Experience the sounds of Africa’s cities through the sound art work of Yara Mekawei, Emeka Ogboh
and James Webb

In an empty room the piercing sounds of vehicle horns ripple. It is distinctive – a marker for a city that can only be Lagos. You pinch your ears to adjust to the noise; it is interspersed with street hawkers, party music, the booming sounds of AIT and CNN followed by eager commentators on the world’s news. In another country over 4,000 miles to the south the mesmerising sounds of Ramadan prayers rise up and echo round a large, empty space, the hum of Cape Town in the distance. And on the far tip of the continent from here, furious debates are taking place on an early morning commute in Cairo. Food sellers shuffle their feet across the city’s metro and songs by local pop musicians join the din. Africa is always on the move and as the continent’s metropolis change and adapt; its sound and visual artists are documenting this transition. Flouting traditional notions of art, their preferred tool is digital. With it they record the lived experiences of Africa’s millennials – the messiness of 24-hour urban living, chaotic traffic jams, bus station queues and more importantly - the cacophony of noise.

"You can feel the energy of the
city from the soundscapes"

“I like to make a beat,” sound artist and electronic musician Yara Mekawei laughs. “You can listen, you can dance, you can enjoy but basically the sounds are the beats of the pure recording of the streets. Everyday I hear a different sound. Even though I take the same road from my house to work.” Cairo-born Mekawei has performed across Europe and the Middle East and took part in the Dakar Biennial earlier this year. Her latest projects Infrastructure 1 and 2 look at how sounds in the city are defined by contemporary architecture by collecting the ambient noise created inside apartments. Soundscapes or sound art, she explains are pure field recordings edited down and remixed. Although niche, the medium is an emerging trend in Africa. “The people who are selling stuff on the street. The bus driver talking to a car driver, they create sounds without realising this is art. This is inspiring to other people.”

In her installation piece Shoubra Line, we hear music playing on cell phones, tenor announcements and the conversations of metro travellers on politics, on government, on a changing country. The old town of Shubra is multicultural, explains Mekawei: “It’s a very special place because it still has Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbours. After only three minutes in the metro station you can understand the basic line of Egyptian society based on this old town.”

Over in Nigeria, Lagos is a city influx, littered with highways and skyscrapers nearing completion. “You can feel the energy of the city from the soundscapes,” says Emeka Ogboh. Hailing from Enugu, Ogboh has been dubbed Africa’s first sound artist by many western media titles. A claim he furiously disputes. “Perhaps Nigeria’s first but not Africa,” he comments. Regardless his works capturing the vibrant sounds of Lagos have been exhibited across Europe and the US. He is co-founder of the Video Art Network Lagos and was awarded 2016’s Böttcherstraße in Bremen prize for his installation piece Food Is Ready! The work considers the connections between food and cultural identity among African migrants settling in Europe.

Meanwhile Market Symphony - a recording of hectic Balogun market - is currently exhibiting at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. The exhibition is the first time the museum has featured a work of sound art and a decision that has proved popular. The installation was scheduled to run until September but has been extended to February 2017.

“Lagos sort of blew my mind the first time I started to truly listen to it. You learn so much about the city and its people just through the soundscapes,” he says. The artist discovered sound art after taking a workshop in Egypt but started applying it to Lagos when a friend guessed he was in the city upon hearing background noise during a call. “Lagos people love partying, you hear the music, you hear the rhythm. Even the hawkers selling fish or bread or the church people with their loudspeakers. Lagos is very much a sound city, the bus conductors beeping their horns; it’s really about standing out. We are loud in Lagos.”

The city’s major infrastructural changes are evident in Ogboh’s recordings. “There are some sounds which are disappearing or in danger of disappearing, such as the voices of the bus conductors.” With plans to introduce new busses displaying destinations digitally, there will be no need for conductors to call out stops. As new roads are built, crackdowns on illegal street selling and hawking also pose a threat to the mega city’s most infamous sound originators. Religious organisations are facing similar noise pollution restraints. “At some point you won’t hear these churches and mosques as loud as you used to, so I think in some ways Lagos is becoming more quiet.”

In South Africa, James Webb’s foray into visuals and sounds lead us on a ‘metrospection’ of the various religious groups grappling for attention. Based in Cape Town, Webb uses a variety of tools including audio, installation and text within his works and is recognised as a pioneer in this field. The artist uses sounds almost as connective elements to unearth issues within his own society. Webb’s work is featured in the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum. His projects such as Prayer (Johannesburg), Al Madat and Aleph deal with issues around community and faith.

Le Marché Oriental is a two-minute video that laterally considers the country’s shifting landscape. In it the artist invited a Sheikh from a UK based mosque to sing the Adhan (call to prayer) inside Cape Town’s disused Apartheid-era Oriental Plaza.
The recording was made a few weeks prior to the building’s demolition to make way for luxury apartments. The prayer can be heard alongside the ambient sound of the city outside. “These projects create a space for audiences and myself to contemplate issues of belief and faith as well as urban, political and cultural factors,” says Webb. “It’s not just about religion, and it’s never just sound, or about sound.”

In the future, Nigeria’s Emeka Ogboh hopes to see more upcoming artist explore the medium. “I want us to depart from that notion of just painting, sculpture and photography. If you are looking out from our cultural point of view sound has played an important role. It is in our DNA.”

Emeka Ogboh’s Market Symphony runs at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, until February 2017. He also participates in the Oslo Architecture Triennale from September - November and Ludlow 38, New York from September – December. James Webb is exhibiting We Listen for the Future at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in October