When Silence Rises From Earth
IR :: Sankara Future Dub Resurgence
More Than Cage Imagined Mix 4´33``
When Silence Rises from Earth is an experimental audio recording, a performance film, a visual installation, a community event, and a global collaboration. Most importantly, it is a ceremony for an anti-colonial future.
This ceremony was performed in December 2020 at the Dub Museum in Kampala, Uganda by members of IR::Sankara Future Dub Resurgence and three children from Kireka, a nearby neighbourhood. Together, they silently take part in the ritual preparation of a djembe drum.
The theme of silence is not new to the work of Indigenous Resistance, but it was uniquely conceived for this project because it was partly inspired by 4’33”, an avant-garde musical composition written by John Cage.
4’33” is a paradoxical piece of music: it requires a musician to perform without touching their instrument. For Cage, the basic idea is to create a moment of silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, but the end goal is to foreground the acoustics of the space the musician is situated in and reveal deeper insights into the nature of sound.
It turns out that Cage had also imbued 4’33” with an element of social commentary: a critique of meaningless sound, specifically, the background “elevator” Muzak that became omnipresent in department stores and other spaces of modern commercial life. As Lucas Reilly notes in his article for Mental Floss, Cage thus intended 4’33” as “a political statement: an attempt to restore, for a brief moment, the silence industrial America had lost, a plea asking people to listen closely again.”
Since its first performance in 1952, 4’33” has been performed by countless musicians from the worlds of classical, rock and electronic music. In most cases, it appears that the musicians simply hit “record” and sit quietly for the time Cage allotted for the piece. These performances focus on the composition’s ironic style, offering little of Cage’s original radical spirit.
Nevertheless, the premise of 4’33” sparked an imaginative process for everyone directly and indirectly involved with When Silence Rises from Earth.
First, there was the exciting prospect of organizing a rare, if not first, performance of 4’33” in Africa.
Second, there was the vision of recording the silence of a space as unique as the Dub Museum, one that is completely autonomous from the institutional worlds of political parties, NGOs, corporate funding, electronic music festivals, academic universities, and avant-garde art scenes.
Third, there was the creative opportunity to radically deviate from Cage’s script and use the four minutes and thirty-three seconds to warm up the skins of the djembes (as is traditionally done before any performance), but also to introduce elements of spoken word in a variety of languages.
Lastly, there was an ethical imperative to generate this moment of silence as a form of political action that exceeds the objectives of avant-garde Euro-American art culture, which Cage was affiliated with, or the Buddhist and “Eastern” mystical traditions that inspired him.
When Silence Rises from Earth is thus neither a cover nor a recital of 4’33”. It is more than what Cage could have imagined.
The B-Side Dub
This project was produced under conditions that most musicians - mainstream or avant-garde - rarely encounter in recording studios of the Global North: heavy rains, power outages, disconnected telecommunications, and road blockages - all in the context of 2020’s global pandemic and more locally, the Ugandan political crisis.
While Cage’s 4’33” helped avant-garde musicians discover the impossibility of silence, the production process of When Silence Rises from Earth is itself an account of the material obstacles that almost make it impossible to perform a piece like 4’33” in this context.
Regardless, as echoed in the stories of anti-colonial resistance throughout this film and visual installation, these obstacles were overcome and the silence rose from the earth.
Cage’s original 4’33” is often described - to the point of cliche - as minimalist. While that term certainly applies to the sonic elements of When Silence Rises from Earth, that is only the A-side story of this project. Just as the B-side dub mix of a vinyl reggae recording showcases a more visionary treatment of the song, the visual installation created for this project aims to do the same.
The installation is made up of two poster collages, one on each wall adjacent to the musicians. The aesthetic of the images is best described as maximalist. More simply, the images are loud, demanding to be heard. Yet, because this is a ceremony, it is also an invitation to listen - with the ears, but also the eyes.
The synthesis of sound and vision is evident from the opening scene of the film. The audio commences with the sound of two voices - a Palestinian mother and her South American-born son - sounding the call to “please prepare the silence” in Arabic, Spanish and English. The film complements this with the image of two children - Namilmu, the girl and Nany, the boy - holding posters.
Namilmu’s poster is one of many works designed by Dubzaine for this ceremony; it reads “As She Spoke, He Listened In Silence.” Nany’s poster features the logo for the outspoken and fiercely independent Detroit techno collective, Underground Resistance, also known by their acronym, “UR”. As the children look back at us, their messages are clear: silence is about listening, but it is also about power, along gender lines and more. It is about the power to speak, to listen, and to un-silence. Conversely, it’s also about rhythm and radical noise.
