Benvindo Alamar, 23, didn’t really know what he wanted to do when he dropped out of high school in Dili. He would hang out on the streets at night with friends singing.
“We often got drunk,” he recalled.
That was before a chain of events that prompted Alamar to set up a band which came second in Timor Leste’s increasingly popular Joven Super Star music concert two years ago.
The catalyst came in 2006 when the World Youth Day Cross, a symbol of Christianity passed around every parish and diocese on the planet, left Germany and stopped in Timor Leste for three days en route to Australia.
At the time the country was struggling, following its independence seven years earlier. Military infighting prompted more than 150,000 – some 15 percent of the population – to flee their homes as the UN sent in security forces around the time the cross arrived in the country.
Father Angelo Salsinha, head of a youth commission in Dili, gathered about 3,000 young people to act as security as the cross landed at the airport on its way to a series of parishes.
“It was amazing,” he said. “During the cross’ three-day stay in Dili, the young people who previously threatened each other with machetes, burning people’s property, came together and led peaceful processions.”
Seeing this unprecedented level of cooperation, Fr Salsinha launched Joven (meaning ‘youth’) Super Star in 2008 in an attempt to unite and put talent to good use instead of festering on the streets of a capital where unemployment has reached over 40% in recent years.
“So the festival is the story of how young people escaped from the crisis,” said the 39-year-old priest.
With just US$100,000 from the government, the first festival attracted 32 singers and 18 bands, all of them locals singing traditional Timorese and pop songs.
“We used the money to buy musical instruments,” said Fr Salsinha.
Each year it has grown bigger. In 2009, there were 45 singers and 20 bands; and by this year that number had swelled to 102 singers and 21 bands when the festival was held on December 8.
The festival has not only served as a chance for young people to show off their talent, it has also turned into a way for the youth of Timor Leste to engage with the political elite.
Minister for Youth and Sports Miquel Manetelu donated $10,800 this year and Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao wrote two songs that will be performed by the best five singers and groups on December 30. Both songs tell the story of the struggle for independence.
Next year the event will include two further dioceses, according to Fr Salsinha: Maliana and Baucau.
After finishing runner-up two years ago, Alamar’s band D’Pathreeis, meaning ‘progress,’ now has the job of training and recruiting young musicians to take part in this ever-growing annual festival.