Arts & Culture

From Timor Leste to Festival of Open Minds, Bega choir offers friendship through song

Elka Wood 5 September 2019
A spontaneous rehearsal in the ruins of the Portuguese Customs Post at Betano. Photo: Supplied.

A spontaneous rehearsal in the ruins of the Portuguese Customs Post at Betano. Photo: Supplied.

A 22 member choir from Bega, the Belun-Melu Choir, has just returned from 10 days touring Timor Leste in a “pimped up bright green minibus with no air-con,” making friends and have made life long connections to our closest neighbouring country.

The goal of the group was simple, choirmaster and Executive Director at Four Winds in Bermagui, David Francis says.

“Everywhere we went, we tried to show people – we are here to make friends through singing, and that message was very warmly received, often people would burst into applause while we were singing. ”

The most common request was “sing it again,” David says “and after hearing it once, they could join in.”

The choir sang to and with thousands of people while they were in Timor, at both pre-arranged concerts and in exchange for hospitality or in spontaneous rehearsals or village concerts.

The group learned two songs in the native Tetun and were taught a third while they were there.

Former ABC presenter, Tim Holt, was one of the travellers.

“East Timor is a Catholic country and most adults only sing in church,” says Tim “but we are not a sacred choir, so we took a nice assortment of songs which included our take on Nick Cave’s ‘The Weeping Song’ and Paul Kelly’s ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air.’

The dusty, bouncy "pimped up" bus which took the Bega choir through waist deep river crossing and along roads "which were not there." Photo: Supplied.

The dusty, bouncy “pimped up” bus which took the Bega choir through waist-deep river crossing and along roads “which were not there.” Photo: Supplied.

But while they are not a church choir, Tim and David say that the whole group reported many moments of feeling a spiritual presence.

“I chose the music carefully,” David says “because even when no-one was listening, I felt like we were leaving a footprint of song around the island. There was one rehearsal when we were singing a song called – How Long? which asks a series of questions like – how long until peace? and we all just stopped and stood and felt the impact of that song in that place.”

The skill of the Timorese people in learning through listening is particularly impressive because of the way their traditional music is different from western songs.

“East Timor is an islander nation and their harmonies run parallel, if you listen, it’s that very distinct islander sound. Our harmonies cross so we sound different and they were very interested in that,” David comments.

But the most surprising thing for the group was how their demographic was received.

“Timor-Leste is our closest neighbour and has a fraught history, having been occupied first by the Portuguese and then the Indonesians, finally gaining independence in 2002,” Tim says, “and one of the most striking things about it is that the average age is 17.”

Brogo local Don Firth entertaining the infants school near Balibó. Photo: Supplied.

Brogo local Don Firth entertaining the infant’s school near Balibó. Photo: Supplied.

The fact that past violence wiped out most adult men meant that the choir, sporting about half men over the age of 40, made an impact on local people in ways that surprised the travellers.

“Anyone over 30 is considered older,” Tim comments, while David adds “there was this overwhelming response to the age of our singers before we had even opened our mouths.”

The Bega choir’s trip will be followed by a 15 members Timorese choir travelling to Australia in 2020, led by Ego Lemos, “The Paul Kelly of Timor-Leste,” according to Tim, and Choir Master Paolo Pereria.

“Locally we have raised nearly $15,000 with a local target of $35,000 or more,” Tim says “and an overall goal of $65,000 along with friendship groups in other parts of NSW and Victoria who will host the Timorese choir while they are here as well.”

You can hear the three Tetum songs of the Belun-Melu Choir in Bega at Parklight, from 6 pm on Friday, September 13 in Littleton Garden, the launch event for the Festival of Open Minds which follows at the Bega Civic Centre on September 14.

Check out Belun-Melu Choir and follow the Bega choir on Facebook for more information about upcoming fundraisers.

What's Your Opinion?

One Response to From Timor Leste to Festival of Open Minds, Bega choir offers friendship through song

Joan Nelson Joan Nelson 9:14 am 06 Sep 19

So looking forward to hearing the choir at the Festival of open minds

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