Silence: A reflection on migration and sound with Emeka Ogboh & KMRU
Kenya-born sound artist KMRU and Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh discuss their respective journeys.
They often say that we are a product of our environment – that our environment is what then influences our perspective, our interests, our sense of self and our creative outlook.
However, what happens when that environment changes? What happens when we are emerged in a new environment with different social constructs, different sounds, different sights and different cultural ideologies?
Emeka Ogboh and KMRU are both visionary artists based in the city of Berlin, both have worked tirelessly in fierce pursuit of endeavours and projects which challenge and deconstruct the boundaries and sensibilities of ‘art’.
In this conversation the two reflect on the shock they experienced when experiencing the silence of the city for the first time; recount stories of their most powerful installations and the narrative of ‘experimental’ art in the context of African culture.
“What first really impressed me about you was your work with field recording, especially the matatu project which I really connected with…
I hate that I’m always referred to as one of the only sound artists from Africa. But I understand what they mean, because in the context of galleries and museums I’m perhaps one of the few, but there are so many other artists working in sound art. Sound Art is an African thing! We come from cities where sound is as important as the visual. We rely on that. Compared to Europe, here there are no laws about noise being enforced.
We don’t have advanced infrastructure where things are fully automated you know? For example, the buses, the trains: you have the visual signs everywhere here in Europe. However, back home – the matatus, the danfos, the bus conductors have to audibly call out their routes and play music to attract people to their bus, so sound is important.
Just today I stumbled upon an article discussing how the rich are kind of obsessed with silence, and I thought about all the sound ordinances and laws which I thought were a recent thing, but those measures were instituted sometime in the early twentieth century. This writer Mark Twain was part of the association – I forget the exact name – but they campaigned against noise so that they were the ones negotiating the laws in New York. It blew my mind. Actually, another thing I stumbled upon today was someone else discussing the ‘German obsession with silence’ which is so funny to me.”
“That’s right! When I moved here, I used to go to the street a lot, just to hear what was there, because I could pinpoint all the sounds and that’s something that I wasn’t used to. In Nairobi, you have to focus on a panorama of everything. You’re filtering all the time.”
“It’s one of the first things that hits you when you come here, right? Even to the point where the sound of keys can be a problem. I remember when I arrived in Berlin in 2014, the apartment I was staying in was super quiet, and it affected my sleep. The only time I really felt comfortable there was when I started hearing kids. That felt normal. I’m not in some isolated island or the middle of some forest; I’m in the city! If the city doesn’t sound like a city it’s a bit problematic for me. I always say Berlin compared to Lagos sound wise, is like going down from 1000 decibel to 100 decibel. When I came here, I kind of stopped recording because I didn’t find much to record, and instead focused on going through my recording archives. It wasn’t a bad thing, it was the shift that led me to making music.
“Yeah, moving here meant orienting myself with the city and trying to understand how Berlin sounds. I got here just before COVID when it got even more silent, so that was tricky!”
“I hate that I’m always referred to as one of the only sound artists from Africa. But I understand what they mean, because in the context of galleries and museums I’m perhaps one of the few, but there are so many other artists working in sound art.” – Emeka Ogboh
“It made me realise that while you live in a place, you take it for granted. Back in Lagos, when I told people what I was doing, they actually made fun of me, like ‘who wants to listen to the sound of Lagos’? But when you kind of listen actively, intentionally, you hear more, you know. If you’re on the streets, your brain is just filtering the sounds you need. I remember being in the bus stations in Lagos, and hearing the conductors finding creative ways of pronouncing the stops, just to attract attention. But if you’re not going in that direction, you won’t listen to what they’re saying. So I discovered a lot just by listening and decoding the city that way.
But when I moved to Berlin I didn’t have the luxury of just nipping out to record something quickly. So, I began going through my hard drives containing field recordings I already made of the city, which I never really spent that much time doing in Lagos, because I was surrounded by the sounds. I think I also felt disconnected from Lagos, so I sometimes I listened to my field recordings just to get over the homesickness. But that’s when I realised I could actually take it further, opening other people’s ears to Lagos by making music with it. So Berlin , channeled my practice towards making music.”
