SONIC REFLECTIONS: A Berliner’s Experience of Nairobi Through Music and Sound.
What struck me on my first trip to Nairobi was the sudden silence when night fell. As if a switch had been flipped, all of a sudden it goes dark and the noisy hustle and bustle of life abruptly falls silent. In my home city Berlin, especially in the summer, the sunset stretches on for hours. People sit not only in cafes and restaurants, but fill public spaces, parks and street corners, talking, drinking, making and listening to music.
One evening in Berlin, I met the Nairobian artist Sam Hopkins. Our mutual friend, artist Alex Nikolic, introduced us. The two were planning “It’s a pity we only exist in the future” (1), an exhibition at the Goethe-Institut Nairobi. That was in 2009. Although I had been around as an electronic musician and DJ, the African continent was unknown to me. I decided to travel to this exhibition opening and offered myself as a DJ. The Goethe-Institut agreed and supported my flight ticket.
On that trip I got to know the hip hop collective Ukoo Flani, Just a Band, the artist group Maasai Mbili and numerous artists, MCs and musicians. I knew nothing about the music and its scene in Kenya; conversely, the local musicians were unfamiliar with Berlin’s electronic music and the club culture. We got excited and became curious to hear what kind of music these different backgrounds and experiences could produce together. This trip was the starting point for BLNRB (Berlin – Nairobi), the first international music project that my brother Hannes and I co-initiated with the Goethe-Institut.
We invited musicians from both cities to make music together, to give concerts and to make recordings. BLNRB also showed us on many levels how music, social context and its possibilities are interconnected.
Some examples: To try out how that collaboration could sound like, a local studio was rented for two days. We packed a bunch of drum machines and synths and got excited to jam, just to find ourselves stuck in the daily traffic jams in Nairobi. When we arrived at the studio, we were already exhausted. The high hourly costs of the recording studio then limited our possibilities to make music. Under the pressure of a ticking clock, it was impossible to get deeper into a musical process together.
We quickly realized that a local recording studio was hardly suitable to create a viable working framework. So for the main part of the project, we decided to rent a house. We found a place in Westlands and set up a temporary studio and living space for the musicians involved. Living and working together over three weeks was a productive challenge. It made the differences in the ideas and needs of daily togetherness apparent. All participants had to confront themselves and ask themselves what they took for granted. The outcome, the collective album with its music and the title “Welcome To The Madhouse” is a reflection on this experiences. It was then released on Out|here Records (2).
We organized an opening concert at the Goethe-Institut. A main aspect was to allow open access for everyone interested. Therefore, admission was free. For an audience from districts such as Kibera or Mathare, it was nevertheless almost impossible to come to the event. The journey home could be organized for participating artists from Kibera, but an audience was thereby excluded. Despite our inclusive intentions we had created an exclusionary space.
Later on we were able to organize a joint open air concert in Kibera together with the Maasai Mbili Art Center (3). We could use the bus of the Goethe-Institut and bring their soundsystem with us. Musicians of the BLNRB project played and we opened the microphones for spontaneous contributions.
Robo and Little King, two 12 year old kids, impressed us so much that we invited them to the studio the next day. The party in Kibera for me is one of the best memories of the BLNRB project.
I realized that mobility is a privilege that also shapes the possibilities and circumstances under which music can be produced and experienced. This became even more apparent when it came to organizing a return match in Berlin: While the Berlin artists could get the visa for Kenya “on arrival” at the Nairobi airport, the visa process for the Kenyan artists to enter Germany was complicated. Without institutional support it would have been impossible to get visas for the Kenyan participants and also the financing of such undertakings would hardly have been possible
BLNRB has motivated us to initiate similar projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Mexico, among others, in which the initial experiences of BLNRB are always incorporated.
But it has also motivated me to look more intensively at the connections between social spaces and power structures, and at the way they affect making music together and the music itself.
In a late interview, composer John Cage talks about street noises outside his window on 6th Avenue in New York. He likes to listen to the traffic because it doesn’t want to tell him anything about relationships, ideas or feelings and adds: “If you listen to Beethoven or Mozart it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic it’s always different” (4).
Traffic does not say so much about the ideas and feelings of an individual composer, but I believe that the sounds of the city, whether loud or silent, say a very lot about relationships. The French sociologist and political scientist Henri Lefebvre observes, describes and analyzes the rhythms of urban spaces as organisms and movements of bodies, groups, classes and social structures (5).
These structures are reflected in the sounds of a city, but you can also hear them in music.
I understand music as a product and an exploration of these boundaries. This is reflected in the individual ways of making music, in the way of playing together, of performing, experiencing, but also of distributing and the accessibility of recorded music. The context is always part of the music. That‘s why I also don’t think Beethoven and Mozart sound always the same: Who makes or has the possibilities to make music, where, how with whom, for me are part of music. What we hear, what we don’t hear, reflects social interaction and power structures embedded in the sound; it marks accesses, exclusions, and ways to deal with them. What we listen to shows exactly that. But what we hear on the other hand shows a lot about ourselves and our conditioning of the ways we are listening.
Thus my impression of Nairobi described at the beginning of the text did not represent the whole city at all, but the center around Chester House/ Koinange Street, where I lived. But it shaped my thoughts about Nairobi’s differences to Berlin at first.
In contrast, Kibera was very lively after sunset. But I didn’t notice that until later. I was privileged to be able to move around.
(4) Sebestik, Miroslav (Regie), Grange Anne, Sebestik Miroslav (Buch): Écoute, Paris, 1992, Centre Georges Pompidou, JBA Production, La Sept, Mikros Image, Sacem
(5) Lefebvre Henri: Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, Paris, Bloomsbury Academic, New York 2019, S. 51, Original Édition Syllepse, Paris, 1992
Andi Teichmann (*1975, München) is an electronic musician, DJ. With his brother Hannes he forms the duo Gebrüder Teichmann, who together initiate music related projects and collaborations and run the music label NOLAND. Rooted in Berlin‘s underground and DIY-culture since the late nineties, they are driven by a vibrant curiosity and love for music and sound and its social relations. They collaborated with artists across a variety of genres and traditions in more than 60 countries as far as Afghanistan, Siberia or Angola. In 2022 Andi finished his master thesis at Art in Context, UDK Berlin.
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