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An interview with Ego Lemos, ecological and human rights activist, and singer-songwriter.

Ego Lemos is a musician-activist from Timor Leste. A biography published in the website of the Australian label skinnyfish reads “(R)egarded as a significant East Timorese community member, Ego has lived through three tumultuous periods of his nation’s history. He has interpreted and modernised some of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching traditional melodies from his nation’s history, and produced a wreath of original songs in the Nation’s lingua-franca, Tetum. He sings about issues such as the centrality of water to life, praises the nation’s peasant farmers in their unceasing toil, and urges his people to remain positive and strive for unity. In July 2011, his friend Shalmali Guttal, a researcher from Focus on the Global South caught up with the songwriter in Timor Leste’s capital Dili for an interview which was published in the Focus on the Global South website ( More on Ego Lemos and his music at

Interviewer: Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South
July 17, 2011 Dili, Timor-Leste

Pressing Issues for the World

In my point of view, something very crucial for all of us around the world are the environmental problems that this planet is facing. My message to people–especially leaders of every country—is, think wisely; don’t think only how to create benefits for business without thinking about the impacts on the environment—this is why we have the climate crisis. We need to support every living thing in this planet. As world citizens, everything we do will give impacts to each other—whether we do good or bad things, they all have impacts. We have one atmosphere, one water, one air.

What happened in Japan this year with nuclear power gave us so many lessons. The world needs to think about energy sources that do not harm the planet. This is the concern that everyone must have. In Timor-Leste, people follow the news but only think that Tsunami is the major cause of disaster in Japan this year. Only small numbers of people are aware that nuclear power plants are also creating disasters. Therefore, every decision of our leaders make about the types of energy sources they adopt will have impacts. Now, we are thinking of using heavy fuel as one of our energy sources in Timor Leste. Not many countries are using this heavy fuel; my concern is that, this power plant can result in negative impacts on air, water and soil quality, and human health. We will need more money and time to address these impacts but we have no guarantee that we will actually be able solve the problems that arise. Always, we think that this is a cheap way to invest in this kind of power, but we ignore the longer-term impacts, which will actually be more costly to us.

Before the Japanese disaster, so many scientists said that nuclear power is safe and does not produce pollution and carbon. But the raw material for nuclear power is from sources that we should not use. Mining these sources creates terrible environmental impacts and if a nuclear disaster happens, we have no way of knowing how far the radioactivity spreads. In the area of the nuclear power plant that was destroyed by the Tsunami in Japan, radioactivity has spread, local food and water have been affected, and there are miles and miles of areas that have been contaminated.

As world citizens, we all need to have strong connections with each other and pressure our leaders to rethink how to build our countries and choose ways of building our countries that benefit the world as a whole.

Music and Activism
At present, I work mostly with farmers and young people. I am a singer and a musician, and I try to share whatever I can with people, especially with Timorese people.

Music is a great tool to influence events and things. It is very powerful and can influence so many people. Timorese people love music and dancing. From the beginning, as a singer and song- writer, I tried to write music about the environment, unity, the country and human rights. I wrote songs about and for farmers. Now my music is played in almost all the radio stations in Timor-Leste and I get many invitations to play in other countries. This is a great opportunity for me to share ideas with people in other countries.

Before I play, I tell people stories that show connections between our lives and the environment. Before I go to a country, I learn about the country so that I can express my thoughts to the local people and share their concerns. The German government now says that they want to reduce and eventually stop nuclear energy by 2015 and invest more in renewable energy. This is great news and a very important step. But the government did not make this decision themselves, the German people pushed for it. So at my recent concert in Germany, I congratulated the German people. If what the German government says becomes a reality, it will be a great lesson to us to follow.

I also write songs about issues that are important and inspire me. I have been very concerned about human rights and human trafficking. I read a lot about it and wrote a song, It’s My Right To be Free. Before the Japan disaster I wrote a song called Let’s Fix the Earth, and I performed it in Japan in Nagoya, Kyoto and Tokyo in 2010. These two songs are in English. I also wrote a song called La Via Campesina in English, to tell people about the peasant movement, what they are trying to achieve, and about food sovereignty as the way to solve hunger around the world. Most of my songs are in Tetun, but I try to translate them to english so that many people can understand. But music is universal; even if someone does not know the language, listeners always appreciate music and songs that are genuinely from the musician’s heart.

