Subject: Ego Lemos, musician, environmental campaigner
March 7, 2009 Saturday
THE FACE - Ego Lemos, musician, environmental campaigner
PAUL STEWART meets 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
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
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
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
Journalist Paul Stewart is the brother of Tony Stewart, one of the
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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