DANFO, MOLUE AND THE AFROPOLITAN EXPERIENCE IN EMEKA OGBOH’S SOUNDSCAPES
In his work Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh records the sounds of Lagos, particularly focusing on the noise of danfo and molue buses , and installs his soundscapes in the milieu of other cities. This essay examines the political implications of this gesture. I argue that Ogboh’s practice doesn’t just celebrate the vibrant urban sounds of Lagos but foregrounds the medium of sound to reflect on the African city as a space historically shaped by and entangled in economic, social, and cultural interrelationships with the rest of the world.1
Ogboh’s sound installations focus on Lagos—the city in which he lives–exploring what the artist describes as its “history and aural infrastructure.”2 In galleries, he usually installs the work in booths where audiences listen to the recordings through earphones. Sometimes he places speakers and megaphones blaring with Lagos sounds in the streets of cities such as Cologne or Helsinki in order to initiate dialogue on globalization, migration, and multi-culturalism. One could read Ogboh’s practice within the context of Camerounian philosopher and critic Achille Mbembe’s Afropolitanism: a cosmopolitan understanding of Africa as a dynamic cultural hybrid, a “world in movement.” Afropolitanism describes Africa as a product of continuous “itinerancy, mobility and movement” of diverse peoples from all corners of the globe into and out of the continent and within its geographical boundaries.3 Present day Africa is a mixture of Asian, European, and indigenous peoples and cultures which have been in political and economic interrelationships for millennia. Mbembe uses the term “afropolis” to refer to major African cities such as Lagos, Cairo, and Johannesburg, cosmopolitan spaces implicated in and shaped by complex, skewed and asymmetrical global flows of ideas, goods, capital, and people.4 Following this framework, the essay examines how Ogboh inserts the sounds of Lagos into the soundscapes of Western cities to highlight the socio-political imbalances and contradictions of globalization, focusing on two sound clips titled Lagos by Bus and the installation Lagos Soundscapes in Cologne: Reception of Strangeness and Consumption of Difference.
The Italian critic and curator Marco Scotini observes that, due to globalization, “the city, and not the state, is the strategic place of economic dynamics, migration, ethnic and cultural change, and the demands of civil society.”5 Lagos, which was once the administrative capital of Nigeria, now its economic and cultural capital, offers Ogboh an appropriate space for understanding the socio-political dynamics between the south and the north in the globalized world. The history of Lagos begins before the first Portuguese settlement in the fifteenth century, but the city was also shaped by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonization, post-colonial and neo-colonial cultural, political and economic factors. For example, in its relatively recent economic history, the Nigerian oil boom of the 1970s–whose tragedy continues today—stimluated migration from rural to urban regions of the country and also attracted migrants from the United States, Germany and Japan to Lagos making it a one of the richest, most populous and culturally diverse metropolises in Africa.6 It is the idea of Lagos as a locus where myriad cultures and variegated subjectivities intersect that underpins Ogboh’s practice.
Lagos is a metropolitan beast whose voice and soul manifest themselves in a cacophony of roars and growls of blaring horns, vehicles, rumbling electric generators, muezzins, street music, and rowdy vendors clamoring to sell their merchandize. Through its sounds, Ogboh manages to capture the Lagosian cityscape in its diversity and complexity. But the work transcends merely recording and celebrating the sounds. From such a diverse range of metropolitan sounds, Ogboh selects danfo and molue noises and situates them at the centre of his poetics as a metaphor for addressing issues of migration and related topics. This practice stems from Ogboh’s recognition that urban sounds are not neutral. Cultural theorist Helmut Draxler points out that, like the tactile and the visual worlds, the audible world is shaped by and politically implicated in capitalist modernity.7 Urban sounds, from rumbling production machines to supermarket muzak, are all products of capitalism. To an extent, therefore, Ogboh does to danfo and molue sounds what artists such as the Beninian Romuald Hazoume and the Ghanaian El Anatsui do to found products of African modernity such as jelly cans and bottle tops.
