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Music Stories from our Programme

Sarah Elena Müller & Orakle Ngoy: Switching roles to understand each other’s realities

Swiss musician Sarah Elena Müller and Congolese slammer Orakle Ngoy met at the international PUNCH Agathe Project in Münster (DE). The two musicians were inspired by each other’s stage performance and set about developing plans to work together to exchange and reflect on the concerns of women in the DRC and Switzerland and develop a live set and further formats, that evolve around their common interests.

Now, following their research trips in DRC and Switzerland, the artists share reflections, learnings and insights from their time working together and experiences in each other’s contexts.

Orakle Ngoy feat. DJ Natur_E

Soundcloud

Shared politics, different contexts

At the end of 2019, Bernese musician Sarah Elena Müller spent 3 weeks in Kinshasa, DRC with local rapper Orakle Ngoy. This was immediately followed by the two artists spending another 3 weeks working and performing together in Bern, Switzerland in February 2020. In addition to providing opportunity for Sarah Elena and Orakle to collaborate and create music together around shared points of interest, the research trips allowed the two artists to gain an understanding of each other’s context and reflect on how their own lived reality colours their ideas and experiences of the social politics that they explore in their work. Likewise, the alternate locations of Kinshasa and Bern gave each artist an interesting switch of roles and responsibilities providing insight and understanding into each other’s artistic, social and private realities.

Sarah Elena: Orakle and I certainly got to know each other’s reasons for being in music, writing and activism better. A lot of time in Kinshasa is spent waiting for things, people, electricity, getting better, taxis, money or a call. So we talked a lot about writers and artists that impress us. About feminism and racism here and there, about ‘white’ beats and rhumba, about musical conventions and on how a non-conventional, female voice in rap still needs to impose herself without showing any weakness or doubts. It was interesting to realize that the discourse on vulnerability in the feminist circles I know, is suddenly not compatible with reality anymore, when circumstances and infrastructure are not stable, or can’t be taken for granted. The same can be said about electronic music approaches, about defining your artistic profile with the help of a social and technical structure, that allows one to start a career on a different level of privilege, without ever having to reflect it.

Orakle: We discovered that each of us having lived similar realities in our lives, quickly brought us together and this allowed for rapid growth in our creation and collaboration. My experience of Swiss daily life, lived realities and the artistic scene has had a huge impact on my work and aroused my curiosity.

Tangential learnings

In Kinshasa, as in many places in the region, complex social codes exist along lines of class, family hierarchy and social status. For Western European artists, being present and participating within these social systems is neither neutral nor simple.

Sarah Elena: I’ve specifically learned that working in culture in Kinshasa is linked to strict social codes, since supporting one another is not just a meaningless phrase but crucial to surviving. This also means respecting the chains of delegation and responsibilities, even if there are simpler or faster ways of dealing with information and getting things done. It took me a while to understand how to behave and interact with people without intercepting their usual flow. For me as a Swiss-bred artist, I am accustomed to working independently, quickly and with self-reliable exchange of information. In Kinshasa, this often led to me short cutting between actors of cultural life, which to a social system that is built only on the bonds and dependencies between its individuals, was interpreted as a lack of respect. This was sometimes difficult to deal with, nevertheless it was absolutely crucial to better understand how this context works and how the artists and activists move around in it. To me it was a great learning experience on how the Western idea of efficiency and flawlessness have a pretty ambivalent impact on social security systems and relationships, which are rather based on trust and togetherness, than on the common security of state and law.

Mosquito nets and questions

During the Bern/Switzerland part of the research trip, the artists invited Swiss video engineer Fabian Hirter to develop abstract visual material to accompany their performances from the video footage Sarah Elena had gathered in Kinshasa. The concept was to have one element of the visuals in response to Sarah’s sounds and another interpret the voice of Orakle. During this process a mosquito net joined the crew; an ubiquitous object in Kinshasa and recurring motif in the video material. For the artists, the net became an ironic metaphor for Sarah Elena’s western gaze in Kinshasa: obscured by this net, but also desperately seeking shelter from a sensory overload.

Language played an interesting barrier for the two artists, particularly in Switzerland where they became a two-person island relaying and interpreting all interactions, spaces and exchanges. In response to recurring questions or misunderstandings, the artists found they had developed their own abstracted version of French with shortened sounds and chopped off syllables, which in itself became an odd mixture of running gag and frustration. They decided to use this language of highly potentiated incomprehension as the basis for a new track titled “ES-KE?”, in which they redirect their questions back at the audience, claiming their hybrid language and in so doing illustrating the power dynamics implicit in language.

This intensive series of research trips follows on from the artists’ first meeting at the International Punch Agathe Project in Münster where they established points of common artistic and feminist activism interest. During their time together in Kinshasa and Bern, Sarah Elena and Orakle developed and performed new musical collaborations under their stage name Orakle Ngoy feat. DJ Natur_E. They’re already exploring future opportunities to continue their collaboration.