African dance music courtesy of East Timor

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African dance music courtesy of East Timor

By Arun Pradhan

PERTH — The unique sounds of Jah Era will feature at a Reggae Against Racism here on September 21.

The mix of cultural influences in the band is best reflected in Angelo Madeira, the band's lead guitarist. Angelo is originally from East Timor, and when he's not at work as a guitar teacher at Abmusic (an Aboriginal music institution), he and his band are playing Angolan music and singing in Portuguese.

The threads of this cultural mix come together with the story of the Madeira family, a story shared by thousands of East Timorese.

In the mid-1970s, growing internal pressure on the authoritarian Portuguese government combined with liberation movements in its colonies to force change. For countries such as Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola and East Timor, this meant independence — although it was short-lived for East Timor, which was soon brutally occupied by Indonesian armed forces.

In 1976 the Madeiras were one family among 3000 refugees to arrive in Portugal from East Timor. Active in the East Timorese political party UDT, they were housed in a refugee camp of more than 7000 people. Some of the influx of refugees to Portugal received decent housing, but most remained in poor conditions in the refugee camp.

Despite the hardship, Angelo has fond memories of the time. "We would have big parties; there would be lots of different communities and each would take turns to perform. So first you'd have the people from Mozambique, then we would play ... and pretty soon you'd get a mix, so the Angolans would be playing East Timorese music and so on."

This atmosphere provided fertile ground for Angelo and his sister Maria to learn music. They were particularly influenced by traditional Angolan music, called merengue.

Angelo says of Merengue, which still forms the bulk of Jah Era's songs, "The lyrics were relevant to us: they were about war, great loss and struggle. But the most important thing is the dance rhythm. If you can't dance to it, Africans don't want to know about it."

The band adds to this a healthy lashing of reggae and some marrabenta, slightly slower dance music from Mozambique.

"Sometimes when we play our first song, people don't know what to make of us", Angelo explains, "but by our third song we have them all up dancing". Certainly, the response of Perth audiences has been great, and Jah Era have been asked to play from Bunbury to York.

Angelo is very positive about the band's future: "We'll be looking towards releasing a CD, with the main problem obviously being financial. We also might try to tour to events like the Adelaide Fringe Festival." Until then it seems that WA audiences will have a monopoly on some of the best world music around.

The Reggae Against Racism is at 7pm on Sunday, September 21, at the Kulcha Club in Fremantle. Jah Era will also be supporting Christine Anu's tour to Perth in October. To contact the band telephone (09) 9274 2019.