All ears on Ethiopia – explorations of sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard
Did you ever wonder how a country sounds like? What distinct sounds characterizes a country or a place? The Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard has. And according to Jacob, Ethiopia has many surprises to offer a curious ear. Jacob first visited Ethiopia in 2010 and recorded ”Ears of the Other”. He then returned in 2012 with independent French filmmaker Vincent Moon (Collection Petites Planétes, La Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows etc.). Together they recorded 6 portraits in 10 days. We asked Jacob about his experiences recording and collaborating with the sounds of Ethiopia and how Ethiopia sounds like to him. Read Jacob’s enthralling story below and listen to some of his recordings here.
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 like? It is unknown to most around here. Can listening to a place reveal and 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 & 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 does 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 trigger 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 of 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 to Ethiopia 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 for their every 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 childrens 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 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 him we did a portrait there. He was just as blown away as I. 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 existing among the people living & working there. A wonderful large family.
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 is the first time we work 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 will 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 work?
We visited Entoto Mariam two times 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 of to be 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 persons 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 characterize two or three distinct soundscapes that you have discovered?
Ethiopia sounds delicate, mesmerizing 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 mesmerizes! 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 & future – all together.