Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: Ego Lemos, musician, environmental campaigner

Weekend Australian

March 7, 2009 Saturday

THE FACE - Ego Lemos, musician, environmental campaigner



IT'S hard enough being an independent musician in Australia, let alone in East Timor, one of the world's newest nations. Venues are scarce, radio coverage minimal and there are no record labels or recording facilities to speak of, not to mention a lack of quality musical equipment and sound gear. Added to these considerable disadvantages is the struggle to be heard above the mainstream sounds favoured by the international peacekeepers and advisers who were such a visible part of East Timorese life before and after independence in 2002.

Throw in the might of Portuguese fado and Indonesian pop, the legacy of East Timor's colonisation and occupation, and the barriers to local musical expression are abundantly clear.

Despite this, a fledgling East Timorese music scene is emerging, with Ego Lemos the brightest star to break through. The acoustic guitar and harmonica-playing singer-songwriter is the closest thing the country has to an artist of Archie Roach or Paul Kelly's standing, to use Australian equivalents.

Like those artists, his music has a keen social message that resonates with its hearers; because he wants to connect strongly, Lemos sings in Tetum, the language of East Timor, as well as in English. If you want to categorise it, Lemos's heartfelt music would be called folk, although you can also hear some fado in it. Lemos has been influenced by early Dylan, too, and it's not too much of a stretch to call him East Timor's Bob Dylan.

His latest song, for instance, deals with the Balibo Five, the Australian, New Zealand and British journalists who were killed in 1975 in East Timor. Like Dylan's Hurricane, about the jailing of former world heavyweight boxing champion Rubin Carter, it expresses Lemos's feelings about what he considers a great injustice. It's being considered for use in Robert Connolly's new film, Balibo, starring Anthony LaPaglia, which is in post-production in Melbourne.

Lemos evolved his sound at the Arte Moris (Living Art) artist community, gallery and school based in the old National Museum buildings not far from Dili's Nicolau Lobato airport. Here the self-taught guitarist honed his musical skills and became exposed to the political and environmental ideas that would become so important in his life and work.

Arte Moris is East Timor's version of Andy Warhol's Factory in New York in the late 1960s, with musicians mixing it with painters, sculptors and actors to come up with radical, innovative ideas. Participants include Timor's leading drama group Bibi Bulak (Crazy Goat) and dancers from the Kabala traditional performance group.

Another important group is Galaxy, a band that plays an intriguing blend of reggae, metal and rock; it has scored a debut European tour for later this year.

Lemos was born in the hillside hamlet of Alieu, about an hour outside of Dili. He started his music career in 1997 playing rhythm guitar in popular Timorese band Cinco do Oriente, an act named after a notable group of the same name that lost members during the 1975 Indonesian invasion and occupation. Like many East Timorese, Lemos also lost members of his immediate family during the occupation, including his father.

``It was scary using the [Cinco do Oriente] name because the Indonesians knew of the band's history, but it was also a real honour,'' Lemos says. ``When the Indonesians pulled out in 1999 they destroyed our musical equipment. We were left with only one acoustic guitar.''

Following independence, Lemos played with a re-equipped Cinco do Oriente at Dili's waterfront bars and clubs, and later toured Australia with the act before going solo in 2004 and finding early success, particularly in political contexts. He is a committed environmental campaigner and co-ordinator of the Permaculture Timor Lorosae organisation, and uses his music to spread the word: his first composition told ``how hard life is as a Timorese farmer''.

``One of the first places I visited was India to play at the World Social Forum [a gathering to discuss globalisation and sustainable development],'' Lemos says. There, in 2004, he met politician and musician Gilberto Gil, then Brazil's minister for culture, who invited Lemos to tour his homeland.

A Make Poverty History concert in Scotland and a peace rally in NZ followed, as well as a tour of Japan last year.

``I got involved in environmental studies in the mid-'90s at Dili University. Even years before the Indonesians left, we were formulating our ideas on how we wanted an independent East Timor to protect and rejuvenate the land. It is very important that our grandchildren do not suffer for the decisions we make on land use today,'' he says.

``Eighty per cent of the population's livelihood is based on agriculture. We want government agricultural policies that will benefit small farmers and not hurt the environment. Many Timorese are already alarmed at the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism on our agricultural system.''

PTL is trying to encourage the reintroduction of traditional agricultural techniques, Lemos says, and he has written several books on Timorese permaculture that he hopes will helpfarmers to break free from reliance on aidhandouts.

He admits feeling the weight of representing his nation to audiences across the world. ``I feel very responsible presenting East Timor in a good light. I am always on my best behaviour and try to put on the best show I can.''

The father of two is also studying for a masters degree in international community development at Melbourne's Victoria University, meaning he spends the bulk of his time in Australia, although he regularly returns to Dili to perform and for his environmental work.

Lemos was recently signed to Darwin's Skinnyfish Music and is recording his first disc for the label. (He has made a couple of small-budget independent recordings.) Skinnyfish's biggest star is the ARIA-winning indigenous singer-songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who last year toured Australia with Lemos. ``Playing with Geoffrey was fantastic,'' he says. ``To see him perform every night was an honour for me. He is a very charismatic person and an inspirational musician.''

Skinnyfish founder Michael Hohnen signed Lemos after seeing him play in Darwin 18 months ago. Struck by Lemos's energy, Hohnen felt he had ``something unique to offer ... Ego is a singer who represents not only his own people but a positive window into his own country through beautiful, simple folk songs.

``Our label presents and supports indigenous artists, [but] up until now [has] only worked with Australian artists. To work with people from a place so close to Darwin, yet so different as people, is special, and I know Australians seem to have genuine empathy for East Timorese. I hope his album presents another insight into these people.''

Ego Lemos appears at WOMADelaide

this weekend. His recording is due for

release mid-year.

Journalist Paul Stewart is the brother of Tony Stewart, one of the Balibo Five.


Big break: Being asked to join Cinco do Oriente.

Career highlight: Representing East Timor on the world stage and showing there is another side to my people. We are not a violent people.

Career lowlight: Too many people in my country don't support our own musicians. They say we are always drinking, smoking, fighting and are uneducated. They give us no respect. It is very disappointing. I see my role as changing this perception.

Inspirations: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and the late East Timorese singer-songwriter Francisco Borda DeCosta.

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