Interview with Sophia from Sound of Nairobi.

Sound of Nairobi is an open-access archive containing recordings from around Nairobi. By clicking different points on an interactive map, you can listen to the sonic environment in different neighbourhoods in the city. I talked to Sophia, who is one of the people behind the project.

Can you tell us a little bit about how this project started? Who initiated it and how did the idea come up? 

As so often it started with conversations and shared interests. For a few years Raphael Kariuki and I, we have been exchanging stories, marveling and listening to the sounds of Nairobi. Noticing that certain sounds were disappearing and new ones appearing over time, like the changing ringtones of mobile phones or the sound of motorbikes which accelerated with rise of boda-boda transport, we felt the need to document the changes in the soundscapes. And additionally we wanted to share our curiosity and fun in listening. We then reached out to our friend Brian Muhia, a programmer who has the technical knowhow to actually set up an online archive and the story goes from there ….

How is the project funded? 

Sound of Nairobi is a self-run project. However the Goethe Institut Nairobi has been supporting two main sub-projects: the Citywalks workshop and LISTEN exhibition in September/November 2019 and the current Sounds Like a Pandemic? project.

The aim of the project is to build up a sound archive and on your homepage it says you are looking to collaborate with architects, artists, musicians, researchers and so on, who might contribute to and make use of the collection. I know the project is in its early stages, but have it spawned any interesting artistic responses so far?

Several people have been using the sounds from the archive for their work and projects, amongst them film makers, TV producers, graphic designers, musicians and writers. For Sounds like a Pandemic? we have been able to commission Nairobi writers, Lutivini Majanja and Kamwangi Njue to reflect on the recordings (you can find the writings on our website). Sound artist KMRU and musician Monrhea have been doing cool stuff with the recordings for their productions. But hopefully the sounds are being used by many more people already. They are under a creative common licenses and free to use. We hope for the archive to be an active space and not a dormant storage.

How do you select the particular spots where you make your recordings? Do you typically decide on a place beforehand or do you switch on your equipment when something interesting happens?

First, we work with teams of about a dozen people who volunteer for soundwalks. Before the soundwalks, we have workshops where we share basic concepts of acoustic ecology investigation and practice. We do not direct the people to record specific places. Everyone is free to decide on the sounds of places and situations that they judge to be worthwhile, a useful representation of the city at that moment in time and contribute them to the archive.

The beautiful idea about Sound of Nairobi is that everyone can contribute their very subjective perspective and make it part of history. This subjective ear is an integral part of the archive. We do not want to create the illusion of an objective collection of sound. It rather reflects and validates the many different people with their uniquenesses that contribute to this archive.

Do you find that noise (rather than sound) is one aspect of Nairobi’s socio-economic dividedness? The recordings from the slum Kibera is very different from those from upscale places like Karen, for example. 

I like to not think in terms of good and bad noise or sound. I am sure the sound of home is beautiful regardless of being a resident of Karen or of Kibera. But of cause the sounds reflect the socio-economic reality of Nairobi. This means also they can play a role in documenting a city, be material to research and investigation, and eventually lead to greater knowledge and insights.

I think it is interesting how many different kinds of sound you get in these recordings and how it is not just city noise, but sounds that say something about what people are doing. I think it was in a recording from Kibera where you can hear a guy vocalising or rapping in the street for example, and I get the feeling that it is part of whatever it is he is up to. Do you think that these recordings say more about everyday life in Nairobi than they would in some other cities? 

The sounds reflect a reality that is not visible and, I think, that is the case for Nairobi as well as for other places. But maybe some cities are sonically more expressive than others.

What are your plans for the future? What is the next step, and how can people contribute? 

We are planning an exhibition of the Sounds Like a Pandemic? project in 2021 and hope to keep going on with what we do. Reach out to us if you have an idea of a contribution, we are always up for proposals:

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