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Music and Outreach in Timor-Leste

If you use your gifts to serve others, you'd be amazed at how much you gain in return.

This was how I felt when I ventured into the young nation of Timor-Leste to share my music with the locals and support the work of long-term missionaries, and I'd love to share my experiences with you in this post.

Life seems to slow down in Timor-Leste, the people live in the moment and are incredibly genuine

Timor-Leste is one of the youngest nations and has one of the youngest populations in the world.

Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002, after 400 years of colonial rule under Portugal and a bloody conflict and occupation by Indonesia which claimed the lives of about a third of the population.

Walking through the streets of Dili, the capital city, you would immediately notice that majority of the people are young. Throughout my eight days in Timor, I think I could count the number of elderly I saw on both my hands.

The route from our accommodation to Timor Plaza, the only shopping mall in Timor-Leste

For a country that's been through so much in the recent years, the Timorese exuded a sense of hopefulness and genuineness that I found both surprising and pleasant. In other developing countries you'd quite often find locals trying to get more money from foreigners through tricks such as rigging taxi fares or jacking up prices to ridiculous amounts, but this was something I seldom found happening in Timor-Leste.


Up in the mountains of Maubisse: Renovar School

On our second day we quickly took a long and winding journey up the mountains to the town of Maubisse in Ainaro District. There we visited Renovar School, a humble establishment on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the magnificent mountains of Maubisse.

Breathtaking views of Maubisse

It was an action-packed day, and immediately after a long stomach-churning ride I was set to lead a 3-hour long music workshop with the teachers as well teach music to the young children who attend the school!

The guitar happens to be a very popular instrument in Timor-Leste, and many of the teachers in Renovar school already have their own instruments. There were two goals I aimed to achieve through the workshop - to teach the locals a song in their own language and the skill of reading chord notation. This makes lessons learnt both culturally relevant and sustainable in that they can continue learning new songs through reading chord charts.

As a foreigner coming in to teach a music, it is important that I be aware of what cultural influences I bring along with me. The music we played very much revolved around Western melodies and harmonies, but these influences have already been deeply ingrained in Timorese life. The song chosen was 'Keta Tauk', a worship song sung in Tetum which means 'Do Not Fear'.

By the end of our workshops, we were ready to record! Okay, it's not exactly a studio quality performance, but why should it be? Music is about the joy of expression and connecting people together - especially people from completely different walks of life such as myself and the Timorese, and our performance did exactly that.

The Renovar band performing 'Keta Tauk'


Ministering in Local Churches

Heading back down to Dili the next day, we visited two churches where Pastor Gabriel, whom I travelled with, was to preach and I was to share some music.

The first church was called Kamael Foun, the most unassuming little church in what felt like the middle of nowhere, deep inside a forest with hardly any development nearby.

Kamael Foun Church

It was surprising that despite its remote location, the Timorese worshippers faithfully travelled from near and far (mostly far) to congregate on a Sunday. During the service, Pastor Gabriel preached and I presented the song 'Keta Tauk' (Do Not Fear), as well as joined in playing guitar for the worship service. To my surprise the worship music was accompanied by grooving drum rhythms from a keyboard played by the virtuosic and gifted Pastor Toby!

The congregation of Kamael Foun, with Pastor Toby on the far right

At the end of the service we were presented with Tais, a traditional form of weaving in the form of scarves. The Timorese take a lot pride in this cultural heritage, and we were very honoured to have been presented with this gift. As someone who loves wearing scarves, I was delighted to have collected over ten Tais throughout my visit! These were from the various schools and churches we visited, as well as personal gifts from locals whom we had the joy of befriending more closely.

Presentation of Tais

Venturing back into Dili, we next visited Manancial Baptist Church, a relatively bigger church in the city. Again I joined the music team as a guitarist, and I was amazed at how exuberant the worship was. The congregation wasn't large by any means, but the Timorese seemed to feel no restraint in expressing their love for God through music.


