On the phone, 5:30pm

Multi-talented East Timorese artist Ego Lemos was in Australia at the 2010 Darwin Festival last week. Ego is internationally known for his award-winning song, Balibo, which was the soundtrack to the movie of the same name.

He has also recently released his debut solo album, O Hele Le, which features beautiful folk songs in Tetum, the East Timorese national language. I spoke by phone with Ego about his achievements as a musician and environmental campaigner for the Timorese people.

Tell us about your two concerts at the Darwin Festival. How were they received and what performance material did you focus on?

It was my second time at the festival. My performance was well received. I tried to engage the audience and get them singing along. At the festival, they also organised a special forum for me to talk about the environment, business and sustainable practice. At the forum, I tried to engage the business people to be more socially responsible and try to ensure they have a conscious and responsibility on the product that they create.

How well known do you think East Timorese music is known internationally?

For artists who live in Timor and release albums outside of Timor, [I think] there is only me. In Dili, the album is quite well spread and well-known.

What were your desires when you first started creating music and what are your desires now? Has music taken on a different role in Timor since independence in 1999?

During the Indonesian occupation, my music was more about peace and trying to engage East Timorese people to be together. After independence, my music has developed in different ways. I started to write songs about the environment, because of the environmental destruction in Timor. Then I became involved in working with communities in East Timor, I learnt more from the communities about traditional rhythms. These things gave me the inspiration to write the album.

In your debut album, O Hele Le, you write your songs in Tetum, yet you also speak Indonesian, Spanish, English and Portuguese. What role does the Tetum language play in defining East Timorese nationhood?

I think it is so important for Timorese people to sing Tetum or in local dialects. Language is a strong connection with people’s culture. If we sing in our language we are attached to the people. It is important to promote the language through music because is a very powerful tool. It means the language will never die.

I always like to write simple songs with a strong message that everyone can pick up to sing. Elementary school kids are singing the songs now and even in the universities, when they are doing graduations or celebrations, they always play my music, it is like an anthem.

What role do you think the film Balibo has played in bringing the struggles of East Timor to the world? Do you think the focus on Australian journalists undermined the East Timorese story?

In 1975, I was just 3 years-old, so I didn’t remember the event itself. After independence, I was asked to write the song for the film. I wanted to find out about event, so I read the story of Balibo.

When I read the story, I thought it wasn’t about the five journalists, but about journalism as a whole. If you look in the translation of the lyrics of the Balibo song, I didn’t mention the name of any of the journalists or the name of the country. I was thinking about the broader idea that every journalist will risk themselves in the same way.

How did winning the 2009 APRA Screen Music Awards for your song Balibo change your musical career? Has it brought about more recognition?

When I knew that I won, I almost cried. It’s privilege because it is the first time in Timorese history that a Timorese artist is nominated for an award outside of Timor.

This award will influence the way East Timorese people think about musicians. They don’t think musicians can do transformations and make change. That’s why I feel so happy about the award.

After independence in Timor, you founded East Timor’s first permaculture centre, Permatil, which you lead for five years. What is your role in Permatil now?

I’m still very active with Permatil. I’m no longer a coordinator but I am a mentor. I want my presence there. I still go to remote areas to help communities and to give them moral support.

You have spoken about the centrality of water to life and the important role of the peasant farmers in East Timor. What main challenges do you think the Timorese face?

Well, 85.4% of the Timorese population live in rural areas. Their livelihood is based on agricultural and forestry. The problem is that they are eating one or two type of foods only, like white rice. We are relying on importing rice and the country is spending on fertilizer, pesticides, just trying to produce rice. Also, the whole local market is flooded by cheap local imports.

The farmers work so hard and they can’t sell their produce. It’s bad for the social life of the people. Many people who live in rural areas have to move to the city because they can’t make any money in the rural areas.

What did you think of Julia Gillard’s proposal to have an asylum seeker processing facility in East Timor?

I think the proposal isn’t appropriate for East Timor at all. We are a small country, we just got independence and we are thinking about developing the country for the future. We are trying to sort out people’s trauma and depression in post-conflict and we haven’t gotten over that yet.

Finally, where can we see you performing next?

I think after Cairns I will go back to Timor, and I will be in Australia again at the next Bellingen Music Festival.

You can find more about Ego Lemos’ music and environmental projects at www.egolemos.com.