“Same with me I think! My music definitely became louder or harsher here. I remember in Nairobi, when I used to DJ, it reached the point where I only wanted to DJ and play field recordings for people who can understand the soundscape and relate to it. It’s interesting to see how people react to, say, matatus in such a different context. Can you recall a specific time when it really clicked for you?”
“The one that stands out for me was when I set up a Lagos sound installation at Kiasma in Helsinki in 2011. I had two installations: one outside and the other inside. It was actually where Brian Eno had his Kite Stories installation, so those speakers were still there. I was upstairs working on it when someone called me down, saying ‘somebody wants to see you’. So I went down to see this young guy, who I didn’t know was actually Nigerian at that moment, but seemed to be very emotional.
He was a student there and apparently, every day, he comes close to the museum to get on a bus to go to his work. I was like ‘what’s up?’ He replied explaining that he’d begun to hear Lagos.
‘I look around, and I am surrounded by, but everywhere I see white people, but I can hear Lagos’.
He thought he was having a mental breakdown. He went on to tell me that he’d thought that his parents were trying to get him back home with voodoo, because he hasn’t returned since he started his schooling. When he finally realised he wasn’t having a breakdown, he traced the sound’s direction and that led him to the museum, which he entered to find out what was going on.
That shifted my mentality a lot, because prior to that, when I was installing those sounds I was thinking more about how foreigners would engage with it when they stumbled upon it in a different place.”
“Yeah, when I play my shows I just hope that there is at least one person who can relate to it. That’s my main focus. How did you learn your field recording techniques?”
“You know, there’s a lot of articles online and stuff like that, but the whole thing comes from experience. It would be different for someone that lives in Berlin, for example. Their guidebooks wouldn’t be relevant to an African because in a city like Lagos you can’t even get your microphone out without getting harassed in the bus station. You also deal with a lot of people that are not used to things like that. People think I’m a journalist and engage with me sceptically: not even telling me their real names, telling me to keep them out of my report. How did you get into it?”
“For me, it goes back to when I was in Nairobi. The idea of sound studies and field recording was something that I didn’t even know existed. I began to record my environment and incorporate it in my work. All my school projects were about being Black because, as you mentioned, a field recording handbook written from a Western perspective won’t be accessible for an African artist.”
“As Africans, we have our own narratives that are not necessarily documented. Some are, but there’s a lot that is simply handed down orally, so that also affects how people think about things. For me the creativity comes from how it was passed down, you know, transcribed into music, composed with information, with stories, and history. It’s like folk tales, formed creatively to pass down information.
I guess we’re documenting the sound of the city. In Lagos, for example, Oshodi bus station near the airport was notorious for being disorganised, chaotic, amongst other things. It was one of the main places I would go to dig for sound because there was always so much happening. But now the bus drivers and traders that were scattered all over the place have mostly relocated, so the place has changed, better organized and cleaner. I’m capturing the city as it goes through this flux. Trust me, matatus will not be there forever.”
“Right, it can be a very different way of trying to express yourself as it’s not written. I also think, quite often, categories like ‘experimental’ or ‘sound art’ can exclude people, especially Africans. Like, can we be involved in this?”
“I agree, I think those terms are just another limit. What is experimental? It’s been going on since time, it’s no new concept. I don’t want it to be another box entrapping me. Sound or music has been experimental from the start. In Africa at the moment, if you’re doing something that could be experimental nobody will really play it, it’s mostly Afrobeat or Amapiano so people end up not knowing what they’re doing, or just hiding it.
That’s the difficulty. If people don’t understand what you’re doing, it’s very easy to be rejected. But they talk about experiments. So what are the experiments? Do you know everything experimental? Is there a certain guideline that says, ‘this is how experiments should be?’. And that’s why, when I started trying to make music, I just did what I felt was right. Because if you try to define it, that is when you start feeling unsure of yourself, and I’ve seen that happen with a lot of artists. It takes a certain kind of confidence for you to get there to say ‘my music is what I say it is’ and get away with it. Not everyone has had that experience, right?”
The conversation was recorded and moderated by A.J. Samuels.