The narrative of When Silence Rises from Earth then moves into the inner space of the Dub Museum, where the musicians are introduced and the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of ceremony are counted down. Another child, the boy Milimu, stands and observes the scene.
There is also an invisible figure - the eye of the camera, held by cinematographer Joshua Black-Alibet. While the others maintain a stillness - a body language of silence - Alibet takes on the role of a jazz soloist, improvising his camera movements as he explores the two walls that make up the visual installation of the Dub Museum.
The Left Wall
On the wall to the left of the musicians, the most visible image is of a Palestinian woman tying up her keffiyeh in preparation for a political demonstration. Her clothes are composed of the colours of the Palestinian flag.
Beside her are the words “This woman, who sees without being seen, frustrates the colonizer”, written by Frantz Fanon, the French Caribbean political philosopher and pioneer of postcolonial thought and critical race theory. These words are from his essay, “Algeria Unveiled”.
In recent times, this quote has been used to challenge Islamophobia, specifically the political attempts to ban Muslim women from wearing hijab and niqab facial coverings in various European countries. However, in When Silence Rises from Earth, Fanon’s words are more directly as well as broadly aimed at the subject he refers to explicitly in the title of his book, A Dying Colonialism. Much of the source material for this book comes from the Algerian Revolution of 1954-1962, which Fanon himself witnessed and then participated in.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, the Algerian Revolution (also known as the Algerian War of Independence) was at the forefront of the imagination, writings, and solidarity work of anti-imperialist activists throughout Africa and Asia as well as in the leftist, countercultural circles of Europe and North America. Fanon’s writings were central to the global awareness of this historical period.
The brutality and violence of this period in Algeria led to many public discussions about how to develop the most effective tactics and strategies. These included the use of armed guerrilla-style warfare (as portrayed in the 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers) as well as more clandestine methods of covert resistance. Images of the latter, drawn from a wide range of global contexts, are included on both walls of the Dub Museum.
Below to the right of the Palestinian woman is a black-and-white image of Fanon, looking up in the direction of the entire wall. One imagines him contemplating the cluster of posters addressing the Free West Papua movement and the Indonesian government’s ongoing genocide against West Papua’s indigenous people.
Among these posters is one that features Javier Rosa, a West Papuan activist; she holds the IR logo in one hand, a Free West Papua movement image in the other. Her photo was taken when she came to Bogota, Columbia as a delegate to the 2019 Antimilitarism in Movement conference. She met a sistren IR activist and through their dialogue came to learn of the solidarity work IR was doing for the Free West Papua movement. She was deeply touched and pleasantly surprised, especially given the absence of mainstream media coverage on the genocide in the Western hemisphere.
This chance meeting led Rosa and IR to collaboratively organize a protest in front of the Indonesian embassy in Bogota on August 15, 2019. This protest was also synchronized with an IR::Sankara Future Dub Resurgence live performance at the Dub Museum, dedicated to the Free West Papua movement.
The wall includes a poster that was originally produced in pamphlet form and circulated at the protest. Under the heading “Papua Occidental Libre Y Soberana” are two Afro-Columbian women using a loudspeaker - a photo taken from another protest against the numerous assassinations of indigenous and Afro-Columbian activists. The woman speaking out is Francia Marquez, a prize-winning human rights and environmental activist since her early teens.
The same pamphlet carries the words “Free West Papua” as well as the names “Columbia” and “Uganda,” the latter separated by a Dubzaine-style star. Together, these words and names foreground the extraordinary level of cross-continental, outernationalist connections and commitments to the Free West Papua movement.
Like those in the Algerian Revolution, the people of the Free West Papua movement have deployed methods of covert resistance as part of their liberation struggle. This resonates and echoes with the image of the Palestinian woman as well as the masked figure of Mad Mike Banks, the founder of Underground Resistance, on the other wall of the Dub Museum. Banks’ and other members of UR have worn masks throughout their career as a means of eschewing media visibility and celebrity ego in favour of collective identity, effort and action. This attitude is ultimately best summed up as “Dub in the Shadows,” the message on a Dubzaine-designed IR poster further down the left wall. The message also applies to some members of the IR collective who choose to work invisibly and anonymously, including the sistren who first made contact with Rosa.
As we continue along the left wall, we come across a black-and-white portrait of George Manuel, a Shuswap Nation activist and Canadian residential school survivor who coined the concept of “The Fourth World” to describe the collective state of indigenous peoples globally. His work was clearly not restricted to one nation-state; it was also strongly influenced by African revolutionary struggles.