The Balibo song is the heaviest song I ever wrote. If the song just comes out of my head, that is ok, I can just write it. But in the case of Balibo, I read the history and saw the footage of the film, and I felt so heavy. It brought back memories of the occupation, the massacre, and how so many people died during those times. I could not sleep, reading and remembering the horrible stuff that happened to people. But then I decided that I have to write something down or I won’t feel comfortable. And one night at 3 am, I woke up and the tune and lyrics were in my head, because the whole situation was so sad. I was in Australia, studying for my master’s degree, so I had some distance from the actual area. I was away from home and it was the right moment to write the song. I did the first draft that night from 3 am to 7 am. I sang it over and over again and finally said “that’s it”. Then I translated it into English and sang it in exactly the same way as in Tetun. I recorded the song and sent it to the film director–this was in 2008. At that time, the film director was on holiday and did not reply. When he came back we recorded the song and it came out well. Then the song got nominated for the Screen Music Awards and I did not even know this till a journalist asked me about how I felt that my song had been nominated in the top 5 for the award! Then the media asked me how I would feel if I won the award, but I said, being nominated in the top 5 was already enough for me. This was the first time that a Timorese was nominated outside Timor. Then the Screen Committee emailed my manager and asked him if I could perform live at the awards night as a guest performer. I performed Balibo. But before I played the song live, the Committee announced that I had won the award.

Major issues for Timor-Leste
What makes me sad is that so many young people have left the country. They leave their villages, come to the city and go to work overseas—North Ireland, England and South Korea, mostly working in meat or chicken factories. In South Korea, Timorese labourers are also working in factories and fishing boats. I went to North Ireland last year when I was on a European tour and went to visit my cousin. I could see that they were not happy.

Why is it that Timor-Leste has so much money from oil and gas, but we cannot create employment here? We are sending our productive young Timorese abroad to work and importing labour from outside to work here.

In 2007, we started permaculture scouts in Dili and they have now spread to rural areas. The first permaculture camp was held in 2008 and more than 400 people came from all over the country. They stayed for 4 days and learned many different things: permaculture, survival, tree planting, etc. When they left they cried–they said it was not enough! When I came back from my master’s studies, we did a camp in 2011 and that was even bigger—there were 532 people. The average age of the people who came to the camp was 15. There were Timorese people and some outside visitors also, and it was for 5 days. There were even more activities in this camp; everyday we had 15 activities happening. There were workshops and skills training on how to make compost, save seeds, make tree nurseries, design gardens, build structures with wood or bamboo, make good soils on hillsides and so on. On the last day, they just brought water and walked out of the camp; they had to learn to read maps and find their way. Along the way they were given clues of what to do to find the next clue, and so on.

The last activity of the camp was a challenge for the scouts: to come down the hillside on a rope, swim and walk in swamp like a buffalo. It was so much fun and the people were so happy; I could see it in their faces. And I thought “wow!” These young people just need people to orient them. These scouts are now initiating mini-camps in their own areas: Meinaro, Atauro island, Maliana, Aileu, Same, and also in one of the Universities in Dili, called UNPAS/ University of Peace. And now every week, we have activities and lessons or classes here at the Permatil office. We also facilitate the Permascout secretariat here at the Permatil building.

In 1996/97, I joined the student movement. In our group we had different sections – some learned about herbal medicine and there was one section on agriculture, which I co-ordinated. We called it organic agriculture at that time, and it was an underground movement. Then I worked for Fokupers[1], co-ordinating humanitarian aid for women victims who had been prisoners. After the massacre in Alas (Same district) in 1998, there were many IDPs[2]. So my work expanded and I worked with Yayasan Hak/ Hak Foundation[3], not only for women but also for all victims. The Indonesian military left Timor-Leste in September 1999. In late November 1999, a permaculture volunteer named Steve Cran came to Timor-Leste and introduced me to permaculture and we started to work together. We named the organisation ETPDI (East Timor Permaculture Development Institute). Then I resigned from Fokupers and Hak, and Steve and I started doing training in Permaculure. In 2002 I set up Permaculture Timor-Leste (Permatil).

