Emeka Ogboh: “It is pretty much cacophonous out there, but at the same time it feels like music being composed by the city”
The artist biography of Emeka Ogboh got my attention right on, born 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria, Ogboh artistic practice is shaped by him confronting the ethic and sociopolitical questions of our times in general and those of his home country Nigeria particularly. Ogboh is not limited to one artistic genre, he works with sounds, videos, photos and installations – and explicitly names food, smells and beer as part of this artistic portfolio.
„Beyond The Yellow Haze“, the poetic debut album by Emeka Ogboh, was released on A-Ton, the sub-label of Ostgut Ton end of 2020 and helped ending this terrible year with a high note; his installation work „Ayilara“ is part of the „Studio Berlin“ exhibition at Berghain and shown on the mighty main dance floor of the club, bringing in sounds from the streets of Lagos to the empty space. That said: the sounds of his Nigerian home environment are very important for the work of Ogboh, „Beyond The Yellow Haze“ is built on field recordings from street of his town.
Emeka, let me start with a question reacting on your self description, marking you as an artist whose output comprises besides the expected fields of sound-, video-, photo- and installation-works but also food, smells and beer. An interesting statement. Can you elucidate what you mean by that?
It means that I explore the different human senses in my art practice. I am interested in how I can use different sensorial stimulations to express my creativity.
Though I am known more for my sound practice, I have been exploring the gustatory for some time now, especially in works that I made about migration from the Global South to the Global North. Recently, I started incorporating the olfactory sense in these migration-related works. I believe that sound, taste and smell are very strong media that can be used to frame a better understanding of our world. There is a lot of information embedded in food for example, and I like the idea of telling a story using different ingredients, especially spices. This quest to tell a story has led me to sometimes collaborate with chefs to create culinary experiences, and with breweries to brew a craft beer. By exploring flavours and textures, both familiar and unfamiliar, I try to create a palatable narrative, with a point of departure firmly rooted in migration and the issues around it.
You are born in Enugu, Nigeria, these days you live both in Berlin and Lagos. How are those two cities shaping your art – first of in a singular way but also in the interaction in the bigger picture.
Lagos and Berlin are two completely different worlds, but I love the fusion that both places bring to my practice. It is neither about here or there, but about the intersections of both places and the alchemy created in this process. Though both cities are diverse and multi-cultural, for almost everything Lagos is, Berlin is the complete opposite. In my world, they counterbalance each other, almost like a yin and yang thing, and this quiet storm of sorts collaboration fuels my creative process.
Bottom line, I do not like to separate the two, though one could be louder than the other at certain times, the quieter one is still in the background hard at work on the engines. So, I tap into the synergy, and enjoy the influences of these two places on my person, and on my art practice. It’s a creative blessing to have access to these two great cities.
“Beyond The Yellow Haze“ is your debut album. A beautiful and very personal record. There are many sound refrences to your Nigerian home in form of field recordings. How do you chose the places to record those sounds?
My favourite places to record in Lagos are the bus stations and the markets. These are spaces that define the city by the sheer number of people that engage with or pass through these spaces. The mega-city has a population of over 18 million people, and a vast majority of them use the public transportation system and also patronize these markets. The activities of these people generate a copious and diverse amount of sounds, which are being transmitted constantly; voices speaking different languages, hustling, hawking, cajoling, preaching, bargaining, arguing, discussing. And vehicular sounds; horns, engines revving, sudden braking, doors slamming. Different music genres competing for ‘airplay’ by bootleg record sellers. It is pretty much cacophonous out there, but at the same time it feels like music being composed by the city, and I record it all. The field recordings I worked with on “Beyond The Yellow Haze” came from these places.
Is it coincidence or concept, that with “Lekki Aiah Freeway“ and „Danfo Mellow“ there are two significant refrences to places of mobility?; expanded by even more streets sounds?
It is more conceptual than coincidental. “Lekki Ajah Freeway” is me behind the wheels of my car, driving back home late at night when the traffic is at a bare minimum or nonexistent. It is more of a kinetic energy type of flow. “Danfo Mellow” is more laid back, it is me inside the Danfo bus as it navigates its way slowly through different locations and bus stops in Lagos. It’s all mellow and rhythmic, even though mellow is an opposite description of the Danfo bus. They are both places of mobility and are essentially how I traverse the city.
