Echoeing From The Archive. On The Politics Of Unarranging And Remixing As A Self-Narrative Act.
By Billy Fowo
There is no past, there is no future, only the present!
When you improvise, that is the now!
moment has never been there,
it will never be there again,
and you don’t wish to repeat it …
… but as you play, you realise it has been played.
– Abdullah Ibrahim
Every new configuration contains masses of the old. I think of the new not as breaking completely with the past, always as reconfiguring the elements of the past with some elements that are new. Each time that comes it does require a change of perspective. Sometimes a change of paradigm.
– Stuart Hall
With questions on the issues of restitution taking up more space, and with the discourse constantly shifting and almost fixating on tangible cultural property, sometimes to suit a particular agenda – usually one determined by the West, – it is important that we continue widening our understanding of cultural property and memory, expanding our view to the intangible. That said, we should not fall into the trap of putting the tangible in opposition to the intangible. We should rather aim for a more holistic approach to the situation, given in cases more often than is portrayed, the subject and the object were never meant to be viewed separately.
In the following lines, I will be sharing a few ruminations I have had on sound, sonic archives in general and particularly those from the Congo region relevant to this project.
Echo I – Sound asks no permission
In a recent conversation with sound and investigative artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, he brought my attention to a perhaps well known but quintessential aspect of sound, the ability sound has to travel or “leak” as he described it within the framework of his investigative work. Sound, perhaps more than many other media, does not ask for permission. It reverberates, wanders, permeates, and moves past geographical constraints and social constructs. Although practices of “studying” so called “world cultures and world musics” can be traced back to the 18th and 19th century, the development of recording techniques in the late 19th century, enabled the field of ethnomusicology to take even more of a greater proportion.1 This led to the recording of sounds, songs – for some sacred, intimate and bearer of culture and knowledge – that ended up in the colonial archives and are today kept captive in mostly ethnographic museums, but also, and to a certain extent in private collections. Against the backdrop of the so-called “enlightenment movements”, and despite this attempt, to keep the people and sounds captive under the auspices of “studying”, these sounds ensured a certain continuity and one of the ways through which this was done was by “leaking”, by leaking into neighbouring spaces, by leaking through migrational movements, being it forceful or voluntary into different geographies.
Echo II – Congo Square. A hub for improvisation
To speak of sound as something pure and devoid of external influences will be very naive. In an era of digitization and easier access to music and influences from all around the globe, it is perhaps more important now than ever to acknowledge the multiple streams that irrigate the different musical genres we know today, and assign to particular geographies.
Growing up in Cameroon, the obvious and clear connection between certain aspects in Congo and Cameroon were non-disputable. Not only did both countries share a border, both countries had to a certain extent linguistic similarities that were even more apparent when approached musically. It happens very often that one, lost within the rhythm of the beat, mishears a word or sentence in Lingala and associates it to Duala. Both languages have the same intonation, both languages share almost the same structure in terms of grammar and syntax, but most of all, both languages offer the very soft, soothing and groovy, jamming characteristics very few languages do when used to compose music. There is a non-exhaustive list of musicians both from Congo and Cameroon that either travelled and worked between, in both countries, or simply borrowed from each other. The connection between Congo and Cameroon is perhaps one for another time or another text, but what is of interest for us here, is “how fragments from particular musical styles typical to Congo have found their way into music genres not only in Cameroon but much more far away”. Indeed, not that any country needs its own signature style, but if one were to pinpoint one, then regarding Congo it would be without any doubt the famous Sebene guitar that made its way into Cameroonian Makossa, spread across the ocean and found its way into genres such as Zouk. Although very important to mention that Sebene, is a genre that stems out of contemporary Rumba which in itself originally moved or “leaked” from Kongo when the enslaved were forcefully abducted and deported to the Americas. , and later made its way back returning as what was known as Cuban Rumba which was a syncretism of African cultures, Caribbean cultures and Spanish flamenco. . Taking this into consideration, it becomes clear that music, sound has always moved around, and the sonic soundscape which we know today as that of Congo is one that is informed by influences brought along from different geographies, is one that is birthed as a “new configuration that contains masses of the old” as states Stuart Hall in the Stuart Hall Project.
But speaking about syncretism, let’s go a few centuries back, to a place called Congo Square. Located in New-Orleans, the square was a gathering place for enslaved and freed slaves. Much more than just gathering, it also held and offered a place where the people could meet, sing and in these acts and offerings, served as a hub for improvisation. Cultures and especially sounds from the enslaved Africans that came from everywhere right down to Haiti after the Haitian revolution mingled, informed, enriched each other, and out of this syncretic act was born Jazz, which by essence is a music of conjuncture as states John Akomfrah in an interview. Jazz is a genre that came along because of the particular conjunctures that brought about those gatherings for example at Congo square. One could say jazz, as a genre, is one that not only requires the ability to improvise, but was actually born out of the necessity to relate to one another.
Echo III – On un-arranging and remixing
One of the fundamental questions that still poses itself today is that of the accessibility to sonic archives. These archives that were produced under very problematic conditions and are now held hostage within western institutions remain for the most part almost inaccessible to the communities they were extracted from.
Although kept and left inaccessible, although some of these regions today suffer from the dearth of these archives, the sounds and music from these regions never completely fade away. As we heard, in the two previous echoes, sound not only has the capacity to “leak” and move past geographies, it also circles back and irrigates the music production happening in these regions. It is therefore no surprise that a musical genre like rumba for instance has travelled from Kongo to Cuba and back to Congo. If in previous decades or centuries, this movement was mostly made possible through the movement of people across these different geographies, nowadays, this is mostly possible through the digital, and because of the position technology holds. At this point, I would like to throw in a perhaps hypothetical reason that enabled the survival of these sounds but perhaps one worth exploring. I believe sound artists, musicians and DJs especially, through their practice of un-arranging, and remixing these sounds offered, still offer a possibility of fragmenting, and reconfiguring these sounds which perhaps could be an interesting one to look into. Although the process of fragmentation and reconfiguration bears the risk of mixing up, mislabelling and misunderstanding, it remains one possible solution against the gatekeeping of these sounds within archives in the West, as it offers room for the continuity of these sounds, genres, perhaps as fragments, but at least within a frame that can be self-determined.
by Billy Fowo
1. www.britannica.com/science/ethnomusicology ↩
2. www.radiofrance.fr/francemusique/musiques-du-monde/la-rumba-congolaise-la-musique-des-independantistes-et-des-sapeurs-5041956 ↩
3. ich.unesco.org/fr/RL/la-rumba-cuba-mlange-festif-de-musiques-et-de-danses-ettoutes-les-pratiques-associes-01185#:~:text=La%20rumba%20%C3%A0%20Cuba%20 a,les%20communaut%C3%A9s%20d‘esclaves%20africains. ↩
4. The Stuart Hall Project, 2013 by John Akomfrah. ↩
Billy Fowo (1996, Cameroon) is a curator and writer based in Berlin.
Very much grounded in the idea of the Laboratory, for Billy, rethinking and stretching the idea of the exhibition as a format, forms an essential part of his research and curatorial approach. With points of interest in various fields and disciplines such as the sonic, linguistics and literature, Billy questions through his practice what is considered knowledge and the spaces in which we find knowledge. He is currently a curatorial candidate at the prestigious DeAppel program in Amsterdam.