in collaboration with MUSEUM RIETBERG
A Project by Sinzo Aanza

A tale of forgotten songs and the abundance of the living body

by Lynhan Balatbat-Helbock

The musician is the document. He is the information itself. The impact of stored information is transmitted not through records or archives, but through the human response to life. And that response is ongoing, in the air, everywhere, an alternative constantly available to those who have ears to hear [1].

– Ben Sidran


It begins as it ends, with an invitation to listen to this tale of songs that are inscribed in our collective memory. Not too long ago our forefathers and mothers have gathered, invoked, hummed, rhythmically activated bodies and its extensions and collectively sang to us. It is a short account of the times when vernacular gatherings were serious business and the traces of them fond memories just as much as evidence of it´s people´s common future. It is an attempt to understand the sonic components in our collective memory´s archive that we have vividly lived by experience long before its limiting signifier “music”. When the human condition cannot be limited to labels and hashtags, but feasts, rituals and sonic activations are not merely for an ephemeral entertainment but rather fundamental practices in the making of communities and its culture. As the musicologist Kofi Agawu writes “To write about African music nowadays is almost by definition to write against a prior literature” [2].


  1. The invention of death [3]


Musicologists and writers face unique challenges due to the extensive invasive history of European writings on Africa in general and music in particular. These writings have been produced by explorers, missionaries, scholars, and anthropologists from their own limited perspective. Many of these texts have been soaked with prejudice, patronizing language and the unreflected exoticizing gaze on African cultures for purposes of Western audiences’ consumption. An unpalatable mix of the imposition towards the “encountered unknown” alongside narcissistic endeavors of self-discovery have haunted Western writing on music and perpetually keep the score. One of the most successful endeavors of colonialism was to dispossess whole communities not only of their material artefacts but also immaterial cultural heritage and traces. Mainstream media alongside the contemporary canon of music theory sit comfortably on the closed thresholds towards sound archives and imperial sound collections. The limited access towards one’s sonic heritage equals the non-existence of the practices that co-existed alongside. This practice of silencing reflects the ongoing power structures that are key in keeping traditional sounds, its technology and visibility in the shadows of the general canon. Not only cultural artifacts but also immaterial traces from rituals have been recorded on wax cylinders later replaced by other technologies of extraction, were taken from countries all over the world with the claim of preservation however never returned. Over the course of approximately five hundred years, the European abject endeavor of appropriating lands in Africa and beyond had a significant impact on the continent and the world at large. Although this timeframe may appear relatively short in comparison to the continent’s millions of years of existence and its role as the birthplace of human life, the impact of these events are still tangible until this day. Colonialism, in particular, deeply affected various aspects of African life, including the economy, politics, society, and religion. As all aspects of life have completely been disrupted by this collective trauma, cultural production and artistic expressions have been deeply disrupted by its calamities. This period is often seen as a critical and transformative phase in Africa’s history, as it brought with it profound changes that continue to shape the continent to this present day. Considering the many years of occupations and annexations, one must extend the time frame of colonialism before the scramble for Africa at the Berlin-Congo conference in Germany in 1884-1885. Kofi Agawu elaborates that “to speak of colonialism is therefore to speak of events influenced by institutional practices and discourses put in place during this seventy-three-year period. But the formal partitioning was preceded by several centuries of European contact with initially coastal then later inland Africans, resulting in influences on religion, culture, and education” [4].


  1. What we didn´t see [5]


Imagination! who can sing thy force? Or who describe the swiftness of thy course? Soaring through air to find the bright abode, Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God, We on thy pinions can surpass the wind, And leave the rolling universe behind: From star to star the mental optics rove, Measure the skies, and range the realms above. There in one view we grasp the mighty whole, Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

– Phillis Wheatley, On Imagination [6]


The power of imagination does not only provide us with an instrument that delivers from the arbitrary violence of a temporary world, but it is also the most simple and sometimes only way to free oneself. Fiction is as a tool that has no boundaries and can be used to reclaim the peace that has been broken. On the other hand, based on these constructs, it also served the power to keep people in place by the execution of the imagined expansion whilst drunk on entitlement based on imagined Western superiority. The stories behind these objects and artifacts are deliberately kept in the dark alongside its artefacts, predominantly within the depths of Western institutions that are inaccessible to the many.


Just like in any of these violent canons, the arts and music are no exception when it comes to silencing traces of non-Western practitioners in order to perpetuate the myth of Whiteness as the source of all inspiration. Genres like classic, jazz, electronic or contemporary music are predominantly homogeneous when it comes to its representation. One of the many examples is musique concrète – electroacoustic music composed of recorded sound – which is attributed to Pierre Schaeffer, who coined the term in 1948 [7] . In his 1948/9 journal, published as the collection of essays À la recherche d’une musique concrète in 1952, Schaeffer described the sounds and the way he imagined working with them as a ‘symphony of noises’ [8] . Yet, four years before Schaeffer created Cinq Etudes des Bruits, an Egyptian student in Cairo composed one of the first known pieces of electronic tape music using a reel-to-reel tape recorder [9] . Many argue that the musicologist Halim El Dabh has been a pioneer if not one of the first electronic and experimental musicians, but despite his international career his legacy remains remarkably unknown.