Below Manuel is an interior photo of Anishnawbe Health Toronto, an important centre of traditional indigenous healing and counselling services. It is the doctoring and counselling space of James Carpenter, a healer and medicine man who was featured in the IR::Sankara Future Dub Resurgence film, When Visions Fall from Sky.
The community-focused philosophy of Anishnawbe Health speaks back to the Black Panther Party’s free health clinic and breakfast program - the histories of which have been acknowledged in previous IR art. The cross-cultural parallels between these programs offer an important perspective on health, treating it as an issue that goes beyond the individual and holistically engages the social, the spiritual, and the political.
Also, within the photo of Anishnawbe Health is a set of hand-drums, indigenous to the peoples of Turtle Island. This small detail corresponds not only to the djembes warmed up by Ras Isaacs throughout the ceremony, but also to the one that hangs above the collage.
Further along the wall is a poster for the 1986 live album John Cage Meets Sun Ra. It indirectly acknowledges Cage’s influence on When Silence Rises from Earth, while directly highlighting his admiration for and collaboration with people outside of the Euro-American art world - in this case, the trailblazing jazz musician, bandleader, and Afro-futurist philosopher, Sun Ra. This relationship is also characterized by a sense of debt, especially when we consider Cage’s dialogues with two important female artists of colour: Yoko Ono (who created works of silence at around the same time as 4’33”) and Gita Sarabhai (who introduced Cage to Buddhism). Although these women are not visually featured in the collage, they are nevertheless present in the shadows.
In the upper corner is a photo of a highly detailed mural blending indigenous South American iconography with the bass speakers-and-cables imagery of Jamaican sound system culture. It comes to us from Bombozila, a free digital streaming platform that was founded in Brazil. As a platform, Bombozila provides access to independent documentary films on matters of social justice and resistance to “capitalism, extractivism, agribusiness, and militarization” within Latin American and Caribbean contexts, while also making connections with struggles in Africa.
Bombozila connects directly to two other posters in the collage, both of which are situated in South America. The first is of IR 26.1, a Free Dub release devoted to the horrendous case of Pataxo warrior activist Galdino Jesus dos Santos, who was burned to death in 1997 as part of a truly barbaric and utterly inhumane “joke” played by a group of Brazilian youth, the sons of the country’s elite judges and lawyers. As with the cases of George Floyd and Breona Taylor in the United States, not to mention numerous missing and murdered indigenous women across North America, Galdino’s tragedy was one of a life that did not matter in the eyes of a white supremacist state.
Just below is a photo from the 2019 Chilean street demonstrations, which also brought attention to the legendary street dogs - the matapacos - who protected the protesters against police violence, but never attacked protesters themselves. The roots of these demonstrations go back to the events of September 11, 1973, and they also involved the USA through its weapon of repression, the Central Intelligence Agency - the CIA. The latter was heavily involved in the assassination of progressive Chilean president Salvador Allende as well as the subsequent establishment of the fascist Pinochet regime. This is just one of many cases of American imperialist intervention in that part of the hemisphere, and Bombozila is a good source for anyone wanting to study these histories further.
Those who pay attention to the film credits of When Silence Rises from Earth will also note a sly subversion of CIA as an acronym for Covert Indigenous Action. This is an alias for experimental musician and keen student of resistance history Dhangsha, who mastered the audio portion of the film.
At the end of this collage is another portrait of Fanon. Whereas the first one looks back at the wall in black and white, this one looks forward in colour. One could argue that they are both looking at their contemporary, James Baldwin, the brilliant novelist and fiery essayist. While having authored many great books - Another Country and The Fire Next Time - he was also known for his sharp aphorisms, one of which is featured here: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The Right Wall
One of the most well-known studio techniques of dub reggae production is in the use of echo. On the wall to the right of the musicians, this technique is visually translated in the form of repetition.
The collage on this wall reintroduces the UR logo from the film’s opening scene, but juxtaposes it with a radiant portrait of Laraaji, the African-American sonic mystic, whose name and compositional themes emphasize the energy of the sun and thus echo the cosmology of Sun Ra.
This second collage also gives prominence to the words and face of Dr. Rudolph Bilal Ware, an African-American scholar of West African and Islamic history. His words are featured on the wall, but also at the end of the film, advising all of us - regardless of our religious and spiritual identities - to remember “No one makes any progress on the spiritual path until they are of benefit to their fellow human beings.” He adds, “When you see people who stand on the sidelines in the struggles of their times and who proclaim to be making spiritual progress, don’t believe them and don’t trust them.”