Danfo and molue comprise Lagos’s major mode of transportation. Danfo, which means “hurry” in Yoruba, is the local name given to the yellow Volkswagen minibuses of Lagos. Molue, which has its roots in the English word “maul,” are the locally fabricated 44-seat buses that ply the roads of the city. Danfo and molue are ubiquitous on the streets of Lagos and therefore contribute to the city’s perpetual traffic jams locally referred to as “go slows.” The noise from danfo and molue horns and the verbal “maps” from their call boys pollute the overcrowded streets of the city. Referring to the verbal route maps chanted by bus conductors as a unique feature of the Lagos sound that particularly drew his attention, Ogboh has stated that, “the verbal maps are the acoustic cartographic mapping of Lagos by its bus routes and destinations, and by bus conductors.”8 In addition to the horns and the route chants, a polyphony of dramas is enacted as Lagosians congregate in these overcrowded buses in their daily journeys to and from work. Ogboh records the voice of Lagos in this cacophony of bus horns, chanted route maps, and brawls. The idea of the fast-paced city and its aggressive mercantilism are embedded in the terms danfo and molue themselves, whose meanings conjure up the polyglot spirit of the metropolitan jungle and its laws of survival, i.e. “Just keep ramming on” to borrow from Lagosian street lingo.
An eight minute and ten second clip entitled Lagos by Bus offers the listener a detailed audio landscape of Lagos. In the clip the Pidgin chatter of travelers intermingles with the clinking of beverage bottles, music from a radio, and above all the pervasive and cacophonous hooting from danfo and molue buses. The most discernible of the conversations in Lagos by Bus is a pre-departure sermon and prayer by a peddler hawking drugs for diabetes and glaucoma to commuters. Vendors in danfo and molue buses are known to coax travelers with prayer to buy their merchandise. As one listens to the sermon, the music in the background becomes discernible as a popular song by the eminent late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti titled “Coffin for Head of State.” The song—which also starts as a desperate prayer to Jesus Christ, Allah, and other deities for mercy—is also an essay on the grim socio-political reality of Kuti’s contemporary Nigeria. “Coffin for Head of State,” which was recorded after the Nigerian military invaded Kuti’s Kalakuta republic in 1977, narrates his personal ordeals with the Nigerian government, and decries the wanton corruption, political oppression, crime, and dehumanizing poverty across Africa.
Danfo and molue embody the cosmopolitanism of Lagosian soundscapes. From the hybrid origins of Pidgin, the language of Lagosian commuters, to the political concerns in Fela Kuti’s song and the pervasive influence of Christianity and Islam, one notes in danfo and molue a confluence of the triple heritage of African cultures described by Ali Mazrui in The Africans; A Triple Heritage.9 They are representative of Mbembe’s afropolis. The whole danfo and molue “ambience,” as featured in Ogboh’s soundscapes, emblematizes the hustle and bustle of modern life not only of Lagos but of many post-colonial cities.
Passenger buses of the danfo and molue class are not unique to Lagos. Most African cities share similar public transportation systems promising similar travel experiences to the commuter. For example, the Tanzanian transport system has the Dala dala; Zimbabweans ride the battered Tshova; Congolese streets are teeming with the noisy Fula fula; Ugandans and Kenyans pack themselves in the claustrophobic Matatu. While in their physicality danfo and molue are unique to Lagos, the multifarious sounds offer Ogboh a springboard to explore issues of more widespread relevance.
With their peculiar claustrophobic dramas, mishaps, and entertainment, danfo and molue are heterotopias or “non-places” between the home and the destination as Foucault described them. One could compare the buses to Foucault’s ship: “a floating part of space, a placeless space, that lives by itself, closed in on itself and at the same time poised in the infinite of the ocean.”10 In the Foucauldian sense, danfo and molue are poised in the vast metropolitan concrete jungle of Lagos, offering temporary distractions for middle and lower class Lagosians as they shift and drift from destination to destination in their daily struggles, dramas, and misadventures. Danfo and molue are transitory spaces defined by their own relations and experiences but they are also microcosms for understanding the heterogeneous city of Lagos.
