Listening To The World In a Musical Way – a conversation with sound artist Emeka Ogboh

This is an abridged version of the original interview published on Another Africa, July 2014 (you can access the original here), and appeared in the Art-iculate series book ’Emeka Ogboh’ (ed. Bisi Silva. Publisher: Archive Books, 2014).


One day in mid April 2011, I was having an afternoon break from my album recording. As I walked around Helsinki’s city centre, I found myself quietly lamenting its lack of colour, new sounds and inviting moments which I miss often. Passing by Kiasma, the Museum for Contemporary Art, suddenly the homogeneity of the city’s soundscape was interrupted. There was a sound, someone yelling or speaking in a pattern atypical for Finland. Then more sounds, giving this sense of a larger and much busier place that seemed at odds with what I was seeing around me. It was a strange echo of completely foreign sounds cutting through the spring air. I welcomed this change even if I found it slightly irritating at first, but I kept walking without stopping or thinking about it anymore.

Over the weeks that followed, my walks took me by Kiasma almost daily; I realized this sound was always there. Having just finished a collaboration for Another Africa with Nigerian-American painter Odili Donald Odita, where I traveled mentally through the streets and market places of West Africa during the composition process, I came to heartily welcome this sound intervention. It somehow made me feel connected to the greater activity of the world, and able to see the connection between what I was doing in the studio, and what I was now hearing in the streets of Helsinki.

Finally I went to see the exhibition – ARS 11. The economy of the sound installation inside by sound and video artist Emeka Ogboh made me envious: just headphones and a couple of street signs pointing to Lagos. I stood there for a long time listening to the soundscapes from the Nigerian megacity while looking through the adjacent vast window at the Finnish parliament house, dreaming of a world that could juxtapose the culture of colourfulness as well as the chaos of Lagos with the politics of order and simplicity of Helsinki.

Since then I’ve spent a lot of time in Lagos, visiting the artist himself there during the spring of 2013 but mostly sound-wise in my studio, studying and listening to the various soundscapes recorded by Emeka and turning them into compositions for a project that we’ve been collaborating on (titled ‘LOS-HEL 1: Possible Cities’ – a conversation between Lagos and Helsinki through sound, image and text). Lagos is amazing: you soon forget that you’re listening to “just” a recording of a city. You are drawn into these audio dramas, complex ecologies (symphonies) made of unintentional sounds, the very experience of being alive through sound; a lot of the intentional music now feels stale in comparison.

I have similar recordings made in other cities around the world but those feel just like soundscapes of a city after all – nothing more. “Listening to the world in a musical way” as John Cage put it is worth doing once in a while, it seems. Cage also went on to suggest that we wouldn’t need opera houses nor concert halls should we listen to the world around us, but perhaps in a possible future we might listen to the world in works like Ogboh’s Lagos Soundscapes in those very houses and halls – or at least filtered through orchestral interpretations of them.

Ilpo Jauhiainen | Lagos is not only the largest city in Nigeria but within Africa, as well as  the second fastest-growing city on the continent. You have been recording the environment of Lagos and transforming it into various installations in museums and exhibitions worldwide since 2008. This was after you had attended a media class on the audible spectrum by the Austrian multimedia artist Harald Scherz at the Winter Academy in Fayoum, Egypt. What fascinated you about the sounds of Lagos?

Emeka Ogboh | Its intensity and diversity. So much happening at the same time and on different layers. A lot of people would consider Lagos’ soundscape as being very noisy, and they’d call it noise. But I stopped calling it noise since I started listening to it. When you record sounds out in the streets and bring them to your studio, it gives you room to be relaxed and listen to it – you are not right there in the action. Because when you are out there in the street, you’re probably trying to get somewhere, you are in hurry and not really paying attention to the soundscape… you can hear it but you are not really listening. When I relocated the soundscapes to my studio, I started hearing and feeling them as compositions, something that could be musical. And when you feel the multilayer aspect of it, you start paying attention to individual elements in the soundscape like the bus conductor, the hawker, the vehicle noise or the sounds of the horns…you start breaking it down into different components, elements, and it looks like a symphony or orchestra. So it has a kind of musical connotation for me, it can feel like poetry and not a chaotic noise.

But when you first started did you have any doubts? Did you always know sound was going to be one of your main media?

It’s an interesting question. I didn’t actually set out to be a sound artist. Lagos made me a sound artist. I didn’t always know that sound would be one of my main media of artistic expression. I thought I would be a brief affair, but I completely got sucked into it and I didn’t see that coming. Of course I had doubts when I started, I wasn’t so sure what I was doing or where I was going with it. It felt like I was groping around a dark room, searching for the light switch. But then, persistence paid off.

Great. Talking about happy accidents – or simply being sensitive to the things you discover. It’s always interesting how the environment we’re in – be it cities, social groups, even individual buildings – shapes us. Did you have any mentors or peers to help you focusing on finding that light switch?

I did get a lot of guidance from people in the international sound community, especially with recommending books to read and also offering technical assistance and tips. Most of these encounters happened online over emails and sound discussion forums, because sound art practice was practically unheard of on this side.

Yes, I’ve even heard of a description of you as the first sound artist emerging from Africa south of the Sahara. Do you think this is accurate? Why do you think there are so few sound artists coming from that part of the continent?

No, that assumption is not accurate. Someone like South African James Webb has been around for a while now. One of the main reasons for the dearth of sound artists here has to be the economic aspect – how can they constantly make money with this? Considering that a lot of artist from here have to solely live off their art with no access to grants, spending all your energy and resources working as a sound artist does not guarantee you can pay your bills. Galleries are also not helping matters, they only support and focus on the kind of art that the buyers furnish their homes with. Unfortunately, sound art does not fall into this category, yet.

