Ethiopia: sounds of the present, past and future

After the Oman desert, Icelandic geysers and empty Chernobyl villages, sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard turns to east Africa

Listen to Kirkegaard’s sounds of Ethiopia

Have you ever wondered what a country sounds like? Which distinct sounds characterise a place? The Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard has. And according to Kirkegaard, Ethiopia has many surprises to offer a curious ear. He first visited the country in 2010 and recorded Ears of the Other, before returning in 2012 with independent French filmmaker Vincent Moon (Collection Petites Planétes, La Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows etc.). Together they recorded six portraits in 10 days. We asked Kirkegaard about his experiences:

Some of your most famous works are recordings of the sound of sand in the Oman desert, of Icelandic geysers or ambient sounds in now empty Chernobyl villages. Your recent recordings in Ethiopia are of people, singers, a circus etc. Why this change in approach?

I am generally interested in exploring sound from other sides than the immediate way we hear it. To question the sounds we hear; maybe the sound doesn’t only sound as we first hear it. Or perhaps it can tell us something else than what we expected. Maybe a bit like what the Giant in Twin Peaks tells Agent Cooper in a dream; “The owls are not what they seem”. Recording abandoned rooms in the abandoned city of Pripyat in Chernobyl proved to me that these places were so “full” of absence. What is immediately thought as some of the most silent cities in the world was so full of sound. The same applies for the desert, a place which we think of as a quiet place. But in fact some dunes produce deep massive sound by themselves.

My interest in exploring the sound of Ethiopia was first motivated by the lack of knowledge that I feel most northern Europeans have of Africa in general. And if we want to find out about, say, Ethiopia we Google it. What do we find? Text and pictures. But how does Ethiopia sound? It is unknown to most around here. Can listening to a place tell us something we cannot obtain through texts and pictures?

You have worked various places across the globe. Is there anything that makes recording in Ethiopia distinct?

Ethiopia is perhaps the most deep place I’ve ever visited. By deep I mean multifaceted and surprising. Not only is the Christian church very old and rich – and there are of course also many tribes with different cultures. But perhaps it has even more to do with my personal experience as well. I feel very welcomed, as if I can just dive into it and communicate with people. I’ve met musicians, circus people, steel workers, Lalibelocc, farmers, priests and shoe polishers… Yet I feel that my ears have so much more to explore. And when being an open person, Ethiopia has surprises to offer to the curious ear.

How and what do you listen for when arriving at a new destination? How do your soundworks usually come about?

Usually something catches my attention. I hear a story about an intriguing phenomenon in a place. Like the Singing Sands in the desert. Just the name, the Singing Sands, triggers so many sounds in my head. And if my research inspires me more I might fly out there with my microphones. But when arriving to a place I always try to be blank; important for me is to free myself from preconceptions and expectations of something that I want to find. I know that I will only find something interesting if I let go, open up and breathe with the world. It is an important balance that I try to find; never to become too stubborn about what I want to find. I don’t see myself as a conductor or composer but more of a collaborator of sound.

You first visited Ethiopia in 2010 where you recorded Ears of the Other. What expectations did you have going back this year?

Ears of the Other was made from a curiosity to hear what Ethiopians hear with their ears. As a foreigner you always hear a new place differently from how the locals hear it. Maybe you hear things that locals have heard every day in their entire life – and therefore don’t pay attention to anymore. Or maybe there are sounds you don’t hear because you haven’t learned to understand the meaning of them. Therefore I asked Ethiopian people what sounds they find characteristic of their day. I wanted to know what sounds they pay attention to and what is Ethiopian sound for them. We would then record the sounds together: a coffee ceremony, the morning prayer, their children’s voices, the bird in the tree or the hyena man near the forrest in Harar.

During this trip my friend Tadesse introduced me to the recycling place in Merkato. I was completely blown away. When I returned to Addis this year I wanted to make a portrait of that specific place where they reshape the oil barrels. With all the timbres of oil barrels and long iron sticks it sounded to me very much like a gigantic percussion orchestra! I introduced my colleague Vincent Moon to the place and suggested we did a portrait there. He was just as blown away. We decided to spend one entire day there – from before sunrise till evening. Besides from the interesting sound scape at this particular place in Merkato, I was completly moved by the friendliness, cohesiveness and solidarity among the people living and working there.

How did your collaboration with Vincent Moon come about? And how do the two of you supplement each other?

We did six portraits together in only 10 days. It was very intense and interesting. It was the first time we’d worked together. On some portraits I was more the sound recordist for the films. On other projects we shifted the roles. At Entoto Mariam, for example, we both recorded alone and would pair the recordings afterwards. I am therefore currently putting together a sound piece based on my recordings from Entoto Mariam. Vincent Moon will then edit his footage recordings according to my sound piece.

You are collaborating with Vincent Moon on a work centered around an Ethiopian orthodox exorcism ritual. Could you elaborate a bit on this?

We visited Entoto Mariam twice and made recordings of the orthodox exorsicm ritual there. I can’t reveal much about this yet as we are still creating the piece. But I can say that I have never recorded anything this intense and touching before in my life. It was both scary and beautiful at the same time.

One of your most distinct work from Ethiopia is with Tilahun, a singer of the Lalibalocc tradition. How did you approach this recording? And was doing a recording with a Lalibalocc and not the related but more famous azmari singers an elaborate choice form your side?

We both became very interested in the Lalibelocc tradition from the stories we heard. People were saying different things. Some claimed that people were afraid of them and others said they possessed a certain kind of magic. Certain was that they could sing! So we set out to find one. We literally walked into an area in Addis which we had heard was a place for Lalibelocc, and asked some people on the streets if they knew some. Most people thought we wanted to go to Lalibela. But we were very lucky to get in touch with Tilahun.

He took us on one of his trips though an area of Addis before sunrise. It was completely dark as we walked through the windy streets. He would then choose a house and start singing. The dogs would bark like crazy and I was getting scared of what the people might do when he woke them up with his powerful singing. But people seemed happy and gave him money. They then received his blessing. Tilahun is one of the most special and warm people I met on this journey. He told us that he had never been properly recorded. So I offered him to do a private recording of him singing.

Finally, how does Ethiopia sound like to you? Perhaps you can characterise two or three distinct soundscapes that you have discovered?

Ethiopia sounds delicate, mesmerising and timeless to me. The delicate sounds of a valley where you can hear the cow bells, birds, voices and prayer in the distance. The primary sound of Ethiopia is to my ears the distant beat of the orthodox drum. You hear it when traveling through the landscapes. When you are quiet … you hear the beat in the distance. The pulse of Ethiopia. It mesmerises! And above that, Ethiopia has such a different time, not only is the year and clock different from ours, it just sounds and smells like another time, an unknown yet fascinating present, past and future – all together. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds