The Swedish Congo – An interview with Peder Mannerfelt

In Antwerp a Dodge truck is swung down from a cargo ship, before making its way to the royal place in Brussels. King Leopold, a keen photographer, inspects the trucks and the camera equipment ahead of an expedition, an expedition that he and the Belgium government helped fund. Somewhere in the USA a newsreel plays: “We were planning once more another voyage of adventure; this time Africa! From Antwerp, Belgium to Paris, through France and Spain to straits of Gibraltar, and then down through the vast continent of Africa to the Indian Ocean.” Armand and Leila (formerly Roosevelt) Denis, head up the expedition in a luxury Dodge sedan, and as they make their way through Morocco, the Sahara and Serengeti, they capture everything on film. From the man, eating glass on the streets of Marrakech, to the hippos lazily soaking in the afternoon sun on a central African riverbank. Everything is exotic to the Belgium-American husband and wife team as they marvel at the unfamiliarity of the continent. They witness the spectacle of nature at its best and come across people the average European at the time knew very little about. The Congo especially intrigues Armand, who as a Belgium has a vested interest in the region. He feels obliged to record more footage of the fascinating people there. Their medium is film and in 1934 it is still mostly silent, but the rich tapestries of sound they encounter in the Congo must have inspired the travellers to bring out the sound recorder too. They record everything with a musical intonation – ceremonial dances, leisurely music pursuits and folk songs that tell of the wonders of the animals around them. It’s the first recordings (film and audio) of the music and dances of the Mangbetu and Tutsi (Watusi) peoples. After a year in Africa and with an unimaginable length of audio and visual tape, they eventually find the Indian Ocean. Their journey at an end, and with Africa cemented in their hearts ­– Armand would later make Kenya his home – they make their way back home to share their incredible footage of ‘primitive’ Africa with Western ‘civilisation’. The reel is edited for a Dodge promotional film ‘Wheels across Africa’, which tells little of the people they encountered, especially in the Congo, and relies on an uniformed narrative, to highlight the severe conditions overcome by the Dodge trucks – even though at one point in the film a man on a donkey overtakes them in the Sahara. It’s a very anti-climatic end to what could have been an incredibly educating film. But, what of the sound recordings? Well their story is only just beginning. In 1936 The Congo soundtracks are released as commercial recordings. War breaks out in Europe in 1939 and at this point it’s hard to say just how many records are sold and where they’ve ended up. The war consumes all of Europe and drags Africa along with it, with various Western powers fighting over their stake on the content.

Belgium_CongoThe Denis-Roosevelt recordings are re-issued via Commodore under the title Primitive African Music. Around this time the word primitive starts taking on negative undertones as the western world starts to acknowledge the errors of their predecessors and re-asses the colonisation that was done in the name of their countries. In 1960 this leads to Belgium pulling out of the Congo and returning her to her people, but their sheer ignorance on the internal politics of the region leads to establishing the wrong political power for the region and the country is drawn into civil unrest, a civil unrest that still rages on to this day, but whose history is too lengthy to go into for the sake of this article. The re-issue of the Denis-Roosevelt recordings floats around for decades, passing through hands, enjoying endless listening and probably sparking innumerable debates on the significance of the recordings in relation to the time of the recordings and the new political landscape where colonisation is an uncomfortable word to wrap your tongue around. The record passes hands as new borders are drawn in Africa and countries go from being called Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The various needles wear ever-thicker grooves into the records as the Moog Synthesiser becomes an accessible option for any musician and the Roland 808 and 909 are born. The recordings reach newer and younger audiences as Roosevelt and Denis divorce and eventually pass away in the shadow of their careers. We don’t know which hands these records pass through. Possibly Steve Reich owns a copy. Maybe it even sparks his curiosity for African rhythms as he explores new ideas in counterpoint with Africa’s dense textural patterns inspiring him all the way through it. We don’t know much, but we know one such record eventually finds its way on a record store shelf in New York.

