Creating a Circle of Music with the Children of Timor-Leste

Tomo Yamaguchi

In November 2012 the Japan Foundation organized an arts and cultural exchange program aiming to strengthen friendship between Japan and Timor-Leste through music. The music performance and workshop event for the young people of Timor-Leste, conducted by singer Sizzle Ohtaka, violinist Yuriko Mukoujima, and myself, was held as part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two countries. We also wanted to make it an opportunity to express Japan's appreciation towards the Timorese for their recovery support in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Children enjoying themselves to the hilt

Our first performance on this tour took place at Venilale girl's orphanage in Baucau, and we had 84 children and students aged 3-13. I was astonished to see how innocent and free the children were. Back in Japan, children tend to become self-conscious and withdrawn as they reach the pre-adolescent years, shying away from expressing themselves openly, but our audience here was not at all like that. And it wasn't only the young that amazed us; the adults were outgoing and friendly, too, and seemed to have no inhibitions about having fun. Apparently the Timorese are not all that concerned about how others see them, and it was a bit of a culture shock for us.

The children's fun-loving spirit was most evident, for instance, during the music workshop. They made a musical instrument out of a plastic bottle, filling it with beads and other tiny pebbles. These were shaken and rattled to make sounds. It seemed that they had never worked on a project like this before; the children were beside themselves with excitement, while they were working on the craft and playing music with their new instruments. I had a great time with the kids, forgetting all my worries at those moments.

As we performed our concert, I could tell the children had been eagerly looking forward to this day. When we invited them to sing along with us, their loud, cheerful voices resonated throughout the room. Their enthusiasm in turn took us, the performers, into full gear, and before we knew it the concert was over. Everyone in the room was united in enjoyment of the show, and we all had a wonderful time.




Following Baucau we headed to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, where we held a music event at Saint Peter High School. The high schools here correspond to Japanese middle and high schools (seventh to twelfth grades). Although the students were older than the children we met earlier at the orphanage in Baucau, we encountered the same innocence and sincerity at the workshop and the concert.

On the occasions I have conducted similar events in Japan at middle and high schools, many of the students struck me as extremely fragile and sensitive. I imagine it might be something to do with having stressful lives. Compared to them, the Timorese students were much more open about expressing their joy. It was evident they were having a great time with the craft-making and enjoying the performance from the bottom of their hearts.


Expressing oneself openly with the whole body

Another thing that made a lasting impression on me on this tour was a joint-performance we had with the local percussion group Haka. The group belongs to the artists association Arte Moris, located in Dili, and is comprised of young men with a desire to help build a peaceful society by uniting their countrymen through music and art.

At Arte Moris we set out to perform a Japanese song called "Yashinomi (Coconut)." It seemed the band had rarely had opportunities in the past to play music in a jam session with other musicians, but as we practiced together I could feel a bond developing between the players. The experience was extraordinary.


The Timorese I met, even the adults, were not the least bit inhibited about expressing their emotions and feelings using their whole body. Their attitude made me reflect on our own society and wonder "Aren't we Japanese missing something important in life?" If we all could be as sincere, open-hearted and straightforward as the people I met here, I doubt there would ever be a conflict.

The more we indulge in modern comforts, and the more convenient our society becomes, the harder it gets for us to maintain some precious dimensions of being fully human, to hold on to our innate emotions and senses. My time in Timor-Leste gave me a glimpse into what I feel is the natural state of humanity.

All the same, I couldn't help notice that the slow but steady signs of economic progress were emerging in the towns and cities of Timor-Leste. It is my heartfelt wish that modernization will not rob the warm and sincere spirits of the Timorese.

Only time will tell how the seeds of cultural exchange we planted will sprout, grow and blossom into flowers. The project has just begun, but I am looking forward to planting more seeds in as many different places as I possibly can.

music_east_timor06.jpgTomo Yamaguchi
Tomo Yamaguchi is a Tokyo-born percussionist. He started his musical career as an assistant to singer Hiro Tsunoda, and made his debut in 1980 as a member of the band "Hiro Tsunoda and JAP'S GAP'S." After the breakup of the band, he participated in tours and recordings for numerous famous artists, including Miho Nakayama, Miki Imai, Ken Hirai, Tatsuya Ishii and Circus. His experience working for the musical "Ginga tetsudo no yoru (Night on the Galactic Railroad)" in 1995 inspired him to create an original musical instrument out of waste material. Since then, he has entertained audience of all ages with his unique performances using junk-made percussion throughout Japan. His role as joint MC with singer UA on NHK's education channel Doremi no terebi, which was broadcast from April 2003, won him popularity for his distinct character and musical talent. He has made numerous appearances on TV shows.
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