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Timor's veterans replay the music that lifted struggling spirits

Sydney Morning Herald - February 26, 2020

Nick Miller – "When you start singing those songs, the whole memory comes back to us," says former East Timor freedom fighter Domingos Gabriel.

The 63-year-old is better known by his nom de guerre "Berliku", given to him decades ago by then-future president Xanana Gusmao.

Through a translator, Berliku explains.

"I was always singing songs, all the time, and it really annoyed [Gusmao]," he says. "When we camped in the hills it was very close to the enemy, that's how it was. Gusmao was saying 'be quiet' all the time, because there are enemies everywhere, but I liked to sing.

"So that's why he named me Berliku lian Timor. Berliku is a bird who always sings."

Gusmao didn't bear a grudge. A poet as well as freedom fighter, he gave verses to Berliku to compose accompanying music.

"Initially the job was just to fight, to shoot the enemies," Berliku says. "But we realised too that music is a very important tool to help us fight the war.

"We lost a lot of comrades. Sometimes the morale was very low, the music was to build spirit in order to continue on the struggle. It was the only tool we had."

Some songs were rousing marching songs, others quiet and delicate, to be played in camps in the mountains and jungles without alerting the enemy (Indonesia occupied East Timor from December 1975 to October 1999, when the country voted for independence). They even recorded, in the caves.

"The music is part of history, and it is a lesson for the younger generation. It is important they understand how everything unfolded."

In 2014 the band Maubere Timor formed to revive, honour and preserve this music, from veterans and East Timor expats.

Berliku knows he's lucky to be part of it – he was shot twice and imprisoned for 16 years. But he survived to see his country's freedom.

"With music we have achieved our freedom," he says. "But also it allows us to remember those who were left behind, who got killed. We terribly miss those people."

[Maubere Timor play on Saturday, February 29, at The Spotted Mallard in Brunswick. Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.]

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/culture/music/timor-s-veterans-replay-the-music-that-lifted-struggling-spirits-20200226-p544jf.html