After Howie and Haviva raved about it, I dropped by Arte Moris, a wonderful "Free and Non Profit Art School" on the way to the airport in Dili. With minimal support from the government and periodic grants from various donors from around the world they've had great success in supporting the development of a number of East Timorese artists with a few of them even gaining scholarships to study art overseas. They were even running afternoon art classes for as many as 200 students a day before the riots last year. Since then the IDP camp next door has been scaring the kids and their parents away and their classes are down to 20 or so junior students.
What they've done with the minimal materials the have available is nothing short of amazing. They get all sorts of random donations from all sorts of places. Some, like paints, brushes, tools for modelling clay, etc. get put to use immediately, others... well, not so much... As I was getting a tour of the place, I had a wander through their music studio (Arte Moris also provides rehearsal space for a few bands and a theatre troupe) and my tour guide pointed out one such donation. Edith Cowan University had apparently donated a bunch of musical instruments, but no one had any idea how to use them. I recognised them from some videos of bluegrass music I'd seen (and Reese Witherspoon playing one in Walk the Line) and figured they couldn't be too hard so I asked if I could borrow one and see if I could work it out.
Turn's out it's called an autoharp, and it's super easy to play. It's kind of like a piano without the hammers. When you press down the keys of a piano, two things happen. A piece of felt that is keeping the string silent is lifted up and a hammer hits it. Some smarty pants piano players like to show off and hold down the keys really gently so that the hammers don't hit the strings, and reach into the soundbox and strum the strings manually (e.g. Smoke by Ben Folds Five), that's basically what you do with an autoharp except that it's much easier. Some thoughtful person has set up a series of pieces of felt such that when you press, say, the G Maj- button, it mutes all of the strings other than the ones in the G major chord.
It's really made for bluegrass music so the number of chords available are really quite limited, but I've worked out how to play a few songs on it including some Slank, some Bob Marley and that sort of stuff so, hopefully these things will be able to get some use. I'm going to head back there this afternoon when it stops raining and see if there's any interest...
I've got some free time in between my trips to Jakarta for work and autoharp lessons to disadvantaged children in Dili probably aren't any less useless than frisbee lessons to disadvantaged children in Jakarta... Hell, maybe I can do both.