In the course of writing How to Live Together, my thesis at Goldsmiths, University of London where I was a doctoral student in the Department of Visual Cultures, I used to take frequent breaks from reading and typing to play an electronic keyboard.
Over the years, this experiment has spawned a growing library of sonic creations, which partly constitutes a way of resting in the company of the artists, musicians, theorists and other figures whose ideas I draw from, whose songs I cover or whose lyrics I evoke. The following selection contains an elegy, a dedication and a short preview of a forthcoming music album, the variety of the recordings reflecting the events that changed the global landscape over that period. In this sense, the songs are bookmarks to present the history that is unfolding across large geographical expanses, cultural shifts and societal tensions, all of which coalesce around renewed energies of planetary consciousness, mobilised as a resistance against the worldwide injustice and the annihilation of living on Earth.
The recordings commenced in London in the summer of 2011 at the time of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London, which sparked nationwide riots. Earlier that year, in March, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami had caused the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. In that same period, the Syrian Civil War erupted, starting as pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Deraa. The recording traverses this decade that also saw the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2013, a political and social movement founded in the US by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin, as well as the emergence of the likes of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and her fellow youth environmental activists, who have been leading a climate crisis protest.
However, this particular selection focuses on the last three years and features a sample of solitary recordings that emerged from my breaks from writing, as well as in parallel with various group activities held through online programmes, occasional gatherings in temporary studios, exhibitions and sessions convened under the framework of Radius, a mostly online radio station, which is broadcasted from public institutions, intimate home circles, transnational research groups and across bodies and spaces that are not easy to describe.
1. Evening News
Most of my recordings tend to be made with a particular receiver in mind and this recording is no different for it was composed for the attention of my collaborator, musician Julien Simbi. Julien is, in fact, the first to receive most of the compositions I finish and I have taken up composition a bit more seriously in order to be able to discuss “musically” some ideas that inform Julien and I’s long-term collaborations, including Julien’s soundtracks for my films, a radio play currently in development with WIELS Contemporary and Chimurenga Panafrican Space Station, and other collaborative music projects.
This track is made using samples and existing loops as a way to learn how to play the electronic keyboard, the title of the song reflecting the need to remaining sensitive to the actualities by refusing the numbing, desensitising effects the current news cycles have.
2. Operating System
This is dedicated to artist and philosopher Kodwo Eshun, under whose supervision I completed my PhD thesis at the Visual Cultures Department of Goldsmiths. I describe the recording as a sonic sketch because of how I imagine it to differ from the usual methods of composition. For example, the narration recites the table of contents of Eshun’s book, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (1998).
By extension, the song is also a dedication to my peers at Goldsmiths; to the wider artistic community in which the writing emerged; and to the large cohort of fellows, teachers and colleagues across the world who permitted me to call upon them at any time for help. Altogether, the song is an expression of gratitude for the assistance, help, collaboration, solidarity, support and guidance I received during my doctoral studies and beyond from the likes of Jean-Paul Martinon (my second supervisor) and Nicole Wolf at Goldsmiths, as well as my examiners, Denise Ferreira da Silva and Leela Gandhi. In summary, the song is a way to synthesise friendship and affiliation as the operating system for cultural belonging.
3. Long Letters
In 2018 I co-organised a workweek in Huye, a rural but historic town in the south of Rwanda. Delegates from working groups based in 14 cities across the world attended to share their findings on a collaborative research piece around the histories of art education in their respective locales. As part of the programme, I had organised an “evening school” consisting of musical gatherings, performances and film screenings, which was by far the most transgressive component in that it brought together neighbours, authorities, children and more into one space where social differences were suspended.
The preparation for this moment and its ongoing afterglow compelled me to produce an EP, which I viewed as a kind of sonic catalogue of songs recorded before, during and in the aftermath of the major events that had marked the recent history. In a way, the forthcoming EP is a continuation of that “evening school” in Huye, and the initial idea for the album was to revisit the selected songs in collaboration with contemporary linguists and musicians, through translations, remixing and reprises. However, the ensuing lockdowns caused many cancellations and the album was ultimately developed in close collaboration with musician Julien Simbi mentioned earlier. What has remained is the method of featuring short interludes containing recitations of what I would describe as “long letters”: excerpts by poets and novelists including Kodwo Eshun, Bessie Head, B. Kojo Laing, Ali A. Mazrui, Scholastique Mukasonga, Nnedi Okorafor, Yambo Ouologuem, Ousmane Sembène and Namwali Serpell, in a reading that performs their writing as diagnosticians of their society.
This unresolved excerpt exemplifies the method by which my “sonic sketches” help the discussion between myself and my collaborator about the mood, instrumentation and treatment of the musical output. ‘Makambo’ was originally the name of a song by Geoffrey Oryema from his album Exile (1990) produced by Brian Eno. Oryema sings about the pain of being forced to flee his native land, for he lived in exile in France following his father’s murder in Uganda in 1977 where his father had been a cabinet minister under Idi Amin.
I had not heard the song for a long time when I received a streaming link to the album, sent to me by my friend, curator and educator Nana Adusei-Poku last year. It reminded me that, although digital exchanges have now increased due to the global pandemic, rather than being a novelty, remote transmission has, in fact, always existed for diasporic communities. One letter a month, one audio-cassette or VHS tape a year, one phone call or video call a week, archipelagos of identities have been kept alive over the ages by sharing from a distance. My version of the song is thus dedicated to refugees and displaced people across the world as their plight is now further exacerbated by the urgency of the pandemic.
