Sounds Like a Pandemic? (SLAP?)

February 2020: the COVID-19 Pandemic hijacks the world.

And now after more than one year, the entire world is still in the grip of the greatest global crisis of the 21st century. The highly contagious and deadly nature of the virus has led to nations and communities implementing unprecedented measures to limit human movements and interactions in varyingly effective strategies of controlling its spread.

Needless to say, these measures have had a disruptive effect on practically all human activity with widespread speculation on their impact on long-term social, political, economic and ecological order. Nairobi is one of Africa’s most vulnerable locations, being an international transport hub. Over the course of the pandemic, the city has implemented fairly strict containment approaches which have had an immediate impact on the usual patterns of activity and being.

SOUND OF NAIROBI is an open access archive of the sounds of the city. It holds that much information about the past, present and future of a place and its people can be gathered through sound. This situation of crises presented a new context for us. If we wanted to be a relevant archive documenting history then we had to act. The aim was simple: record the changes in the soundscape of the city during the pandemic.

We reached out to our affiliated recordists and presented them with the idea and luckily they were interested. Sounds Like A Pandemic? (SLAP?) was on the way. In three recording phases (April 2020 – January 2021), 12 people ventured out to record the changing city. From Kikuyu to Kibera, from Eastlands to Langata, sounds were collected and archived.

What we conceived as a project with a beginning and an end, where things get back to normal turns out to be just another chapter in the never-ending story of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so it starts to dawn that we are heading into a future in which the Coronavirus seems to be a permanent resident in our lives. What does this mean for the recordings we did before COVID-19?

What is their importance now? 

Sounds like a Pandemic? (SLAP?) encapsulates a bit more though. It asks the question of what can we know from sound.

What are the sonic traces the virus leaves on the city and its people? And what does this tell us about ourselves, our life with others in a community, our governments and so on? In the course of the project, we asked writers and musicians to explore the recordings made during the time and share what they detect in them through their creative approach. A publication and an EP are the outcome. 

The writings by Kamwangi Njue (eastleigh usilie, liner notes: towards a possibility), Lutivini Majanja (Landi Mawe) and Bethuel Muthee (The Sound of Memory) can be accessed on this website. The SLAP? EP is available here.

Many thanks to the recordists, who wandered and still wander the streets in these times of crisis: Alacoque Ntome, Anita Kavochy, Kevo Stero, Alex Kanji, Lutivini Majanja, Brian Muhia, Waringa Wagema, Kamwangi Njue, George Gikaria, Joy Ruguru and Otieno Gomba.

The SLAP? installation was exhibited in the frame work of the Jiji Ni Ya Who?-Festival (5th – 11th July 2021) by Alliance Française de Nairobi and Goethe-Institut Nairobi, funded by the Franco-German Cultural Fund.