Unless the future of art moves towards the immaterial like sound and music, as performance artist Marina Abramovic has suggested… But is there a particularly African sound art scene (or sound art that could be described as African)? If yes, do you feel part of it?

Not in the gallery/museum or artistic disciplinary sense. But in the everyday living sense…yes. We are surrounded by sound art/artists here. From the itinerant hawkers and handymen who use their voices and tools to advertise their goods and services, bus conductors verbal mapping the city, kids creating kinetic sound installations for fun, to the vehicle drivers communicating (intimidating) with their horns. And yes I feel part of it. I’m completely embedded in this day-to-day sound art scenario.

That’s actually a nice description of how art and culture in general is being made: through collective interaction instead of a few “geniuses” working in isolation! As for everyday living, I often hear the notion that the market places are the true heart of an African city, or society. How do you find it in Lagos?

The market is a melting pot of socio-economic activities where you’ll find people from different ethnic, religious and social backgrounds, converging and interacting through buying and selling. Here you can hear the different languages and dialects in Nigeria being spoken, during the exchanges between the buyers and sellers. I do find the constant buzz of trading very interesting to record. The traders calling out their wares and hustling potential customers, the movements of goods from one spot to the other, the crowds pressing against each other as they squeeze through the narrow lanes between the shops, the constant chattering and gossiping between the shop owners as they while away time. The energy the market place exudes is quite overwhelming and can be sensed in the sound recordings made there. It’s indeed the heart and soul of cities.

What about motor parks? A lot of your recordings have taken place in and around those urban hubs…

The motor parks are key public transport nodes in Lagos, connecting different points in the city with the yellow danfo buses, and it’s the main depository of the verbal maps with tens of bus conductors operating at the same time there. The parks are in many ways similar to the markets in relation to the constant movement of people in and out of a space, this is where the majority of Lagosians who use public transportation congregate and disperse to their various destinations. These parks are my favorite sound recording turfs, the almost non-stop flow of its energy, the bus conductors, the revving engines, melodious horns, loud speakers blasting music, hawkers, human traffic and voices all congregate in this one spot, creating one of the most interesting spaces in Lagos to record and listen to.

The first time I listened to your recordings I was pretty convinced you’d treated them electronically, like changed the colour and intensity of the sound artificially, because the texture was so rich and full. But they are actually untreated, real city sounds.

It’s these multiple layers of sounds, and also the location of the recording, in some places the sound could appear distorted, and in some echoing, for example. That’s how I’ve actually learned to record and mix my compositions on the go, to get what I want. You can emphasise certain elements in the soundscape by walking around… so you create these “treatments” while you’re recording. I didn’t start out like this initially, I was just recording randomly and not paying so much attention but these days I’m trying to pull off these effects while recording. It’s just body movements basically, like navigating this space in a different way. It’s just about being more sensitive to the city and the space around you.

Personally, as an ex-student of Sonic Arts I tended to find a lot of the sound art we studied leaning towards conceptualism and technology at the expense of emotion. How do you feel connected to the sound art world in general – do you follow some of its developments particularly?

I try my best to stay connected as much as possible, keeping up with regular happenings and development in sound art, through books, publication and online forums. There’s not much sound art happening in Lagos, so I really have to stay connected through these media.

You have been exhibiting your Lagos Soundscapes in locally and topically sensitive variations in museums and exhibitions around the world. What does it mean to present a sound of a commonplace (a street, a market place, a city) in a gallery?

It means relocating the sound from its source of origin to another place with an intention. It means bringing the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’ and all that is associated with it. It means recording a certain moment in time and space, and putting it up on display. It means making the sound accessible for listening and hearing. People would pay more attention to details when the sound is in the gallery and probably hear more, than when they are on the street and listening selectively.

What part does visuality play in your pieces, or how important is it to the sound?

It depends on the type of installation that I am creating. For some installations there are no visual aspects at all, the focus is just on the sound. And for others, the visual is very important; it creates a link that enhances and completes the sound work. For example, I have visually incorporated the danfo bus in some of my installations: in the form of a wall or constructed booth painted yellow with two black stripes, or with an actual danfo bus. In these installations, I was representing the city with one of its most iconic symbols – the danfo bus. The visual element was needed to enhance that connection.

Your work can be enjoyed purely as an abstract sonic experience but also listened to as deeper social commentary and documentary – about issues like colonialism, immigration, urban infrastructure, informal economy, globalization, even the culture of love in Lagos etc. Where do you see it evolving in the future? As I’ve understood you’ve started working also with archived (historical) sounds, poets, generative sounds, sounds from other cities as well as moving towards video. Are there some particular themes/issues you’re interested in exploring more?

For now I don’t know where I see my work evolving in the future, its been happening organically so far and I’m fine with that. But like you pointed out, I’m working with different kinds of sounds these days and also experimenting with film. As for themes/issues I’m interested in exploring more, migration in urban spaces is definitely one of them. I know its an over flogged theme already, but I hope to engage it from a different angle.

These days I’m also more interested in narratives. I’m interested in the components within the soundscapes. The bus conductors’ voices, for example, I want to gather like a hundred of them and turn them into a choir – a full Lagos choir! Well maybe even just 50 or 20 – a hundred is a lot! These guys are like different musical notes the way they call out their stuff… But I want to work on a whole lot of narration with them, because one thing I found about Lagos is that there’s a different perspective all the time. That’s why I really like what I’m doing, it’s not about being an authority on Lagos, I’m not going to say I know Lagos so much that my work is a complete picture. What I do is document and showcase what it looks and feels like at a certain time and space, leaving room for different analysis because to different people it means different things. And that’s what I find interesting about it, not trying to draw a conclusion on Lagos but keeping it open. That’s also how I keep learning through my work.