5. Election Results
This was recorded intermittently while following the Brexit referendum and, later on, while remembering the victims of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower (immediately after the re-election of the Conservatives whose systematic social neglect was linked to the disaster), and before that, at the height of the farce that brought into office the 45th president of the United States. To some extent, I have lived through these moments with a sense of incapacity because I am not allowed to vote in either the UK or the US despite having lived in those countries for many years. Of course, these referendums and elections result in policies that affect whole communities living in regions and environments located far away from where the votes are cast.
The suffering of local communities from police violence also reached a tipping point this year, but one of the symptoms of the broader anxiety felt by nations politically and culturally at odds with themselves; the disregard for justice at the hands of all sectors of authority leads to an extreme escalation of the social logic of abjection that makes it even harder to rest in peace.
6. Time Zones
I consider this recording to be an elegy, in that it imagines and laments the distance that so often exists between families across the globe. It is a reflection on how, all too often, people are unable to join in celebrations with their actual or chosen families and, at the same time, are forced to suffer their personal tragedies alone. Still, this poem also imagines a time preceding the present suffering, and a zone of peace and rest.
This song is certainly one of the many that would make up my “sonic biography”, to use a term by DJ and artist Ain Bailey, because it was often played on the radio when I was a child in Kigali. I am, of course, not the only one who will have heard Miriam Makeba’s song: Makeba’s rise to fame in South Africa during the 1950s, her subsequent success overseas in the 1960s, and her role in the global anti-apartheid movement are all fairly well documented. Indeed, Makeba is part of the sociography of entire generations in Africa and beyond: even in the States during racial segregation, she was perhaps the most prominent African performer within American popular culture. Her songs such as Pata Pata became radio hits, her records sold well and she regularly appeared on television. She was somewhat of a celebrity in 1960s America, appealing to the American mainstream regardless of the difficulties facing the Black race.
My own cover of the song draws from the electrifying rendition sung by Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte on An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, their album from 1969. Aside from this joint studio album, Belafonte and Makeba appeared together live many times, something which is indicative of Makeba’s Pan-African practice of cultural intimacy and anti-imperial internationalism, whereby she would sing in a number of African languages and collaborate with fellow musicians from various African diasporas.
On her Live in Paris album, Makeba introduces the version of “Malaika” that appears there as a song from Tanzania. Malaika, a Kiswahili word meaning “angel” in English, is actually dedicated to human rights activist Stokely Carmichael, whom Makeba married in 1968 before the couple relocated to Ghana to avoid the difficulties they both faced as a result of their union: because of their association, Makeba wrongly came to be portrayed as an extremist and both endured poor treatment in the United States.
Makeba features in William Klein’s The Pan-African Festival of Algiers (1969) and is recorded nursing a child while rehearsing with Dorothy Masuka, who was herself in exile from what was then Rhodesia. This intimate collaboration renders the atmosphere of solidarity found in Algiers at that time, which itself had become a refuge for many freedom fighters fleeing political persecution. The festival, which was mandated by the Organisation of African Unity, offered a lasting cultural landmark in which alternatives to the imperial course of history were imagined, even if those alternatives were short-lived.
In any case, “Malaika” is a protest song, like many of Makeba’s songs, especially the ones featured on the An Evening With album, such as “Khawuleza”, the Xhosa title of “Hurry, Mama, Hurry!”, referring to situations in which children alert their mothers the authorities are coming, situations that are especially resonant and relevant at this time of renewed protests against police brutalities across the globe. Altogether, although I myself grew up viewing “Malaika” as a lullaby that was performed in Swahili lessons, Makeba’s renditions are, in fact, political expressions of longing across geographies, and protests against exiles and expulsions.
8. Creation Plans
This is my own iteration of “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, the monumental creation by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders from 1969, co-composed and featuring percussion and vocals by Leon Thomas. “The Creator” has a daunting genealogy: soon after Sanders’ initial release as part of his album Karma, Thomas also released the song, but with the extended lyrics that had actually been included in the liner notes to Karma, first as a single and then on his album Spirits Known and Unknown (also 1969).
That same year, an abridged version of the song, again featuring Leon Thomas on vocals, also appeared on Louis Armstrong and His Friends, an album by the legendary trumpeter and vocalist, and, about a decade later, drummer Norman Wilson released yet another rendition. It is, in fact, Wilson’s version I heard first, not in its original form, but when it was sampled by producer DJ Premier of Gang Starr on his 1995 production of the Brooklyn hip hop group Das EFX’s then-popular track “Real Hip Hop”. The Das EFX song used to light up the dance floors in the eastern part of the Netherlands where I was living in the early 2000s, when I was a DJ co-organising parties. More recently, “The Creator” was covered by jazz vocalist Dwight Trible in 2018.
A decade or so before that, around 2011, I myself recall editing Pharaoh Sanders’ epic 32 minutes and 48 seconds track and remixing it into a much shorter version for the mixtapes I was making for friends and lovers at the time. Indeed, “The Creator” is the first song I remember working on, and the current open and ongoing iteration the listener hears here emerges from the same process of looping the basic chords my untrained hands can manage to mimic and overlaying the track with changing elements resulting from various recording sessions.
Pharaoh Sanders’ “The Creator” is organised into an introduction, followed by a kind of prelude, after which a persistent phrase is repeated throughout the remainder of the track, with Leon Thomas’s vocals and throat singing appearing in quiet moments, as well as when the song accelerates into an explosion of free blowing. Through a half-hour-long ebbing and flowing of complete eruption and controlled rendition, the song evokes cries, screams, moans, prayers and hopes.
I resolved to edit the song out of motivation to move past the eruptions and arrive at the quieter moments of contemplation, but later I realised there was no merit in listening to one part of the song and not spending time on the rest. As a YouTube user comments on one of the song’s music videos on the site, “Pharoah has created an aural image of the history of suffering and the triumph of the spirit over the physical world.”