tiny crumpled jigsaw puzzle that it was now, and eventually I was back to a list of about 40 names.

Even so, I had a horrible feeling someone would be left out, and as Tony and I wrote out the certificates, we kept a few blanks aside, just in case.

At presentation time, which was after our last local jam, all the children sat down on the verandah on my large workshop mat. They started by sitting in a circle, out of habit and expectation, but I told them they could use the whole mat, so many other children who’d been waiting at the edge of the verandah came and filled up the middle of the circle.

A small group of parents had also come along to watch (at the end of the Jam I’d asked the children to go home and bring back a parent or ‘significant other person’ to watch the presentation. A few had done this, which was lovely, as we had never really got to meet many of their parents). Tony, Kim and I stood at the end of the verandah facing the children on the mat. Sarah emerged from her malarial sick bed to be part of the proceedings too.

I held the stack of certificates, and read out each of the names. The crowd greeted each name with a round of applause and further hearty congratulations (eg. “Celestinu, yeeaah, whoooo!”), and the recipients stood up and walked to the front and shook first my hand, and received their certificate, then went on to shake Tony’s , then Kim’s then – quite often – Sarah’s.

It was lovely! Perhaps it was more formal than people might have expected for such an informal program of music-making on a verandah, but I liked the way it really did feel like an ending. Earlier in the week, I’d had the impression that, despite us talking about it as our last week, that we were soon to leave, people weren’t really taking it in. We’d come and gone from Lospalos a few times already in the recent months – perhaps people thought we were taking another short trip away. This presentation, late on a Sunday afternoon, had a sense of finality about it.

At the end of the presentation I looked across the group of children on the mat, checking they all had certificates. There was one boy who didn’t, and at this stage his big dark eyes were looking incredibly anxious and glassy, and he didn’t seem to trust himself to speak, he was so upset. I apologised to him, trying to reassure him that of course we knew he was part of the verandah jam group. I explained to everyone the confusion there had been with the lists earlier that day. We found out his full name and wrote a certificate out for him.

At that point, unsurprisingly, it turned out there were many among the assembled crowd who also thought they should probably have a certificate.

“Mana,” said one young regular to me, with great solemnity and authority. “This girl here doesn’t have a certificate yet.” The child in question was aged about 2 and I’d never seen her before. I explained to her benefactor that the certificates were really just for those who’d participated, and that she hadn’t actually participated in anything. I added, “She can have one next time we come, when she is old enough to join in. At the moment she can’t even read!” We kept writing until all the blanks were gone.

Certificates are important in Timor Leste. I don’t think people get to see their names in print very often, there is perhaps not a lot of celebration of people’s individual contributions or developent of new skills, and certificates are much-prized acknowledgements. People don’t mind what it is they are getting the certificate for, and they don’t get too old or mature for certificates. And are never too young, it turns out!


Lospalos, Tuesday, day 96

Today we finalised plans for the end-of-residency event – a Big Play, for anyone who wants to come. The venue is the Lospalos Old Market, which is in the centre of town. It’s no longer used as a market; it is a building that has a roof and floor, but is open at the sides. People will be able to hear us, and join in that way. But we are also planning to do a live performance on community radio tomorrow night as a way of promoting the event, spreading the word, and raising interest. I’m hoping we might be able to perform our verson of Forever Young – it has been coming together over the last few days with a small band of singers and instrumentalists playing guitars, chime bars and kakalos. It’s a shame the radio gig wasn’t confirmed at the time we did the songwriting workshop at the English class – we could have arranged for them to come to the radio studio too, to perform their new song.


Saturday 22 January

3pm Instrument-making

4pm Play

Playing slow, then feeling weary

Today I led a workshop for some secondary students and Orchestra musicians. It was a one-off event, they came to the Orchestra’s rehearsal studios, and we had a 2 hour workshop, aiming to compose something for us all to play together.

It ended up being a bit of a jam session. They had brought quite a lot of instruments with them – couple of violins, flutes, clarinets, a sax, several guitars, and electric bass and an electric guitar. We then loaded up with all kinds of percussion instruments, tuned and untuned, brainstormed some ideas of ‘things that are most important to us right now’. Then we divided into 4 groups to develop a vocal riff around any of these brainstormed ideas.

Each group created their own riff…. around this time my mind was jumping all over the place. I had originally imagined us breaking off into small groups at this point, building little pieces around each of the vocal riffs (working them into songs, and developing melodies from their rhythms), but the amps were a bit unyieldy, we had someone playing the studio piano, and, well…. it just seemed like it would be fun to keep this instrument combination all together!

So I thought we’d work up some arrangements for each of the vocal riffs. That was waaay too ambitious – this was just a 2 hour workshop! We started on the first one, and realised quickly that we had enough happening here to keep us busy without moving on to the other riffs. Here are the words we worked with:

Money does buy food.

Money does not buy family, friends or love.

We set it to a very laid-back, r’n’b groove. Two girls took on the roles of vocalists, and harmonised it oh-so-sweetly. I worked hard with a group of xylophone players, possibly playing instruments for the first time, helping them develop their own riffs and then lock into the groove.

Because it was a slow-feel piece, we had problems keeping it together. Slower tempos mean that rests last longer, and for young musicians it is hard not to jump in early, to anticipate the downbeat a bit. In fact, it is hard for everyone. We talked about the issue of playing slowly or not speeding up, and the following suggestions were made:

  • I think about going downhill on a bike, and how I have to keep my hands just lightly squeezing the brakes, if I want to stay in control of the speed. Keeping control of the tempo when you’re playing requires you to stay engaged with the music with your brain in the same way.
  • Our violist talked about feeling the beat with your body, moving with it, relaxing into it.
  • Our percussionist talked about feeling heavy… imagining an elephant stepping in time to this music, or a sense of stickiness on the floor… Letting the music feel heavy and weighted down.

We tried pairing up different instrumental sections, getting the players to listen to the other group with one ear, and to their own playing with the other ear. Listening for the anchor points.

It worked, by the end of the session our music was really holding together.

It was a lot of fun and felt very satisfying… still, once it was over and the percussionist and I had put all the instruments away, I felt thoroughly exhausted. I used to have more energy. I think I burned out this year. I wonder when I will get my energy back? I have it in the workshops, but it is this feeling of utter depletedness that I have once it is all over that concerns me.

Ideas too… I often feel like I have no more ideas. It’s not true, the ideas come, and I know they will come, so I don’t worry about this too much… but when I am wanting to plan, I just feel tired at the very thought of a workshop!

I am trying to cruise a bit, for the rest of this year. I need to. Hopefully next year I’ll have more to give again. Maybe once the thesis is written. Maybe that is the thing that has sent me so close to the edge (even though I love doing my research, and it is everything else in my life that has been pear-shaped this year)…

Here’s somewhere I wouldn’t mind running away (back) to… Belongil Beach again:


(Sigh)… not long to go now, until the end of term and the summer break. I’m not going away, but I’ll have far fewer projects to think about. Just my research thesis. 🙂