Agence France Presse — English
Nelson da Cruz
DILI, Dec 6 2007
East Timor may be fiercely independent but its music scene is infused with international flavour.
Long-haired fans of Indonesian rock rub shoulders with dreadlocked reggae-lovers who sing in their native Tetum, while those who can afford televisions tune in to American MTV.
Imported music — mostly from former coloniser Indonesia — dominates the airwaves, blaring on the dilapidated public buses, on radios in restaurants and via satellite dishes on residential buildings.
In Dili, a group of “slankers” — the nickname for fans of Indonesian rock band Slank — have changed the name of the road where many of them live to “Gang Potlot,” the band’s headquarters in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.
A black-and-white mural of the band’s five members adorns the entrance to the road, along with portraits of reggae-king Bob Marley and a large cannabis leaf.
“Members of slankers like us prefer Indonesian songs like those by Slank, we are big fans of them. They are great musicians. Their music touches the grassroots,” says 30-year-old Luis Pereira.
Pereira spent a year in prison in 1997 for his involvement in the rebel movement against Indonesian rule, but harbours no ill will towards East Timor’s powerful neighbour, preferring to cast the occupation days into history.
“For us in Gang Potlot, we are against violence. We prefer to work, play music, study rather than be concerned with politics,” says Pereira, who has even made a pilgrimage to the band’s headquarters in Jakarta.
— ‘I only have one hope for East Timor: peace’ —
In another Dili quarter, two dreadlocked young men are painting murals on the walls of Arte Moris, or Living Art, the seaside capital’s art and culture centre, as a Bob Marley song plays in the background.
Melcior Diaz-Fernandes, 24, is hanging out at the centre after practising with his band, local reggae outfit Galaxy — short for “Gabungan Lelaki Sial,” which is Indonesian for “Group of Unlucky Men”.
Their favoured genre, he says, is “hip metal,” a Linkin Park-style blend of hip hop and heavy metal, along with reggae.
“Hip metal moulds and strengthens our personality on stage, and we like reggae because Jamaica has a similar history to Timor,” he says, referring to East Timor’s past as a Portuguese colony until Indonesia’s 1975 invasion.
“Bob Marley freed his people with his beautiful music,” says the tattoed rocker with a pierced tongue.
“I only have one hope for East Timor: peace.
“We are a small country with a small number of people. It is clear that everyone is related, we should be peaceful,” he says, in an allusion to civil unrest last year on Dili’s streets that left at least 37 dead.
International peacekeepers remain in the predominantly Catholic nation of one million to maintain security.
Deputy culture minister Virgilio Smith is unfazed by the obsession of many young people with foreign music.
“This is a natural phenomenon: a singer will find a style of music in line with their character. If youth prefer foreign music, it’s because of their spirit,” he says.
He also concedes that the tiny nation does not really have its own music industry, though he urges people not to abandon traditional music.
“Leave some love for our traditional music so we won’t forget our own identity,” he says.
Instruments comprising a traditional East Timorese ensemble include guitars, violins, flutes and “babadoks” — a kind of percussion instrument — with vocals sung in Tetum.
The flutes and babadoks are strictly East Timorese but the remainder were imported by the Portuguese.
The government plans to open a music school to help boost the popularity of traditional music, as well as cultural centres to accommodate and mobilise music groups so they can develop their art, the minister says.
— ‘We will play this music because it’s our identity’ —
Some groups maintain their passion for traditional music such as locally renowned group the Smith Brothers.
The seven-member band plays modern music but at the same time continues to develop a traditional music practice.
“We keep playing traditional music because it’s like a mandate from our seniors,” says member Rui Alexio, who is in his early 20s, referring to earlier Smith Brothers band members.
“They became popular because of playing traditional music, so we will play this music because it’s our identity.”
The Smith Brothers were popular before East Timor gained independence in 2002 and were once closely monitored by Indonesian intelligence for playing underground independence songs.
Former president Xanana Gusmao hired the band to help his party during his election campaign this year.