Did you ever wonder why it matters to learn things in your mother tongue? And more so, to be able to also write it correctly? Many countries with colonial past still struggle with this and such is also the case of Senegal. We had the pleasure of hosting Clayton Junior, a designer from Brazil, at Waaw Centre for Art and Design for an art residency program and his project in collaboration with a local school in Saint-Louis is one very refreshing example of how art can contribute to pedagogical challenges. Please click on this link to access a video and read on!
Yes, Waaw*. In other words: Waaw Centre for Art and Design, the Artists’ Residence located in Saint-Louis, Senegal. This is a very short post to share with you a recentvideothat will briefly present what Waaw does. If you are more of a reader, you can also log on to Waaw’s homepage. Enjoy!
I took my microphone for a walk yesterday. Making recordings is fun, and listening to them is just as much fun! Hit the play button, sit back or stand tall, make some moves or lye in bed and travel inside your head to wherever… this immediacy is what makes music and sound so cool. In this world of screens and scrolling suddenly it is what you are hearing that is scrolling you. Up and down! I also like the fact that when you make your own recordings, you can actually return to those spaces you visited and to me this experience is very spatial and three-dimensional and the visual memory comes not quite simultaneously but after that first spatial “feeling.” It reminds me of the game I invented when I was small: I would walk our dog in the neighborhood and register every little detail on the route and when back home, I would close my eyes and make that walk again and try to remember all those details. I developed the skill so much that I would re-remember walks that had lasted for over an hour, with street crossings, houses, trees, colors, smells, sand under my feet, strangers and familiar persons I had met and what we said to each other, cracks in the concrete of which I would check the advancement the next time I returned.. to the point that it almost became my second nature to this day.
This recording is made of one short walk from home to the sea (I needed the sound of the sea for an upcoming exhibition) and it is filled with human voices, cars, mopeds, sewing machines, sheep, horses, birds, singing, calls for prayer, radio voices, lazy steps, small money in calabashes, carpentry noises… the usual stuff in Saint-Louis and Guet Ndar. And then there is the ocean.
Everything in its raw state, recorded on May 9, 2019 for Get Ndaru Mool and Soundscapes From the Sahel. All rights reserved.
Some photographs stay with you always. I am not talking about actual prints in a shoe box but photos that you stored in some laptop, external memory or cloud and you forgot all about it up until it starts to pop back into your memory and you need to dig it up again and have a look. I took this photo in Ahmed Ela in Northern Ethiopia many years ago while sitting in a moving car and coming from or going to Dallol, I don’t even remember. But there are two things I do remember when I look at it. I remember what it felt like to be in that open space where there is nothing but distant horizon opening in all directions. It’s that fantastic feeling that takes over every time I am in a desert when you realize what a tiny little ant-like your life actually is on this planet. You may be going to places back and forth, you’re being dragged into social whatever drama, you climb some ladder you think you must climb, you want things that you have been taught to want… and so on and then you come to a place like this and everything starts to make sense again. I just love open wide space and the fact that you can look and see far away.
The other thing is that mysterious “highway” in the photo. It looks like a mirage, inviting you to take that road to.. where? Nowhere? Most likely somewhere north towards Eritrea. We left that chance to some other trip though. Oh and there’s also a third memory: it’s that sound when you walk in the heat of the day on that crispy salt, as this soil is nothing but salt that the Afar collect and bring back to urban environment on the backs of camels. If you have seen the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara’s song Nterini you get the idea of what this place looks like. If you ever wanted to shoot a science fiction film, this is the place! A side note: this clip, quite typically to music videos, has a wee bit too many fancy juggles and fast paced cuts in it, this location would do the trick in a few long shots alone since it’s such a stunning scenery.
Ethiopia has been on my mind lately since we are in the planning mode for a future art residency in Ethiopia. The Dallol desert and the Danakil Depression might prove to be rather challenging environments so we’ll stick to the opposite and run the programme in buzzing Addis Ababa and in the magical town of Harar. Stay tuned!
Recently I decided to keep my mind a little more actively on photography (oh how is that even possible I wonder…) and keep a photographic diary and take one photo every day. To mark this day and in lack of interesting street photos, I took a photo of a CD album I’ve been playing all morning, surprised by the vividness of memories that it provoked. If you ever wondered what it is that makes an entrepreneur start his or her venture and actually do it, you might be surprised by their answers. As it happened, I became a coffee roaster while I was still preparing my research degree, and always while roasting, I would listen to music. The fact is that I am more than to anything else attached to African music and that particular sound from many West-African countries, and over the years I have developed a personal archive of songs that throw me back in time to a very precise moment when I first heard any particular song. It’s a kind of a combination of spatial and rhythmic memory of sorts. For example: whenever I hear Salif Keita’s Mandjou, I am immediately teleported to another time where I am swallowing dust in car on my way to Gorom Gorom, with that fantastic feeling of being in the right place at the right time, and all of the time. Similarly, every time I hear Sima Edy by Dub Colossus’s from the album A Town Called Addis, I remember the actual very first days of my home based coffee roasting project when I was frying beans in a pan and then packing them in bags and gluing labels on them with a glue stick! It was around that same time when I heard the album Bambara Mystic Soul for the first time and I just knew in my back bone I should open a place where I could play this album to other people, I just had to! And so I did. I would then create playlists with music that mattered to me and instead of just having some background music to spice the day with it would be yet another way of actively sharing something important.
