Subject: East Timor looks back to Brazil for songs of freedom

East Timor looks back to Brazil for songs of freedom


DILI--Helder de Araujo's radio program starts at 1 p.m. For the next two hours, from the air-conditioned cool of his new, white-painted, state-run studio, Helder takes requests--typically from high school students: "I want to wish all the people out there good luck with their mid-term exams!"--and pumps out Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB), Brazilian popular music.

Before East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, Helder would have played a very different kind of show--most of the music you would hear was Indonesian disco, known as dangdut. These days, while independence has not always brought peace--East Timor continues to be wracked by sporadic violence--it has liberated the nation's music tastes.

Nor can there be any doubt as to the music of choice; Brazilian beats have taken the whole country by storm. The people of East Timor have been drawn not only to MPB, but also merengue (dance music originating from the Caribbean) and kizomba (a mixture of samba and African rhythms).

MPB originated from a merging of traditional urban music styles like samba and choro and contemporary rock in the late 1960s. It is, of course, sung in Portuguese, the official language of Brazil. And it is this that makes MPB's popularity in East Timor all the more interesting.

Helder, 38, is also a singer. When he first started singing in fourth-grade elementary school, he sang in Indonesian, in Tetum (the local language in East Timor), or in English. He was educated in Indonesian. He hardly knew any Portuguese songs.

"I couldn't really understand the lyrics, and I didn't know how to pronounce the words," Herder said.

However, as a professional singer, he had to sing what people wanted to hear. And so, in 1999, when it was officially decided that East Timor would be granted independence, Helder went to night school, taking Portuguese lessons three times a week.

It was difficult. "Portuguese is so different from Indonesian, it has complex tenses," said Helder. "It was far more difficult than English." But he persevered, trying out his newly acquired skills on his parents who had been educated when the island was still under Portuguese colonial rule.

East Timor was first colonized by Portugal in the 16th century. After Portugal decided to withdraw from East Timor in 1974, a civil war broke out between those who sought independence and those who wanted to be annexed by Indonesia.

Indonesia invaded in 1975, and declared East Timor's annexation a year later. The area remained under Indonesian rule until 1999 when it relinquished control of the territory. East Timor's independence was officially recognized in May 2002. Now, the official languages are Tetum and Portuguese. However, Indonesian is still widely used.

One of the first songs Helder mastered in his new tongue was "Lambada," which had been a big hit worldwide in the late 1980s. Before independence, 80 percent of Helder's repertoire was made up of Indonesian songs but now he estimates that 90 percent have Portuguese lyrics, and are mostly Brazilian imports.

Helder performs every weekend. One of his favorites is a merengue song, "Angelina." The lyrics go: "Please come back to me/ my heart is on fire, I long for you/ I am calling you/ but you are not there."

Lui Manuel Lopez, 40, is an enthusiastic fan of the song. "Helder has such a sweet mellow bass, and it matches the song perfectly. When 'Angelina' comes on, the crowd goes wild," he says.

"Helder can sing all the current hits from Brazil, no matter which genre," enthuses Lopez, who asked the singer to perform at his wedding. "There is no one quite like him."

Anito Matos, another East Timor singer, is five years older than Helder.

Matos was one of the last generation of East Timorese to be educated in Portuguese. At the time, most of the popular songs were sung in Portuguese, too.

"Actually we preferred the Brazilian music, with its faster beats, to the Portuguese. It was easier to dance to," Matos remembers.

"For the generation that remembers the colonial years under Portugal," he says, "Brazilian songs are nothing new." Matos has recently released a CD of his own, made up of Brazilian songs.

However, under the Indonesian regime, anyone who used Portuguese was in the danger of being labeled a "separatist"--an activist seeking independence.

Naturally, Brazilian music went underground. "So when independence was officially decided and we could sing all those Brazilian songs again, I felt a rush of nostalgia," says Matos. "It was the first time that I felt we were truly free."

It wasn't just Matos who remembered the old songs. Nadja Matoso served as the vice consul at the Brazilian Embassy in Dili from independence up to April this year. He was surprised to find that "oldies" from his homeland were being sung in East Timor.

"I discovered that Roberto Carlos's old hits from the 1960s were very popular. Many songs, long forgotten in Brazil, were very much alive here," he says.

Then came new blood. Around the time of independence, military and civilian personnel for the United Nations peace keeping operations arrived, and NGO staff and language teachers followed. Many from Portugal and Brazil brought new music with them. Music stores in Dili are still stacked with pirated copies.

"As the music was so cool, it soon spread among the young people," Matos said. "It was just a shame that most of them couldn't understand the lyrics, but Portuguese hadn't been spoken here for 30 years or so."

But the songs may be bringing their language back with them. At the San Carlos nursery school near the great cathedral in Dili, 320 children are studying Portuguese by singing Brazilian songs.

"Children have an ear for languages. They have fun during the process, so they master it quickly," says Elizabeth, 56, the Indonesian principal.

Two years ago, the Brazilian Embassy in East Timor arranged for 25 Brazilian student volunteers to teach Portuguese at a university in Dili using Brazilian music. The six-month trial was such a success that the Brazilian government plans to implement the project in earnest by the end of this year.

For people like Matos, the freedom to speak--and sing-- in Portuguese is further proof of East Timor's liberation.

"In 10 years time," he says, "we will be able to feel that the Brazilian songs are our own."(IHT/Asahi: August 23,2006)

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