Within the territory of Lagos there live around 250 different nationalities. Do you feel that this massive amount of musical and art in general influencies is also coming together in the productions of the artists you favor and in your own work?
Lagos is a melting pot of sorts, not just for Nigerians but for people from West Africa and other parts of the world. The city is a medley of different things; it is dynamic, colorful, vibrant, chaotic, intense, cacophonic, restless, in constant flux, and many more. These different elements can be found in the works of art and music by those, myself inclusive, that are inspired or influenced by the city.
One of the tracks is entitled „Everydaywehustlin“. Can you describe to someone who has never been to Nigeria how the daily life there looks and feels like?
“Everydaywehustlin” is about the mercantile hustle and bustle that defines Lagos, so the track is really about Lagos and not Nigeria.
So, back to your question of describing Nigeria’s daily life for someone who has never been. In my opinion, there is no one person perspective on the daily life of a country that big, in terms of landmass and human population. Nigeria is one of those countries with so many different realities for it to be succinctly summed up by one person. I would say if you have an interest in the country, travel and see.
As much as we see growing differences between the ones with high incomes and the one with low incomes in Europe too within the last years, the income gap is by far not as big as in Nigeria. Do you feel this social injustice that comes by that has an direct impact on the music coming from your home country?
Yes, it does have an impact. Just as in every part of the world where there is a vibrant music scene, the musicians are influenced by their environments and sing about social injustices going on. Nigeria is no exception. Nigeria musicians have been able to create club hits with afro-pop music that talk about these injustices. Musicians do have the ears of the masses, and their songs have to reflect the realities on the ground. Though a lot of these songs are not whole tracks dedicated to these issues, you will hear them mentioning it, amongst many other things.
And the second one: Are artists either very political or in the total opposite, like the „Naija“ artists – and by that more likely as we know it from high rollin us rappers – not at all?
It is a mix of both, with less focus on politics. There is a lot of bling-bling and materialism embedded in the works of many Naija music artists. This is what the popular culture demands, and they are constantly delivering on that. But there is a big shift now, especially after the #ENDSARS demonstration last year that ended with the massacring of some of the protesters by the Nigerian Army. The Nigerian Youth are becoming more politically conscious and educated, thanks to social media and easier access to information. The political consciousness is changing, and I believe there will be more politically motivated music being released in the future. the musicians are also aware of this shift and will want to stay relevant to their audience.
Your work feels deeply sociopolitically grounded, still the way it communicates is subtile and asks the listeners for commitment before it opens up its inner secrets. There are no such things as paroles or pointed out truth, instead the messages come by moods and atmosphere. Let me simply ask you why you prefer that approach?
I wouldn’t say I prefer that approach, it just ends up that way. It probably comes from my non-confrontational personality, which could indirectly influence my work in some ways. As long as the message gets delivered, I guess it doesn’t matter what delivery services you use.
Coming from the question before: How do you experience the way the Western Societies reflects the music and art scenes of Africa?
Times have changed, the internet has provided more access to African contents, so the Western world is not so ignorant about Africa as in the past. Of course, there are still those who are stuck in the past, and still have certain expectations of how what comes out of Africa should look and feel. You will hear them using words like exotic and tribal in their descriptions of contents coming out of Africa. But like I pointed out earlier, there’s a big improvement in general.
Coming from the socio-economic structure of the country, how hard is it to chose the life of an artist within your culture?
When I was growing up, it was almost taboo to choose an art career path; artists were considered irrelevant, unambitious and poor. Parents preferred their kids studying to become lawyers, doctors or engineers since these were considered to be lucrative and relevant careers. I know peers whose parents clamped down on their artistic inclinations, forcing them to study something else instead. But these days, the narrative is changing, there are many successful local and international Nigerian artists, not just doing well financially but are also courted public figures. So, the old stereotypes do not hold much water, and it is actually ‘hip’ to be an artist now. We could say the yardstick for success has changed.
The way you interweave the differnt sounds on „Beyond The Yellow Haze“ is remarkable. It feels so natural and smooth and not at all constucted, but then again one can hear how fragile the mix is. How long did you work on the album? How much try and error is there in the way you construct those enigmatic sound environments?
