Each time a community comes together and produces sound that is outside or against the dominant culture, it becomes a political project. Doing this in a public space inevitably makes it a much more direct political declaration – and for historically oppressed groups, the taking up of public space is a statement of asserting existence. In Berlin, many migrant communities come together in public space for protests, demonstrations, other political actions, and sometimes simply to play music or create sound together – and the way each of them use sound reflects their struggle.
In Berlin, sometimes before you even see the crowds, you can feel it is a protest from what you hear. The sound you hear is a conveyor of emotion. A tense silence broken only by police announcements telling protesters to go home, protesters shouting ganz Berlin hasst die Polizei [all Berlin hates the police], and helicopters whirring overhead will tell you it is the end of the 1 May demonstration. Traditional songs in Arabic, feet hitting the ground rhythmically in the dancing of dabke, and ululation might tell you it’s a demonstration in solidarity with Palestine. Thousands of FLINTA* people filling the streets with their voices, feminist music and performances will tell you it’s the internationalist 8 March demonstration.
Memories – such as the ones described above – form an important element of community-building through what Lynne Segal calls collective joy. It’s an almost utopian concept that, through histories of resistance, argues for the power of collective emotions in the pursuit of social change. Agnieszka Bułacik, a Polish-speaking activist, and member of Otucha choir, said: “I really remember what the music did to my body. From the 8 March demonstration [in 2021], what I remember is a lot of music, and a lot of joy”. Crowds and joy and sound are a political force. Talking about the protests around the de facto abortion ban, introduced by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal on 22 October 2020, Bułacik recalled writing a song that could be sung collectively. Called Moja macica to nie kaplica [My uterus is not your chapel], the song was simple, made up of just four lines and a refrain that would be picked up by the crowd, thanks to the simple melody. Eventually everyone’s voices would come together, and the distinction between those ‘on stage’ and the crowd would become blurry. It was not about performing in front of people, but with them; it was about feeling collectively and being together. Experiences of togetherness, such as this one, remain in the memories of those who feel and felt part of this community resisting the abortion ban.
Sonic fictions for a better world
These memories of collective emotions are situational and fleeting. They are not possible to recreate, but they still live in our memories and our bodies. During the summer of 2020, Out of Time Embassy (OOTE), a group of mostly migrant musicians, who all have roots in different musical traditions, recall moments of radical joy and radical care for each other, in a time where their many travelling musicians were stuck in Berlin in the height of summer because of restrictions caused by the pandemic. Out of a necessity to play and to be with others, the group began with jam sessions on Tempelhofer Feld. Feeling joy in difficult times – during a pandemic, shortly after the terrorist attack in Hanau, around the height of Black Lives Matter – is something this group of musicians had to learn, to throw off the feeling of guilt that they were having a good time while the world is falling apart around them, to let themselves enjoy it, and to allow themselves to spread this joy to others.
OOTE see themselves as a loose formation, and they see their undefined structure as key to their artistic practice. They came to see this togetherness as a sharing experience – an experiment countering the colonial matrix, which can be defined as the structure behind the global capitalist system, through which Western European states – including Germany – used colonisation to enforce a global hierarchy and impose control over the economy, knowledge, expressions of gender and sexuality, and institutional authority of non-Western countries. For OOTE, therefore, making music in a way that is organised outside of ‘expected’ structures, and where no capitalistic (financial) compensation was expected, felt freeing. Following Kodwo Eshun’s afrofuturist concept of ‘sonic fiction’, in which sound becomes a vessel for inventing new histories and fictioning better futures, OOTE try to compose a sonic fiction of their own.
Sounds of and for existence
“We are alive, we are here, we have not disappeared” – is what Comunidad Sikuris declare with their music. It is a music formed of rhythm and melody, highly cyclical and communal, connected to Pachamama [Mother Earth]. Comunidad Sikuris are a group of indigenous people from various regions in Latin America, living as migrants in Berlin, who play the sikus – a traditional form of music from the Andean Altiplano, whose status as a music of resistance is traced back to the arrival of the conquistadores around 500 years ago. The group first came together in 2018 to oppose the proposed release of Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, and since then Comunidad Sikuris have been performing deliberate acts of political resistance by participating in different demonstrations. Their public performances are a statement of the right to exist that has been questioned since the beginnings of European colonisation. Keeping traditional and ancient musical practices alive is directly linked with the survival of the people, and not just their own community; when they play they play for and with all the world’s oppressed.
Palestinian activists often feel the same. To Michael Jabareen, a Palestinian activist/artist and member of the street theatre troupe Basta Theater, it was self-evident that taking up public space is both empowering and essential, and that when one community speaks up against colonization and oppression, they do it for all the world’s oppressed. Palestinians also use traditional music, linked to dabke, a traditional dance, as a form of asserting their existence when it is being threatened. In Germany protesting in solidarity with Palestinians can be more difficult than elsewhere, and so this confrontation on the streets of Berlin becomes much more direct. “Maybe we need our voices to be heard so badly, and to make our demonstrations loud, because we are constantly being silenced. It’s important to not be silent, and to reach out, with your voice, to as many people as you can.” For Jabareen, it is not only about directing protests towards governments and official institutions, but it is also about drawing the attention of the public, to build a collective memory through the senses. How you do that is not really through the words you say in the speeches, but through the experience you give to people who come to support you.
Sounds of solidarity
The Eastern European and Palestinian diasporas, Comunidad Sikuris and the Out of Time Embassy, are all connected – and they are connected to many other groups and communities too. Some know each other, some do not. They come together at events, sometimes at each other’s. They often remember how they felt at events that moved them, at events they did not have to organise themselves, but maybe sometimes contributed to with a performance or a speech, or just with their voice – chanting, joining in the sound of the crowd. Their exchange of sounds, of languages and accents, of music and song, creates a new sonic fiction. It is a sonic fiction of a world where people from its different corners stand together and fight for each other’s rights. It is fictioning a joyous future in which all these sounds exist naturally with each other. It is solidarity in action and the sound of resistance. Whether it is a joy shared by just a handful of people or by a large crowd, any collective feeling of joy is worth fighting for. Even if the feeling lasts just for that moment, it lives on as a collective memory of and for a better future.
Banner: Patricia Treib, Limbs, 2019, oil on canvas, 183 x 137 cm
This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.