III. The invasion by the future [10]

Sound is capable of being ignorant of borders, defies national limitations and arbitrary geographies. It has the quality to cross contaminate, inspire, and linger with ever repeating rhythms in the ether of our being. To listen is an act of courtesy, an exercise to externalize the senses, to linger less in the own desires and visions but to consent to receive.


…more than anything else, the description of an experience of listening. It must be underscored yet again, however, that I do not focus here on the sense of hearing alone. To comprehend the aesthetic signification of the works studied here, it is essential to remember that the latter mobilize several senses and organs (hearing, voice, sight, touch, and further, movement and waves of energy). There is nothing more complex than verbalizing that which involves the non-verbal, or describing sound, which in essence is neither linguistic nor involves the purely spontaneous practice of language. Aesthetic interpretation here supposes that sensory material is reorganized by what might be called the sound event, in the very process through which the latter frees the imagination. It is such an exercise that I attempt here [11].


In this spirit, the act of listening can be understood as an offering in which positionality matters: “what we are asking for is that the hegemonic discourses, the holders of hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other.” [12] Positionality is of the essence, but this does not imply that only a particular group is left to pick up the rubble and recreate what has been ruined. As Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung points out in his seminal essay “The Globalized Museum? Decanonization As Method: A Reflection in three acts”, that “Decanonization is that possibility of unmasking and revealing the inner workings of the canon—whether from the West, East, North, or South. Decanonization is the possibility of making the canon more elastic by bringing in works from indigenous people, PoC, LGBT people, and those from “other” geographies and not seeing these new additions only through the eyes of the works that already inhabit the canon” [13]. The tedious ongoing attempts to unlearn othering patterns and to decolonize a sound archive must therefore be carried by the multitude of allies in the attempt to dismantle racist practices that linger throughout culture, arts, society and music. To listen to each other and acknowledge each other’s presence is to overcome the gaps that one is threatened to fall into whilst searching for one’s ancestral sonic umbilical cord. In this attempt one is also listening to the future that echoes back to us and that we are molding with every inch we take or give. To render muted sounds and voices audible is to construct a liberated world outside of the rigid corset of western canonical assumption. The ongoing human sonic creation is a manifestation of the abundance of the past. And to allow for the living body of the common to be heard and thrive is to live in abundance in the future.


by Lynhan Balatbat-Helbock

1. Ben Sidran, BLACK TALK (1980, foreword p.15).

2. Kofi Agawu, The African Imagination in Music (2016, p. 16).

3. Title inspired / from Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri (1993)

4. Kofi Agawu, Representing African Music -Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions (2003)

5. Title inspired / from Ben Okri, Songs of Enchantment (1993)

6. in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, published 1 September 1773.

7. Pierre Schaeffer, A La Recherche D’une Musique Concrète (Paris: Éditions Du Seuil, 1952).

8. Ibid.

9. Fari Bradley, Halim El Dabh – An Alternative Genealogy of Musique Concrète (2015)

10. Title inspired / from Ben Okri, Songs of Enchantment (1993)

11. Achille Mbembe „Variations on the Beautiful in the Congolese World of Sounds“ in Dans Politique africaine 2005/4 (N°100), pages 69 à 91

12. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. Sarah Harasym (New York: Routledge, 1990).

13. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, THE GLOBALIZED MUSEUM? DECANONIZATION AS METHOD: A REFLECTION IN THREE ACTS (2017, in Mousse Magazine 58)

Lynhan Balatbat-Helbock is co-executive managing director at S A V V Y Contemporary Berlin and is part of the participatory archive project Colonial Neighbours. She received her MA in Postcolonial Cultures and Global Policy at Goldsmiths University of London and moved to Berlin in 2013. In her work within the permanent collection of SAVVY Contemporary she looks for colonial traces that are manifested in our present. The collaborative archive dedicates itself to discussing silenced histories and to the decanonization of the Western gaze through objects and the stories behind them. In close collaboration with artists, initiatives and activists, the archive is activated through hybrid forms of practice. She assisted the management for the documenta14 radio program – Every Time a Ear di Soun, SAVVY Funk in Berlin (June – July 2017) and supported the artist Bouchra Khalili with several projects and exhibitions (May 2015 – May 2016 / June 2021 -May 2022). She worked on a yearlong research project on Julius Eastman in a collaboration between SAVVY Contemporary and the Maerzmusik festival (Berliner Festspiele, March) and co-curated the exhibition program HERE HISTORY BEGAN. TRACING THE RE/VERBERATIONS OF HALIM EL-DABH (2017–2018/2020-2021). In 2018 she produced Agnieszka Polska ś commission for the Germany’s National Gallery Prize show in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (September 2018-March 2019). Lately she curated the yearlong project Monumental Shadows – Rethinking Heritage, a participatory project in public space knocking colonial figures off their pedestal and shifting the shadows of past and present. This year she is curating Wer Wir Sind in the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn as well as this years´edition of the Lantz´sche Skulpturenpark in Düsseldorf.


© 2024 Sinzo Aanza