I worked on the “BTYH” album for over six months, mostly because music-making is not my core focus, and initially, I was not thinking of putting out an album, so there was no hurry. It was more of a compilation I was experimenting with, looking at a different way to open people’s ears to Lagos. The process starts with rummaging through your hard-drive and identifying recordings that interests you. You put noise cancellation headphones on and start listening to these recordings on loop, with all external noises of Berlin blocked out. The constant immersive listening transports you back to the space and the moment of recordings. Then the sensorial recollections kick in; you start recalling the feel of the sun on your body at that moment, the different smell in the air, the jostling and movement of people around you while you were recording, the visuals associated with the space. Then the music starts developing in your head. It is a conceptual and yet a corporeal process, but it doesn’t end there. The rest of the magic takes place when you start creating the music on your DAW, adding, subtracting, and the music starts taking shape. The music speaks to you, guiding you through as you slowly stitch things together. It is a process that requires patience. You have to trust your guts and the experiences you have gained over time working with sound.
The album comes out on A-Ton, the sub label of Ostgut Ton. How did this come along?
Alex from A-Ton made that happen. I got an email from him after I installed the music for the Studio Berlin exhibition. He wanted to talk about the track and the possibility of releasing it as part of a compilation. In our first meeting, he gave me a bunch of records to introduce what their label was all about. So, in our next meeting, I gave him the BTYH record, which I had put out originally in 2018 as a limited artist edition. He listened to it, and as they say, the rest is history.
You are not only participating in the „Studio Berlin“ exhibition happening for a few months now at Berghain, your work is „Ayilara“ placed on the might main dancefloor. As I am based in Cologne I was not able to see the exhibition yet, can you give some insights about the work and lay out how that enviroment and the work correspondent?
The track “Ayilara” is part of the new album (“6°30′33.372″N 3°22′0.66″E”) that I am currently working on, and the album is inspired by Ojuelegba, one of the most popular bus station locations in Lagos. This is a place constantly pulsating with different human activities all day and night, and its notoriety was celebrated by Fela Kuti on his track called “Confusion”.
I am making music from sounds I recorded there, and these are mostly soundscapes generated in this space, and recorded conversations with the regulars (bus drivers and conductors).
Ayilara is a famous street located here, and its infamy is based on its transformation at night into a red-light district. “Ayilara” was the track that I was working on during the Covid lockdown period, and since the Studio Berlin exhibition was interested in what artists were up to during the lockdown, we decided to install the music on the main dance floor in Berghain as my contribution to the exhibition. The choice of installing on the installation space was taken by the curators, but the foremost attraction for me was having this music playing from those amazing four-way Funktion One loudspeakers .
By the way: Are you a dancer? Did you spend many times on this dance floor?
I do dance, but I am more of a Dj these days than a dancer… I prefer to make the crowd move and groove under the influence of the music I’m playing.
I heard that you have several projects in progress. Which is great as from my own experience being busy is the best in trouble days. Can you share some of those paths you are walking on right now?
I do have a couple of commissions lined up, some I can’t speak about yet, but for sure 2021 is going to be a busy year. Some of these commissions would have been realized last year but got cancelled and moved to this year because of the Covid lockdowns. There’s “Stirring the Pot”, a multi-sensorial project that I will be opening this summer in Marseille. This exhibition involves a multi-channel film installation accompanied by sounds and scents created around the concept of migration. The exhibition events will also include food curated with multiple chefs, where we will be designing new recipes inspired by anti-immigration political speeches. There will also be dj sets and two new craft beer releases.
Then I have a commission for the Edinburgh Art Festival and a different commission for some public spaces in Frankfurt. I will also be working on the new album for a yet to be announced date release.
Music is our healing place in bad times, right? I realized I come back a lot to certain records during the last year of limitations and restrictions. Do you have such musical happy place?
Yes, I do have a musical happy place, these are mostly records from my parent’s collection, and the music connects me to my childhood days growing up in Enugu. For example, songs from Boney M, Michael Jackson, 70’s and 80’s disco from Africa, the likes of Jide Obi, Bunny Mack, Oby Obioha, Chris Okotie, Lijadu sisters, William Onyeabor. They remind me of childhood birthday parties, and the beautiful memories that I associate with these parties.
“Beyond The Yellow Haze” by Emeka Ogboh is out on A-TON