ص.د.ى (Reverberation)

Rayya Badran

If they ask you, tell them we were flying. Knowledge of freedom is (in) the invention of escape, stealing away in the confines, in the form, of a break. This is held close in the open song of the ones who are supposed to be silent.

From the Undercommons: Fugitive  Planning and Black Study — Fred Moten & Stefano Harney

Two or three months into the global lockdown caused by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, I picked up on a recurrent observation (often articulated in the form of a joke or rant)  communicated by people on different social media platforms. I did not register the exact words that were posted but these remarks related how the chirping of songbirds, which people marveled at in the beginning of the lockdown, had become grating or “too loud”. Chirps had composed a seemingly welcome soundscape resonating from the eerie stillness of the world but they soon became too loud to bear and too irritating to ignore. Yet the birds were not chirping any louder than they had been. In fact, they were quieter than usual. They merely reminded us that, for as long as we heard them sing, we had to remain isolated, contained, and stationary. And while the world was still, it was far from silent.

Silence was confounded with the absence of quotidian sounds, but in this “lack”, other sounds were deployed and magnified. As measures of quarantine and containment were undertaken in Lebanon, helicopters whirred over the capital — and broadcast voices urging residents to stay home, ambulance sirens wailed in the empty streets, church masses were conducted on moving convertible SUVs, the generators supplanting the dysfunctional — and now nonexistent — electrical infrastructure hummed ever so loudly. The architecture and urban logic of the city itself plays a significant role in how and what we hear and reveals a complex triangulation between the built environment, politics and acoustic phenomena.

For us, here in Lebanon, the perilous outbreak of COVID-19 coincided with another momentous chapter, which had started only a few months before, in October 2019. In the first four months of Lebanon’s uprising, large crowds swarmed into cities, towns, and villages, hurling sounds from the depth of decades-old anger, frustration, and hurt — all caused by a criminal and corrupt political ruling class. During those first intense months, we occupied the public realm day and night, filling the streets with voices chanting and singing in unison; pots banging in the night; old and new protest music(s) emanating from large mobile sound systems; open air concerts and spontaneous dancing; public fora and discussions; as well as transmitted and live speeches. In those days, the uprising also faced incredible resistance. It deployed a set of weapons such as gunshots, tear gas, water cannons, and other military or police force apparatuses, whose sounds are just as consequential as their aim to squash, maim, and injure. The spaces we occupied were awash with discordant sounds whose reverberations clung inside our ears well after the events, and tuned in to the fervor of our collective refusal and its sonic expressions.

The arrival of COVID-19 was doubly jarring in Lebanon because it converged with one of the country’s most significant popular upheavals and forced thousands of people out of the streets and into their homes at a critical time for the uprising. While these two periods may have appeared distinct as far as sheer volume was concerned, the sonic terrains they both generate, wrestle to exert control — whether by silencing, striking fear, and generating intimidation, or by attempting to overtake the public realm through vocal and musical vibrations.

The five contributions in this series stem from research vectors that touch on the deployment, appropriation, propagation, and resonance of sound and music. The architectural or physical terrain itself is home to vibrations, or, as architect, writer and composer Mhammad Safa defines, in the first contribution of the series, as reverberations that shape our aural perception and sensing of the urban space. This material realm, however, is not limited to the built environment, but continues in the electromagnetic radiations of radio waves. The medium of radio, as well as other non-material sites explored in the contributions of this series, vehicle compelling, and potentially unique, characteristics of auditory culture, both locally and regionally.

In Lebanon, as in Palestine, national radio was first introduced through colonialism. In their first episode of Radio Earth Hold, a broadcast entitled The Colonial voice[1], artists Arjuna Neumann, Lorde Selys, and curator and writer Rachel Dedman, explore how the British Mandate in Palestine transmitted its colonial voice through the realm of radio, and reveal the ways in which Palestinians used the medium as a site for resistance and were repressed as a result. During the recent lockdown period, we witnessed a surge of online radios from the Arabic-speaking world, from cities like Beirut, Amman, Bethlehem, and Tunis. Unburdened by the rule of FM and the state authorities or private companies that control it, these new radios have created invaluable spaces for listening and exchange in a region where physical borders continually control and impede the movement and communication of people. Radio alhara, for instance, broadcasting from Amman, Ramallah and Bethlehem, is one of such radios to spring from the isolation period of the lockdown .

It recently became a site of protest by airing a continuous four day broadcast, entitled Fil Mishmish (which literally translates to “in the days of the apricots”, meaning something along the lines of “when pigs fly”) in response to Israel’s proposed annexation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank. The event gathered musicians and DJs from the region and around the world, and produced a stream of music, field recordings, protest songs, sound pieces etc. The radio became a site of dissidence; it communicated, through sound and music, a collective message that circumvented the pathways of traditional radio channels in particular, and media in general. The migration of protest to the radiophonic terrain gave voice to transnational expressions of solidarity from across the Arabic-speaking world that we started to witness, no, hear, in the streets of Beirut a few months earlier through the appropriations of musics and chants. Perhaps radio, or the transmission and connectedness of sound, of Song, of singing, as performed and articulated in this series, are the sites from which we can harness the constitutive political powers to better self-organize.

[1] The broadcast was commissioned by Qalandiya International IV in 2018 in Palestine