Permaculture is a philosophy of combining human beings and nature to work together. All permaculture practices are about linkages between human activity and natural processes. Its about sustainable agriculture and sustainable cultures. This system exists in every country but with different names. Bill Morisson and David Holmgren coined the name Permaculture in Australia in 1978. The reason I got so interested in it is because I found that it is very related to my beliefs and what I was trying to do.

The last message I want to highlight is that we need to support farmers in every country to connect with each other and share their knowledge with each other about sustainable agriculture and traditional knowledge. We have to claim back our traditional knowledge, protect our lands, seeds, genetic resources and water, and win back our rights of what we want to eat and grow. The world is now facing food and economic crises because those with capital control our world. But we need to change this. If we allow capital to rule the world, it will create disasters and this planet will not live long. We need to reunite the world.

The Permatil motto is: Care for the earth, care for the people and care for the future of Timor-Leste.

Sabi Nila (What our listeners say)

Dear Koyang Jess and the Village Idiots (I hope I get the name of the band right),

I am totally impressed and moved by your efforts to share music as a form of social transformation. I was with you during the ACSC in April in Indonesia and since then I have been wanting to share your efforts to my colleagues here in the Philippines and in Asia. Hope to hear more from you and hope to meet you all again.

Musika tungo sa pagunawa at pagkakaisa…
Macel Aguilar

‘Pagbabago’ in Edsa Stories


Jess Santiago performs ‘Pagbabago’ which speaks about the ordinary Filipino’s yearning for change and how we as a people and as a nation should learn from the lessons of EDSA. This performance is included in a series of interviews done by Focus on the Global South between 2004-2005 collectively called the EDSA Stories. You can watch the interviews at

Building an Asian Village through Music*

By Joseph Purugganan


“There’s a village in the making, a community of friends

who refuse to yield their hopes, to the sirens of despair.”

-Jess Santiago

 Musicians from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand gathered in Jakarta on the occasion of the ASEAN Peoples Forum 2011 and shared their songs and stories, and discussed the prospects of building a network and community of socially-engaged musicians who write and perform songs that are rooted in peoples’ struggles.

The interaction started with a video presentation of “The Village in the Making,” a 20-minute video report made by Jess Santiago from the Philippines. “The village” documents the yearlong journey of Santiago in the course of his research on song as tool for popular education and people’s advocacy in Okinawa, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia from 2005-2006 under the auspices of the Asian Public Intellectual research fellowship of the Nippon Foundation. 

After the video showing, there was a quick round of introductions among the artists and the audience and Santiago provided the context for the interaction/jamming session. Santiago also offered a minute of silence for Indonesian musician Franky Sahilatua who passed away recently. Franky, as he was more popularly called, was one of the musicians interviewed by Santiago in “The village” documentary.

The first to perform was the Indonesian band Sejati (true).  Sejati is based in Jakarta with members coming from Serikat Petani Indonesia (SPI) or the Indonesian Peasant’s Union. SPI is a movement organization of small peasants, farm workers and peasants-based indigenous community. SPI is active in the struggle for agrarian reform, peasant’s rights, food sovereignty, family farm based agriculture and the against the neoliberal agenda. Sejati writes and performs songs that touch on themes that are relevant to the peasant struggle.  They performed two songs at the interaction including Passar or “Market,” a critique of free market policies and their impact on small farmers and peasants.

Nitithorn Thonthirakul or Ae Nitikul, singer-songwriter from Thailand performed two of his songs. Ae is also a human rights activist and uses his songs to educate on HR issues and share his message of tolerance and unity. Ae Nitikul also dedicated one of his songs to the Thai and Cambodian people and called for peaceful resolution of border problems between the two countries.

Two members of the Village Idiots (Jonathan Ronquillo and myself) from the Philippines also performed two songs at the gathering. The first was a cover of the Jerk’s song Lupa or “Land,” which speaks of the struggle of farmers for land. The band also performed one of their original songs, Palengkera or “Market Vendor,” which narrates the day in the life of Lolita a market vendor from a coastal town in the Philippines.

