THE HISTORY of Timor-Lesté is so grim, and the horrors perpetrated against its people so recent, it is easy to view the nation as no more than the sum of its sufferings.
This is not the way many Timorese view themselves. Approximately 42 per cent of the population is aged 14 or younger, meaning they have only ever lived in an independent, democratically governed nation.
For the generations above them, however, wounds cut deep.
I have been in Dili five minutes, stepped straight out of Customs and into a taxi, when I first hear about the war with Indonesia. The cab driver talks about the years of slaughter and control through terror.
An hour later I am driving with a different man, and unbidden he tells me about the Santa Cruz massacre. He points out the place outside Motael Church where Indonesian troops executed independence advocate Sebastião Gomes in 1991.
My driver was part of the crowd of protesters that marched to Santa Cruz cemetery. They were surrounded by Indonesian soldiers who opened fire. Timor-Lesté’s Truth, Reception and Reconciliation Commission reported 271 Timorese were killed, with 250 listed as missing. Hundreds more were arrested and detained.
He says that the sound was terrible. “The guns: bang! My friend climbed a mango tree to try to hide. They shot him dead. He fell dead out of the mango tree.” He tells this part twice, as if the plummet of the dead man encapsulated a reversal in the normal order of things, a world thrown upside-down by unfettered aggression and cruelty.
His voice is elegiac as he recounts how the Indonesians ordered the fire brigade to wash the site clean with high-pressure hoses. “By the next day there was not a sign of blood.”
The image resonates because it matches much of the global reaction. Led by nearest neighbour Australia, the atrocity has been washed away, despite this outrageous military thuggery being captured on video and witnessed by international journalists.
The following day I travel to Liquiçá, a struggling coastal community closer to the West Timor border. Looking for a place to eat we take a wrong turn, and suddenly we are outside the church where Indonesian troops dressed in civilian garb massacred up to 200 worshippers in 1999.
Similarly, the ruins of an old Portuguese prison along the coast are revealed as another recent trauma site, where untold numbers of Timorese were tortured, killed and disposed of by Indonesian forces.
The past is not past in Timor-Lesté. It cannot be, when the land is contaminated with memories of far too recent brutality. But you have to find a way to live. And for some Timorese, that means metal music and joining the Klan.
Back in Dili I happen upon a stage being constructed for heavy metal concert Crocodile Noise Infection (CroNIfec) on the Dili foreshore, metres from the flat murky waters of the Strait of Wetar.
Julianto Fernandes Loi is co-organiser of the event and bass player from headbanging band Goat Head. “We are all in the Klan,” Loi said. “Klan is a community. It is a brotherhood. That is what matters most.
“The fact that we love metal music and play it comes second. Being a family comes first. There is a community in every part of Dili and the countryside that loves metal, and together we are called the Klan.
“I grew up in Viqueque (an outlying district) and heard Metallica on the radio aged 15 and I thought, ‘How can they play like this?’ I started playing metal in 2004. We heard Slipknot and we were inspired by this band.(continued below)
“We learn about the world metal community, but we try to educate kids here: metal is not crime. We smoke and drink and dress up but in our Klan family we keep peace. Metal is important, but brotherhood is more important.”
Loi and his friend write the songs for Goat Head. “The song people like a lot is Vitima Ba Realidade, which is Tetum for Victim of Reality. Timor-Leste has a sad history. I grew up under the Indonesian invasion. What we say now is we can fight but we have to love peace. This is our message.”
The three annual Klan concerts coincide with key dates on the national calendar. MegaAmplification is held to celebrate Restoration Day in May, Vote for Determination is in August, and CroNIfec marks Invasion Day, but is held in November rather than December to decrease the likelihood of torrential rain. Before each concert there is an address about political history and videos are shown outlining the date’s significance.
The stage announcer is MC Mia. In a country of demure women she has tattoos, a pierced tongue and wears leather armguards. Her four children are somewhere in the audience. “I started with punk and now I’m metal,” she says in Tetum. “Metal music gives a feeling I’ve fallen in love with for a long time.”
When CroNIfec starts it is several hours past the advertised time, but no-one seems bothered. Terminal Core is followed by Newcomer Killer then the slick, choreographed Dili Underground.
Overall the bands are solid, derivative, celebratory. The exception is LowBatt. Loi informed me they honour their heritage by putting a traditional Timorese tebe-tebe beat behind their music, but I can’t hear it. The band is incendiary, the stage clogged with figures howling and jumping, most notably a female lead singer with a voice like a paintscraper.
The crowd is large and passive, cheering politely during the opening phrases, but offering little or no applause at song’s end. A few are smoking, not many are drinking. One of the sponsors has a stand with a hand-written sign: ‘Are you metal? Drink ABC Extra Stout’ but no-one is.
An extrovert in a 1950s GI helmet runs to the front of the stage and yells at MC Mia, ‘I love you’. Delighted laughter. His friend, with thin braids that stretch below his waist, is waving around two whole cooked fish inside a metal press.
About a dozen teenage lads slamdance in the puddle near the stage. Otherwise the audience is polite and patient, standing without rancour through microphone failures and other technical delays. A small man with four children lets them watch the first two bands, then they frown as they are ushered away. I am sorry they did not get to see Loi and Goat Head. “We all work in other jobs,” he told me. “I work in administration. But we all love to animate people.”
If metal music is about anything it is an attitude of stubborn rebellion, a refusal to bow to designated authority, a grim adherence to the ethos of individual power. In Dili, at this point in history, it makes fair sense.
I leave before the end, groping through the dark past hundreds of parked motorbikes, stumbling in a hidden gutter and cutting open my foot. As I hobble away I am bothered by the thought that the rumble of staccato notes from bass, guitar, drum kit resembles gunfire. But these volleys of sound are going outward from the Timorese, not being inflicted upon them. They are the assertions of people creating their own reality, not having it imposed upon them.
By the time I reach my accommodation the tumult of noise sounds less like the discharge of weapons and more like the harmonic hammering of a monsoon. On this night, at least, the rain has stayed away.