It is an essential part of Ogboh’s aesthetic that he presents the found sounds predominantly raw. According to Ogboh, minimal studio manipulation might be needed during the recording process, but he does not significantly alter the original sounds. He selects and presents the sound in a manner that permits him to retain its original form.
Ogboh’s approach can be compared to that of his contemporaries such as the South African artist James Webb and the Egyptian Magdi Mostafa, both of whom tune in and listen attentively to their environments to investigate their sounds.11 However, while these artists edit, refine or even abstract the values and tones of found sound according to particular acoustic investigations, Ogboh’s practice is a re-contextualization of the raw soundscape.12 This recontextualization opens the noise up to its acoustic re-examination and translation. The American theorist of sound Emily Ann Thompson offers a definition of the term “soundscape,” which is a lucid interpretative framework for Ogboh’s work. According to Thompson, a soundscape is “an auditory aural landscape…which is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”13 One can think of almost all of Ogboh’s pieces as detailed sonic vistas, or auditory landscapes that are not only recreations of the physical environment of Lagos but are in themselves a way of understanding that environment.
In Ogboh’s minimal and yet potent sound-clips, one notes the pervasive influence of John Cage’s avant-gardist practices, which re-contextualized raw, everyday sounds. They also recall Romuald Hazoume’s practice of minimally altering found fuel jerry cans to create masks that strongly allude to wanton economic exploitation of the continent. Ogboh’s work, though, differs in its aesthetic from that of Hazoume’s generation, which includes artists like Anatsui. While his predecessors recycle quotidian objects to create works that refer to traditional African art (masks in the case of Hazoume, or Akan Kente cloth in the case of Anatsui), Ogboh’s soundscapes are contemporary statements on the dramas of present day survival. The work neither stakes claims on identity nor makes nostalgic references to a golden traditional past but rather reflects on the subjective condition in the postcolonial African metropolis.
Ogboh’s work depends on the power of sound to generate images in the mind of listeners, but it should be noted that an appreciation of the soundscapes is incomplete without a spatial account of the environments within which they are exhibited. The three-dimensional booths within which the sounds are encountered enhance the listener’s perception. For example Lagos by Bus (2010), a forty minute soundscape installation, was presented at the Rautenstrauch-Joset Museum in Cologne in a booth painted in the trademark danfo and molue yellow and black striped colors complete with stickers and labels commonly found on the buses . The totality of sound and the three-dimensional environment of the yellow booth immersed the listener in an experience which further referred to the original danfo and molue ambience.
In 2010, in a project titled Lagos Soundscapes in Cologne: Reception of Strangeness and Consumption of Difference, Ogboh placed loud speakers blaring with Lagosian street sounds in the Zentral Bibliothek in Cologne. The speakers were installed so that passersby on the streets outside the library could hear the sounds. The honks and blares of Lagos were imported onto the pavement of Cologne to intervene in the city’s local acoustics. In the intervention, the noise of the foreign city of Lagos were inserted in and temporarily became part of the local soundscape of Cologne, creating for the listener a process of defamiliarization of the city’s ambience. Jean-Paul Thibaud has argued that, with sound, the listener does not experience the world from the outside but from within it, 10
in accordance with it, as part of it. According to Thibaud, “the sensing subject is nothing but a resonant body that gets in tune and in sync with his or her environment.”14 In Ogboh’s intervention the Cologne city dweller was totally immersed in the new sonic environment and through sensation became part of this soundscape. But, according to Thibaud, the resulting defamiliarization would include an awareness of the acoustic structure of both the old and the new soundscapes. Through what he calls its active, generative, and collective dimensions, sound can help to document the “social expression of an ambience.” Particularly referring to the generative aspect of sound Thibaud notes:
When we listen to an ambience, we hear an ambience being made; we hear the processes of formation and transformation itself…When we try to understand the way an atmosphere is generated, we have to consider the interaction between the built environment and the social practices it enables and relies on. In other words an ambience cannot be reduced to mere sensory qualities resulting from the architecture or spatial design of a place. We also have to take into account the everyday activities of the city dwellers.15