Members of the Indonesian metal band Speed Kill also graced the event.  Instead of a performance, Ambon, the band’s lead singer and songwriter gave a brief history of his band and expressed support to the aspiration to build solidarity among musicians in the region.  Ambon and his friend Gophar (who was at the interaction as well) were two of the young musicians interviewed by Jess Santiago in his documentary in 2005.  The interaction became a sort of reunion therefore for Santiago, Ambon and Gophar.

At least two more artists, the Messenger Band from Cambodia and Ego Lemos from Timor Leste were invited to the gathering but they were unable to travel to Jakarta. They remain however part of the emerging network of artists, and the organizers of the event vowed to continue involving these groups in future activities.

The final performance was reserved for Santiago. Jess or “koyang” as fellow musicians refer to him, started with a heart wrenching rendition of his classic Halina.  When performing “Halina” to an international audience, Koyang usually starts with a recital of the English translation of the words before singing the song. Halina narrates the story of three people—Lina, a worker in a garment factory; Pedro Pilapil, a farmer; and Aling Maria, a slum dweller—and their life-and-death struggle against the forces of oppression and marginalization.  Halina has been translated to Bahasa.

Koyang capped the night with a performance of Achim Iseul or “Morning Dew,” a well-loved Korean song written by legendary songwriter Kim Min-gi.  After rendering the song in Korean, Koyang segued into his own Filipino translation of the song, which means Hamog sa Umaga; this is in his his third album Puso at Isip (Heart and Mind).

The interaction ended with final calls to organize more interactions of this kind among musicians from the region and to continue the effort of building the network and community of artists, which received expressions of support from the artists as well as the audience.


*Report from the ASEAN Peoples’ Music Interaction Workshop

4 May 2011; 6-10pm. Jasmine Room, Grand Tropic Suites Hotel in Jakarta

Organized by Focus on the Global South and the Asian Peoples Music Collective

Ideas on building the network

There are musicians across Asia who write and perform songs that are rooted in people’s struggles. People’s Music is the broad term we use to refer to the songs expressed by these musicians; songs that speak about the hopes and aspirations of peoples and communities who are struggling against forces of oppression and marginalization.

These songs articulate the stories of peoples and communities; amplifying their calls for change and transformation to the way societies and economies are organized; these songs advocate for alternatives and just solutions to issues and problems facing societies.

Across the region, purveyors of peoples music have come together both as a movement of artists and as part of bigger movements for social change. In Thailand, groups like the legendary Caravan, who has been around for decades and continue to voice out the people’s opposition to repressive regimes is one the leading proponents of the song for life movement. In the Philippines, there is the experience of Musika, a collective of artists who pushed the idea and practice of what came to be known as Musikang Bayan. In Indonesia we hear the voice of Emha and his Gamelan Ensemble leading efforts to organize and strengthen peoples’ resilience to natural disasters like the  tsunami and earthquake disasters that hit that country.

There is a growing consciousness as well among peoples across Asia, as both a response and a challenge to the efforts of government to build regional communities- to likewise build bridges that will unite these communities of artists into one village– A village of people’s music and art.

A collective of artists in the Philippines has initiated an effort that aims to contribute towards the goal of building a network of socially engaged artists across Asia that promote and popularize Peoples Music as a tool to advance peoples struggles.

Specific Objectives:

  1. Establish an Asia Peoples Music CENTER – This can be both a “virtual’ and a ‘real’ center which serves as a repository of peoples music collected from the region and a hub for interaction, collaboration and exchange. The Center can likewise serve as a PLATFORM- for peoples advocacies and campaigns using music as a tool for information, education and campaigns.
  2. To develop a PLAN to evolve an ‘ASIAN PEOPLES MUSIC’ culture and movement

Key Strategies

  1. Development of a WEBSITE- which will serve as the ‘virtual center’
  2. Development of ‘THE VILLAGE’ RADIO SHOW- A one-hour program that broadcasts once a month (initially) dedicated to the promotion of Asian Peoples Music.
  3. Consolidating the initial network of artists formed and nurtured over the years by Jess Santiago thru regular communications, regional workshops, concerts, and other projects.