February 2016 saw the first performance of We, the Transposed, a collaboration between Cape Town-based dance company Darkroom Contemporary and Mischa Mathys (The Formant). The sound/dance installation featured processed field recordings taken from Johannesburg and transposed to Youngblood gallery as a spatial sound installation, which was then interpreted into movement by Darkroom Contemporary dancers Kristy Brown, Teagan Leigh de Marigny, Aviwe November and Vuyu Mahashe under the choreography of Louise Coetzer. A unique series of sounds were dedicated to each corner of the performance space, randomly played back by computer to the quadrophonic sound installation. Each performance was thus temporally unique and spatially significant depending on where the audience member was located. As part of the fundraising campaign, a stereo version of a performance was recorded after the fact, with three additional versions manipulated by the artist in a digital format. You can stream these recordings now and read the story of We, the transposed below.
The sounds of Johannesburg are pouring in through my friend’s apartment in Maboneng in September of 2014. It’s early evening and the shebeen on the street has just found the boost switch for its sound system. O.T. Genesis is forcing his way past the cacophony of commuters on their way home from a day at work. There’s a Djembe playing somewhere in time with the general drone of the traffic outside, the West African drum sounding lazy and thick in the humid air of the city. The chattering voices of the street down below form an extensive counterpoint as they amalgamate into the composition of the city of Johannesburg. I can see the Hillbrow tower from my perspective and it takes on something of surreal quality in the dusty air. It’s the first time I’ve actually had an opportunity to stare at it long enough to appreciate its slender construction, tapering out towards its base and its crest. There’s something feminine to this phallic structure as she sways to the rhythm of the city in the wind. As the day turns to the dusty hew of night the luminescent glow of the business district in the distance breathes new life into the song. The orchestration from the street takes on new intonations with the jovial clatter of laughter and excited vocal eruptions stabbing through the textures of the drone intermittently.
It’s the first time I’ve visited to city long enough to appreciate it for its music. It’s a timeless composition that exists on its own terms, appropriating many different forms with various interchangeable parts moving in and out of focus. The call to Morning Prayer from a nearby Mosque falls in line effortlessly with a busker down in the street. Every new element of the composition is a new component of the identity of the city, continuously unfurling through the people that make up the city of Johannesburg. As all these sounds made of people from various cultural backgrounds conspire, it begged one question; “Can anyone truly say they are from Johannesburg?” Johannesburg, a city that only sprang into existence in the 19th century has no indigenous culture to speak of, the sum of its population a result of the various Diasporas that came to the city when gold was discovered. None of the people living there today can lay claim to the origins of their ancestral roots in the region. Even the San people, who might have mined the town long before the Europeans settled there, were always just passing through.
Somewhere in Braamfontein an NG Kerk Bell is periodically ringing in phase with the musical chimes of the taxis jostling for position on Jorrisen Street. They are carrying the city’s inhabitants to various destinations, people who identify with the city, and I wonder what they say when people ask them; “where are you from?” It’s a question I’ve always found difficult to answer myself. As a Swiss citizen who was raised in South Africa, and lived for the most part of his adult life in the UK and Europe, the question has become a contentious one, I realise, but when people ask me where are you from, I never hesitate to say, Cape Town.
In Johannesburg they don’t seem to ask this question because everyone is from everywhere else and the only answer left to give is; “we are from here!” They say it without it moving their lips. They say it the music they create as the living, breathing metropolis of the city. They say we are the transposed and this is our song. It’s a song that celebrates diversity and condemns those that want to break it down. In the light of the Xenophobic attacks in South Africa; the Syrian refugee crisis; and the Mediterranean filling up with the dead bodies of the transposed, this song is more poignant than ever, and when the city of Johannesburg sings it, their song is a universal one. They sing, we are all the transposed and look how beautiful we sound together. They sing it from disparate corners with every unique voice combining in a most magnificent choir. The song moves on a spatial plane as much as a temporal one and the listener is always aware of the music. The song is We, the transposed and we would like to share this song with you.