The generative dimension highlights the capacity of sound to recreate or refer back to the processes that produced it. In Ogboh’s work it refers back to all the elements that constitute or create Lagosian street sounds, e.g. the buses, the vendors, and the commuters. Regarding the collective dimension of sound, Thibaud posits that sound acts as an index of an urban ambience. Sound is “both the expression and the medium of various modes of social existence; it is closely intertwined with the hurly-burly of social life.”16 Therefore, for the active listener, Lagos sound interventions would be an index of the environment(s) that created that sound. Ogboh’s aural landscape would refer back to the objects that created the sounds. Even for the Cologne resident who had never been to Lagos, its sounds would conjure up images of an imaginary place bustling with metropolitan activity. Considered within Draxler’s observation of the political underpinnings of urban sounds, an immersion in these ambiences would then result in a consciousness of the social dimension of the sounds. The Pidgin vendors, the hurrying horns of danfo and molue, and the unbearable street music are all signifiers of the drama of capital. In this light, the active listener’s phenomenological experience of the sounds would lead to an awareness of the politics implicit in the gesture, i.e. the intervention of third world city sounds in a first world city ambience. Of course it would be naïve to overlook the diversity in attitudes and responses the Cologne city dwellers would bring to the sounds. Each listener would have their own interpretation of the noises. But for Ogboh:
Lagos Soundscapes in Cologne relocated the Lagos soundscapes to the streets of Cologne, combining the concepts of time, spatial configuration, and the function of the imaginary, in order to interrogate the current issues of migration, especially from the global south to the global north, the place/ displacement of multiculturalism, and the quest for sameness in an increasingly globalizing world.” 17
By intervening in the environs of a European city such as Cologne, Ogboh produces a dialectic between different cities with divergent but yet interlocked histories. Ogboh imports, as it were, Lagosian sounds into a foreign environment thereby problematizing an asymmetrical cultural and economic exchange. He points to an historical imbalance assessed by the literary critic Phillip Rothwell who argues:
As the world economic system evolved, becoming more abstracted in a system of capitalist alienation championed by northern European powers, the notion of what needed to flow for the economic system to function became firmly entrenched in the concept of the flow of capital itself. Capital demanded all frontiers and restrictions on it removed, while sanctioning restrictions on which people could move freely, and who was to be left on the other side of opulent fortresses’ impenetrable walls.18
Rothwell’s remarks on the dynamics of economic power and its impact on the movement of certain peoples take us back to Mbembe’s cosmopolitan understanding of Africa urbanity as space historically shaped by global socio-economic interrelationships. Ogboh’s recontextualization of the potent noises of danfo and molue, and the work’s intervention in foreign cities, represent the flow of ideas, capital, and goods, and the movement of people in and out of the cities in question. Just as the African continent is home to people from all corners of the globe, Africans too are citizens of the world. But in light of Rothwell’s position and also in the context of the present day, post-9/11 era, Lagos Soundscapes in Cologne hints at the tough restrictions faced by African immigrants trying to find a better life in the Western metropolis. The work raises pertinent questions about the contradictions of globalization. One could note how Ogboh’s installations evoke Danish artist Jens Haaning’s work Turkish Jokes, which transmitted Turkish or Arabic jokes to a largely English speaking audience thereby creating a Babel experience between the immigrant and local communities. Like Haaning’s piece, Ogboh’s soundscapes unstitch and re-examine the supposedly multi-cultural fabric of the European city. The noises disturb the local acoustics of the mannered districts of a European metropolis to highlight the skewed socio-economic relationships of the global south and the north.
In Cologne passersby complained about the unbearable noise of Lagos streets—the groans and roars of a multicultural metropolitan monster. With this in mind one could reverse Foucault’s analogy of the ship (the “heterotopia par excellence” which “goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens”) and argue that it returns, but no longer to deliver plunder from the colonies. With the riotous horns of danfo and molue disturbing the mannered districts of European cities the Frankenstein of empire returns to haunt the crown.