Enter Peder Mannerfelt: “I found it ten years ago in a store in New York.” The Denis-Roosevelt expedition recordings stood out amongst the other records in the world-music category. It was unclear how it arrived there or who had listened to it before the 1960’s re-issue had found its way onto that shelf but it was a serendipitous encounter nonetheless. “At that time I was buying a lot of African tribal music and that was just one more.” But something set it aside from the others almost instantly. “Another label, Ocora had put out copious amounts of records from all over the world. Their sound quality is amazing for being recorded in the fifties and sixties and I had already owned a few. I chose this album because the original tracks are really short and the fidelity is really low. I immediately felt the Denis-Roosevelt recordings were a bit more interesting.” Peder, a Swedish native, was working as a studio intern in Stockholm at the time. After spending some time in his youth playing guitar in hardcore and metal bands, he soon moved into electronic music through drum and bass. “I didn’t really have any friends doing electronic music, so I had no idea how to go about it.” His experience in the studio soon resolved this issue and in 2006, a year after the Denis-Roosevelt recordings came into his procession, he released his first EP as the Subliminal kid on Perspex. With this moniker he found some success on the dance floor, but the Denis-Roosevelt record remained in his collection, a constant presence in the back of his mind. As time wore on, Peder’s music evolved. An interest in Steve Reich’s methods in counterpoint, the very methods he borrowed from Africa, arose too. “I got the score for Steve Reich’s music for pieces of wood and I recreated that on my 909 as a fun exercise.” It made one soundcloud user respond: “There is no Subliminal Kid here. That was completely Raw, Man! I didn’t want to like it!” That sentiment ran analogous with Peder’s own feelings and the artist opted to drop the moniker as he felt he wasn’t “a kid anymore.”

That was 2010, after which he channelled all his efforts in to this new direction and established a new collaborative project with Malcolm Pardon called Roll the Dice. Any time away from this project was dedicated to his new work as a solo artist and in 2012 it all came together in a 12” called Come Closer. “I thought it was just my doodlings but Paul Pergas (Emptyset) heard something in it.” It was released under Paul’s label, We Elude control, the premise of which is, “that all the artists have to release under their given names. I realised shortly after that this was pretty good direction. I felt pretty confident in what I was doing and who I was. I ventured further into this direction instead of struggling in trying to make techno.” It was also around this time that the Denis-Roosevelt recordings make their way back into the story. Mannerfelt’s unremitting fascination for African rhythmical patterns and Steve Reich’s music – born out of the same interest – takes him back to his record collection in search of the record. He pulls it out with the intention to sample it at first, but the cultural significance of the record inherent in the problematic historical context of the time it was recorded stops him from doing so. “I chose to not sample these records in favour of trying to pay homage to the people that created this music and played this music originally.” He starts toying with the idea of re-creating the whole album with synthesisers. “It was actually Paul (Pergas) who encouraged me to go for it, to try and re-create everything.” It starts out as an exercise at first and Peder spends his days listening intently to the recordings, working out the patterns and the intonations of the voices. “I fell deeper and deeper in to the record. The fidelity is so low on the original recordings and I started picking up more things, the more I listened to it. I thought it would take a couple of weeks to do it, but I fell into a rabbit whole and spent the good part of a year in it.” He synthesises everything he hears and although the percussive parts come together easily, the vocal arrangements require a deeper understanding and take up more time. “There’s this technique called formant filtering, where you can do vowels quite easily – that’s why all the vocals are aa, ee, o, a. I was just kind of stepping through different settings on the filter, ‘cause I didn’t know what they are singing about. I researched that aspect and just worked on that for a long time. It was a very deprivable process, trying to pick up on the different melodies.“ Peder’s untrained musical ear fails him and some tracks don’t even make the cut. He shelves the project, still referring to it as an exercise, while at the same time, his career as Peder Mannerfelt “took off”.