A longer passage from Ware is also included to explain the African Islamic concept of siba, “a pious distance from power” and as a strategy of knowing that the larger and institutional forms of political power cannot be “relied upon to produce the social and spiritual results that are required for transformation in societies.”
The same passage invokes the inspirational Senegalese Sufi saint, poet, and prolific scholar Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké as an example of someone who practiced siba consistently in his life against both the Senegalese rulers and French colonial administrative authorities. A painting of Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké is included twice in the collage.
Ware’s words are also juxtaposed at the far back end of the wall with a passage from John Trudell, the Santee Sioux poet and former chairperson of the revolutionary American Indian Movement (AIM). He offers a similar critique of power through electoral politics: “They say whoever controls the political system vote system, that’s power. No, that’s not power, that’s exploitation and deceit.” He complements the discourse of siba with a rediscovery of power on a deeper, inner as well as natural level: “if we believe these things are power, then we don’t know ourselves and we don’t trust ourselves enough to know that we are connected to the real power source, which is life and earth.” Trudell’s poetry is more than philosophy. It represented a political threat, the kind that led the FBI to produce a 20 000-page file on him.
As mentioned previously, this wall features a photograph of Mad Mike Banks, but it needs to be read doubly in relationship to the black-and-white photo just below it. This is a photo of an altar for deities from African as well as Turtle Island indigenous traditions. The unique set of cultural elements here is one that Banks’ shares as someone of African-American and indigenous (Blackfoot and Choctaw) heritage. Despite his global renown as an innovator in the history of techno and electronic music in general, few writers, DJs and fans have noted Banks’ ancestral history. This is not because he literally hides his identity under a mask, nor is it because he is in denial of it. Not at all - this knowledge is simply another form of Dub in the Shadows.
At the centre of the wall is another poster designed by Dubzaine. It inverts the colour scheme of white-text-on-black-background, shifting our focus away from shadows and filling the space with light as the words read “Dub Meditation Took My Hand,” a key line from When Visions Fall from Sky. The poster includes two unnamed Ethiopian and Eritrean women: one looking down with the appearance of inward contemplation, the other looking forward and speaking aloud. Dub meditation requires the dynamic presence of both actions. It is also an affirmation of the first sign in the film - As She Spoke, He Listened in Silence - which also reappears on this wall. In this moment, “he” becomes we, and “she” becomes “they” - that is, the multiplicity of anticolonial voices and struggles that that are not heard in the networks of corporate media, global capitalism, ultra-nationalism, heterosexist patriarchies, and more.
In Silence We Prepare
Towards the end of When Silence Rises from Earth, the camera returns to the centre of the Dub Museum and focuses on Kabaka Labartin Klacity, allowing the viewer to take note of his bright red t-shirt. The graphic on this shirt (designed by Dubzaine) superimposes a scrawled, circled “A” over the map of African continent. Viewers with a background in punk rock and social activism will recognize the latter immediately as a symbol for anarchist philosophy.
The point of bringing these two images together is not about importing this philosophy to Africa from the West - an imperialist enterprise, even if in the hands of leftist activists. Rather, it’s about remembering pre-colonial African forms of anarchist living that were found in communities centred around non-hierarchical collectives and earth-based ways of life. They existed without the power structures of kings and queens that are so often uncritically romanticized and idealized as examples of Africa’s golden age. The image on Kabaka’s shirt is a symbol for that history, which he also expands on through his spoken word vocals in the IR::Sankara Future Dub Resurgence track “Anarchist Africa.”
When the clock reaches the four-minute and thirty-three second mark, the trilingual voices return and say “in silence we prepare” as a way of concluding the ceremony. One might ask, “in preparation of what?”
The answer lies in the body language of Ras Charles, positioned upright behind a mixing desk, as he spontaneously breaks his pose like one of Kraftwerk’s robots come to life and extends his arm like a branch from a tree to raise a fist. We then see that his t-shirt reads the same message as the voices we just heard.
The raised fist is the climax of the film, and it resonates on at least two levels. It evokes the Black Power protest carried out by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. It also mirrors a poster at the bottom of the left wall, featuring a West Papuan man performing the same gesture with a sense of power as well as pride. In his case, it is important to note that his t-shirt carries an image of the West Papua flag, but also that he is accompanied by his two children.
Because ultimately this ceremony is for them - the children of the future resistances, three of whom are featured in this film, a few more who are named in the final credits. It is for them that this silence is prepared. Their empowerment and freedom come closer everytime silence rises from the earth.
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