If I am on travels and out of town, it is the sounds that I start to miss first. I’m not talking about the constant ambulance and police sirens of Brussels, but the human sounds of Saint-Louis, including the sabar and the tannebeer and other frequent gatherings accompanied by intensive drumming. The connection between sound and memory is immensely interesting! A classic question: What are the songs that you would have with you at all times? My list would be quite long..
A few years back I prepared a mixed media exhibition called Sabaru Demb – A Rhythmic Experience. It consisted of sounds and texts on Senegalese rhythms of sabar and stories related to them and their origins, and on their transmission. It proved to be a very popular show among visitors at the time and I remember having thought that I would like to show the work elsewhere too. Now is the time that I want to return to the material and add something new to it in the form of photography and perhaps video too. Sabar is, after all, also very visual!
The way sabar permeates the Senegalese society is wonderfully complex. If you have ever visited the country, you understand how sabar belongs to everybody and can be found, heard and participated in practically everywhere and any time of the day – or night. The beat that carves itself into your auditory memory – or dance moves – can be inspired by a number of things, for instance by the national fish and rice dish ceebu jën:
“You have to spice your Ceebu Jën. Otherwise, your husband will divorce you!”
Or rhythms can describe the area in which you live, such as the fertile land of Waalo in the north:
“Waalo-Waalo! Waalo-Waalo! The Sugar is in Waalo. The water is in Waalo. The rice is in Waalo. Waalo-Waalo! Go up to Dagana. Go up to Richard-Toll. Go up to Ndar-Geej. Waalo-Waalo! Say whatever you want. Do whatever you want. You don’t dislike. You don’t like. All happens! Come on Ndaanan, man or woman. Woman! Woman! Woman! A woman herself needs to have nice teeth. Nice teeth! Man! Man! A man himself needs to have money. Money! Money!”
The apprenticeship* in sabar is much about learning by mimicking and soon enough it becomes, as one artist in our residence recently put it, “a way of being.” Children are allowed and encouraged to take part in playing with drums already when the drums are still taller than them. When you are in a griot‘s house and dance sabar, you are being watched and encouraged to show that you have got the move, and there are no measures of what is right or what is wrong even if the choreography for each rhythm can be very complex. If you think of your steps too much, you’re already a little behind with the rhythm! When you dance sabar you “expand” and show your real height, and that’s what I really love to watch.
Sabar is also present in almost all the Senegalese films that I have seen. Watch Djibril Diop Mambety’s short La Petite Vendeuse du Soleil and you’ll see a bunch of girls with polio dance sabar on the streets of Dakar; or meet the enigmatic dancer in Hyènes by the same director; Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s adaptation of Bizet’s opera in Karmen Gëi has an opening scene in which two female protagonist challenge each other into a sabar duel; and similarly there is a fantastic opening scene of a wrestling match in Moussa Tourés’s La Pirogue. Every time I see sabar in any form, I take this indescribable pride in being connected to it. On a wider level, my interest in the sabar culture relates to my interest in movement. It may well be that I’ll have the chance to go back to Ethiopia later in the year. If this happens, I would really love to document the language of movement there too. But more of that later.
* A highly recommended book reference for anyone interested in the apprenticeship of sabar drumming: Patricia Tang’s Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal is based on her own experience among some notorious drummers. A good read.
I live in such a colorful environment that for some time now I’ve been wanting to add some black & white in my life just for the sake of contrast. I’ve noticed that seeing b&w photographs in exhibitions, in the midst of this continuous stream of colorful images, is very soothing.
I am also a big fan of music videos that present a story, like a short film. As far as music videos are concerned, I have two favorite categories: firstly videos in which a person – most often the singer – simply looks straight into the camera and sings. No fuss, no synchronized dancing in groups. Secondly, I love to see stories that have been filmed in black & white and with more or less non-linear and improvised narrative, such as Spoek Mathambo – The Mountain ft. Pegasus Warning, Dj Spoko & Dj Mujava. Take any screenshot moment in this fabulous clip and it will turn out interesting. That’s something to work for! Another good example of somewhat rare and cinematographic music video in b&w is Michael Kiwanuka’s song Black Man in A White World. It falls in the category of “What did I just see?” And there are others…
I have always been fascinated by the human body and how a person expresses him/herself through movement, and sometimes also with the lack of it through a momentary pause or “pose”. When I think of movement in a photograph I am not so much talking about the actual blur that the movement may create at the time of shooting the photo but rather about the idea inside the frame of “what comes next” or “how we got here”. So in a way a photo can talk loudly about what is not in the photo at that particular time. I am hoping to catch that kind of movement both in underwater photography and in shooting b&w film. It’s too early to say where all this will take me and that’s the fun in the whole thing! My plan is to buy a film scanner some time soon and and start working on prints on interesting papers. I have already experimented with handmade Japanese paper with interesting results. A new year is about to begin, and so is a new direction in my art practice.