He releases a string of EPs and in 2014 it culminates in the full-length Lines Describing Circles, his debut album under his given name. Peder’s sound is firmly established on that album as harsh synthetic soundscapes evolving around concepts, often accompanied by various percussive parts. The artist’s music flourishes in the margins, getting the attention it deserves amongst the avant garde in electronic music. Meanwhile the Mannerfelt versions of the Denis-Roosevelt recordings sit alongside the original on a shelf somewhere, always sitting in the back of Peder’s thoughts. “I didn’t even know if I was going to release it. I didn’t really know if it was good enough to put out by myself. It’s hard to decide for yourself if it’s something worth putting out.“AI04-PM-cover-digital Three years later however and a fortuitous event transpired, shedding light again on the Congo recordings. “Yves (de May) and Peter (van Hoesen) approached me about doing something for their label (Archives Intérieures) and the described what were looking for and I said I have this that I never released.” The cultural significance of the record then became an important point for Peder to elucidate on further. “I wanted it to come out in a really good context.” He considers the historical complexity of the records this and calls it Swedish Congo to reflect on “the silliness of the name The Belgian Congo (and I guess the whole idea of one country ”owning” another).” His choice to interpret the original recordings rather than sample it, is now the first significant step in opening up a new dialogue about cultural appropriation. By translating the original recordings into a synthesised electronic language, he turns the old recordings into something familiar to a modern society, but the question of cultural appropriation and its negative connotations still wont quite rest. “I am not saying that I’m not appropriating, I guess some people see it as doing exactly that. I don’t view this album as being composed by me. This is my kind of homage to an African music tradition of counterpointing drum rhythms.“ The drum patterns and synthesised voices on Swedish Congo come together in the same harsh sonic landscape that Mannerfelt has been working in since his first ‘doodlings’, but being what is essentially one of his earliest recordings it also stands out from the rest of the catalogue. It appears more frayed around the edges and one has to be very careful not to use words like ‘primitive’ to describe the record. The whole process is anything but, and even the original recordings are so complex that still today classical composers like Dirk de Ase use the same methods in finding new dimensions for counterpoint in music. But the historical context is still too significant to ignore, and when we consider this is being released on Belgium label, it conflates the issue further. Will this fuel the fire of criticism? “It’s always very troublesome doing conceptual records that involve people in this way; I’m open to criticism. It’s up to people to interpret it how they wish and I think the discussion is interesting as well. It should be approached as a debate issue.”

The original record still lies in Peder’s collection with Peder’s interpretation lying close by. The narrative of the story has a new branch now. Will it in fact overshadow the original recordings and obscure them further into the annals of African recordings out there? Will Swedish Congo give a false impression of its origins and subvert the culture it is trying to pay homage to or will it actually contribute to the on-going debate of cultural appropriation? Maybe it even answer’s a larger question. Is cultural appropriation still relevant in the age of the Internet as borders are drawn and re-drawn and the global village creates new Diasporas in new locations everyday? Sweden takes in more asylum seekers today than any other country in Europe, and this includes a significant number of Congolese refugees. They inevitably take their own culture with them and impose it in their new locations, fuelling cultural diversity as a result. We can even presume there will be a Swedish Congo in the near future as a new generation of Congolese people are born into the country. These are all significant additions to that debate, a debate that will probably never see the end. They are questions that will be raised every time a needle hits the record or it buffers on a drive somewhere. The Swedish Congo’s concept is too strong to allow for a passive a listening experience. To listen to the record is to know the story of the record and its origins. You must understand the context of the original Denis-Roosevelt recordings and how they arrived in Sweden, in the hands of Peder Mannerfelt, and eventfully alongside his own interpretation.

Peder intends to return to his work in the solo context, “going back to the lineage” of Lines Describing circles. “I might do something similar later but I’m not sure.” His first immediate project is with Roll the Dice, a live performance with a 26-piece orchestra in the north of Sweden. The Swedish Congo record is done for now, and he has no plans to perform it live. It has become an intrinsic addition to the story of the Denis-Roosevelt recordings and has incorporated a new significant figure in the form of Peder Mannerfelt in the story, a story that’s found a new beginning. Both Armand Denis and Leila Roosevelt are no longer with us, but their recordings live on for what could be an eternity. It’s seen the Congo change into the unfamiliar construct it is today, and its people ripped apart by a never-ending war. It’s seen the advances in music and digital technology to the point where we can see the ghostly figures of Denis and Roosevelt haunting the Serengeti through the Internet, the Wheels of Africa documentary still very much a presence there. It’s seen a Swedish sound artist take them and re-interpret them for a new generation, by way of paying homage to the people that made the music. We can see these people today using a Dodge sedan as a stage through a piece of film that’s 80 years old, their voices and their music echoing on forever through the timeless recording. Peder Mannerfelt’s Swedish Congo record has given them a new language today. We understand them now; we can even converse with them through their new music and discuss their history as a lesson to the mistakes of the past. Who knows how far their voices will carry into the future and whose ears they will reach now in their modern electronic language. We can’t predict the future, but what we can say, without a single ounce of doubt, is that their story is still far from over.