“In Africa today, musicians keep in touch with global pop culture via the Internet and program locally flavoured music of explosive creativity, which in turn often finds its way back into the western world: powerful, urban and contemporary club music.” This sentence captured my attention while I was reading the Ten Cities brochure. Ten Cities — organized by the Goethe-Institut “in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Adaptr and a network of European and African partners — involves 50 DJs, musicians and producers from Europe (Berlin, Bristol, Kiev, Lisbon and Naples) and Africa (Johannesburg, Cairo, Luanda, Lagos and Nairobi), allowing them to collaborate and share their respective knowledge about club culture and dance music genres.
Recent projects such as Damon Albarn’s DRC Music in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Dj/rupture and Maga Bo’s Beyond Digital in Morocco are great examples of possible ways of creating bridges between the Western and African musical discourses, where collaboration more than study, is the keyword.
If behind these two cases we always find an author, with his specific interest and obsessions, behind the Ten Cities project there are considerable institutions and a whole team of researchers, photographers and local scouts. I decided to interview Johannes Hossfeld, the director of the Goethe-Institut Kenya that is running the Ten Cities project with different partners.
How was the Ten Cities project born, both theoretically and productively?
The project came out of different threads of interests. On the one hand, we here at the Goethe-Institut in Kenya have been fascinated by the global phenomenon of club culture, particularly in Africa, and had specialized a bit in musical cooperation projects and wanted to carry this further, together with our Berlin friends from Adaptr. At the same time, we had been doing quite a lot of projects in the city of Nairobi, its urbanism, its sociopolitical spheres and cultural flows. We got more interested in the issue of the public sphere and wanted to set up a project that would unpack this notion of political theory again. The public sphere has been conceptualized in the framework of what Nancy Fraser calls “the bourgeois masculinist Eurocentric bias of the theory” and focused on very specific, rational and word-based communication spheres. But what about those public spheres that are actually not formed by language, but rather by practices of sound and the body?
For instance, what happens when people meet in music spaces at night to party and dance? Entering a club in whatever city, it is very difficult not to see in it a crucial public sphere in that society. At the same time, urban studies usually take prominent, often Western cities as paradigms for the discussion. What about cities like Luanda or Kiev, Naples or Nairobi, and how exactly is a polis formed on these locations? In this project, we attempt to take a look at club cultures as public spheres, in ten very different specific locations in the world. And produce new music. Therefore, the project has two parts: a research part and a music cooperation part.
A couple of years ago I interviewed the researcher and art curator Sarat Maharaj; talking about rave and club cultures, he said that the “encounter with total strangers in the rave produces a kind euphoric relationship between them, an erotic relationship, in the sense that is far more concerned with the sharing of subjective emotional duration.” Are you trying to consider what club culture can generate globally, theoretically?
Yes, but perhaps I’d like to rephrase it a bit: we are trying to consider what club culture has actually generated, but in different places around the world. The project is conceived as one that does not try to make general claims but instead looks carefully at the effects that club music and its subcultures have had in precise locations. Perhaps the relationship that Maharaj was talking about entails more when considered in the context it is experienced. The spheres it has formed might have acquired, in many places, an even more political meaning, from the micro-politics of everyday life to openly oppositional positions.
I read in the Ten Cities brochure that “23 researchers will work on essays and studies about those partly unknown music scenes.” Can you tell us who is going to be involved and how? Are you taking into account only the African cities involved in the project or also the European ones?
The research part tells the history of the public spheres that have been formed around club music, in ten cities, from the 1960s up to now. What did these subcultures and communities look like? What were their codes and practices? What spheres of togetherness and polis did they create? Which emancipatory political and social possibilities were realized, or not? Which kind of spaces did these scenes use, occupy or appropriate? Of course, this is only possible on the basis of a sound knowledge of club music in these cities. From our friends in the ten cities we found out that neither the history of club culture nor that of club music has been written there yet, not even in some of the European ones – the exception is perhaps Berlin, where a lot of writing has been published on particular aspects of club culture.
Hence, two articles per city. The point here is that 20 authors in two groups are working on the same topics, in ten different locations.
The participating writers are all from the city they are writing about. Per city we have some of the most interesting writers of these scenes involved, such as Joyce Nyairo and Bill Odidi in Nairobi, Rangoato Hlasane and Sean O’Toole in Johannesburg, Vitor Belanciano and Rui Miguel Abreu in Lisbon or Iain Chambers in Naples.
At the last Womex edition there was for the first time a panel dedicated to the so-called “global bass” genre, entitled “World Music, Global Bass, And the Future of Hybrid Music” (moderated by Akwaaba Music’s Benjamin Lebrave). Do you think that these forms of contemporary club music are starting to receive more attention globally and do you consider Ten Cities an attempt to reach this goal?
In the case of Africa, that’s definitely the case but it is very recent. Although it’s important to notice that the African cities have always had vibrant club cultures. Today, the club music produced in these cities gets more and more known by a European audience. But there have been hardly any real cooperations (except perhaps between Lisbon and Luanda). Our aims are, yes, global attention, but more importantly: setting up more connections between producers and musicians. And whatever comes out of it.
Can you explain how you went about the process of selecting and grouping of the partcipants? Did you work with, say, local scouts for each city involved?
Indeed this is what we have been doing. In each city, we have one local curator who selects the participating musicians, such as Blinky Bill from Just a Band in Nairobi, Afrologic in Lagos, Batida in Lisbon and Rob Ellis in Bristol and so on. We then collectively decided that the producers from one city would travel together. Hence, the pairings of cities.
Lisbon and Luanda are for historical reasons well linked, and so are their contemporary music scenes. What did you consider in building bridges between European and African cities and their respective delegates?
In our experience of collaborative projects, this mix of connectedness and difference creates the most intense productions. Our team in Nairobi and Adaptr in Berlin tried to match producers and musicians who can relate to each other but who are also working in ways that differ enough from each other. Hence not Lisbon-Luanda. Instead, we paired Batida from Lisbon and Just a Band from Nairobi because both make very different music while sharing an interest in the musical history of their city and experiment how to include it in their contemporary practice.
It’s important to point out that bridges are not built here by workshops. The European guys are not teaching anything to the African colleagues. That would be ridiculous. The bridges are built by producing music together. The symmetrical and equal exchange is crucial here. And this exchange has in our experience always been as important and productive to the Europeans as it is to the Africans.
Lastly, I was wondering which forms of restitution are you going to take into account. In this sense, what’s the role of photography in the process?
The photographers, in some of the cities, will be working on exactly the same topics as the researchers, just in their own artistic medium. With this, we are trying to complement and frame the music production and the discourse module. It is also an interesting facet because photographers tend to be prominent protagonists in the currently booming, very lively African art scenes.