Recording at the only Christian Radio Station in Timor-Leste

Perhaps the most unexpected thing that happened on this trip was the amazing opportunity to record music at the only Christian Radio Station in Timor-Leste. With the help of Pastor Rui, who throughout our trip graciously sacrificed so much of his time to bring us around, we ventured into Radio Voz 89.5fm to record a handful of worship songs on the spot!

From left to right: Pastor Rui, Me, Rio, Pastor Gabriel

One thing that struck me about this radio station was that it didn't really make sense. Amidst the social and political difficulties faced in Timor-Leste stood this humble radio station built inside a typical apartment. It seemed to have neither commercial appeal nor profit incentive, and when we first walked in it was all quiet and dark until the owner Rio came out to greet us. Turns out that Rio is a seasoned musician himself and is the man who wrote many of the Tetum worship songs sung in Timor-Leste today! His music and perseverance in keeping this radio station running is truly a labour and sacrifice of love and passion.

During our short visit I recorded about five songs in total, one of which was 'How Great is Our God' by Chris Tomlin.

Recording at Radio Voz 89.5fm


Spending time at Shallom School

The second last day we visited Shallom School, a girl/boys brigade school which was just opposite from where we stayed. Comparatively, this was one of the more relaxing days although we still ended up visiting every single class to share a song and meet the students! We spent most of the day just getting to know the teachers better and Pastor Gabriel played basketball with the students.

Playing basketball with students at Shallom School

As I'm not such a fan of basketball, I took a trip with Pastor Toby (who also teaches at this school) to find a native Timorese percussion instrument called 'babadok', a small hand drum traditionally played by women for ceremonies and festivals. I'd been keeping an eye out for this instrument the whole time I was here and I was so pleased that I finally found a good quality one!

Excitedly, I brought it back to Shallom School and asked some of the women to demonstrate playing the instrument for me. As each district in Timor-Leste has its own distinctive style and rhythmic pattern, it was eye-opening to witness each person perform on the babadok in their own unique way!

How to play the babadok

Taking this instrument home, I plan to study the traditional music of Timor-Leste and eventually create music incorporating these styles and instruments. It is my dream to collaborate with the Timorese in making music that embraces their musical culture, one that is increasingly fading away with modernisation and Western influence.


Visit to St Paul Methodist School

On our final day we took a long drive West of Dili to visit St Paul Methodist School, an English-medium school started by missionaries from Singapore. What was initially planned as a simple visit to see the premises turned out to be extremely eventful! The daily devotional topic was on 'discipline', and Pastor Gabriel taught a short lesson on perseverance to achieve your dreams while I shared my personal journey toward becoming a professional musician and presented the song 'Sovereign' by Chris Tomlin.

Presenting the song 'Sovereign' at daily devotional

What followed next was both invigorating and exhausting. We ventured into four different classes to meet the students and conduct music classes. As this school was an English medium school, it was appropriate to teach the song 'Sovereign' to them. I was amazed at how quickly and enthusiastically the students caught the song, singing at the top of their lungs on the very first try!

Teaching the song 'Sovereign' in the classroom

One of the classes was of younger children, and as much as I enjoy teaching young inquisitive minds, it's really much more challenging for me! I decided to expose the students to new and interesting instruments and sounds such as the Peruvian panflute, and proceeded to lead some activities using simple rhythms and actions.

Teaching music in a children's class


Final thoughts as we headed home

Where we came here in an effort to bless the Timorese people, by the end of our short trip we felt so immensely blessed in return. The Timorese people are incredibly perseverant and amidst their many daily challenges they retain a genuine sense of hopefulness and joy. To me, someone coming from a rich and developed country, this doesn't seem to make sense at all. But on thinking a little harder, perhaps it does. As Christians, God does not promise a life without suffering, but amidst this suffering there is joy and hope, and this was what I saw lived out by the Timorese people.

Special thanks:

I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation to everyone who accommodated and sacrificed their time and energy to befriend us throughout the trip. Thank you to Pastor Rui, Pastor Toby and Essy, Johny Amorim, José, Sandra and Joao Guerreiro, David and Jessie Chan, and all the teachers at Renovar school, St Paul Methodist School, and Shallom School.

Written by Neil Chan


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