The sonic bricolages of prolific artist and scholar Mekawei draw inspiration from the dynamic flow of urban centres and the key infrastructure of cities. Interested in the philosophy of architecture, social history, and philosophical literature, Mekawei implements an optical transaction on a musical conversation and transforms sound waves into visual forms. Her work is based on sound as an essential tool of vision, and the philosophy of its composition is shaped by sophisticated practices that express its conceptual dimension to the public.
You are interested in sound and architecture. I’m curious about how you perceive the city sonically? In every city you do field recordings – do you think that every city has a very specific sonic signature or sonic identity?
It’s kind of like sonic fingerprints for each city, each district as well. For example, I’ve been quite familiar with Berlin for a long time and each district has a special atmosphere. There are differences between the seasons, tourist and residential areas, shopping centres, the traffic. There are common points – the noise of the people talking in the street and how the architecture and the infrastructure of the city amplify the sound or host the sound. However, on another level there are different languages, different slang, different kinds of dialogue.
Do you feel that issues like gentrification are changing cities in terms of their sound?
The dynamic of a city depends on several things, like the season, immigration, the social and economic situation, etc, and that influences the soundscape, too.
There’s also a lot of discussion about how rich people want silence where they live, they don’t want any sort of sound pollution or whatever. So it’s also an economic question.
Yes. And this is also one of the points in my study, not only in Berlin, but in many cities that I travel through, or even in Cairo, I mean, as you said, rich people would like to avoid the crowds, would like to avoid the public. And they would like to stay apart in the compounds, which also have a different type of noise, by the way.
How do you sonically translate this research in these urban centres, with all their complex stories and histories?
I have used different ways of presenting the field records, but a long time ago, I was making field records in the buildings in urban centres, of the frequency of the concrete of each building.
What was really interesting for me was to observe the buildings and the architecture in each district as elements amplifying sound. It’s like a mic and a speaker in a different way. Each building hosts a lot of sounds made by the people who work and live there.
The building itself, its construction, the concrete, the ceiling, each have different types of sound frequency. It’s a dialogue between people, streets, and buildings, which are like big speakers that speak to each other.
And how do you approach your work practically – what does your field work and the preparation look like?
Actually, it depends. Sometimes I spend a month in a city, for example, in November I was at a residency in Malta. It takes me three weeks to understand a city – mentally and sonically – before I start recording.
After Malta, I was on tour in Istanbul. I only spent two weeks there, but I knew exactly what I wanted to record. Based on my Sufi research, I focused on the mosque, the church, and the call for prayer.
Are there any places that have surprised you so far?
I think that Malta was a big surprise for me. In many neighbourhoods and districts you cannot hear the local language, which really surprised me. It is weird when you go to a city and you don’t hear the local language. There’s a big gap between the original residents and tourists and others who came to live there. I was working in Sicily and there was no one that spoke English, and that was fine for me.
I guess it’s also hard because you also don’t want to be like a voyeur. The question of the ethics of recording and field recording is a complex one. How do you work with field recordings that have recognisable voices on them?
I ask before I record. I’m a sound collector. I don’t have a camera like a tourist. I just have my recorder. I like to collect sounds. It’s a friendly way of seeing people; they may not have a common language, but they have a common sound.
I’m from Cairo, and since the revolution, it has become so hard to walk in the city with a recorder and ask people to say something unless you know them personally.
Especially recently, I’ve worked on many projects that incorporated work with an open mic. Also with radio live broadcasting, it’s a big question what and how to stream and capture. For me it’s really important to have permission.
What interests you about a place before you go and record there?
In the last two years, I’ve worked with artists from Leipzig on a research project about socialist architecture. It was really interesting for me to discover the social architecture and the social urban designs of East Germany and compare them to social housing in Cairo. Two years of discovering different types of architecture and how they affect the neighbourhoods: their history and the future. Another perspective is language. My Sufi research is also about language, love, God and the prophets, philosophers.
I was also wondering about your album titles because they’re all numbers or years.
I sometimes compose music based on numbers, their coding. So for me, numbers are neutral. You don’t have any emotions, feelings. You just have to listen and remember, understand. I don’t want to give those really nice romantic titles for my albums.
When you work on your music do you have an audience in mind, and how they will receive and perceive your sounds?
That is a really good question. It takes a long time to produce the pieces. When people listen online, it’s hard to get feedback from them. People come and talk to me after my live sets. They ask about the story behind my compositions. I’m using religious texts, voice-overs. The audience cares, and listens. And I feel that this kind of “analogue” relation to the listeners is really important.
Does the feedback from the audience/listeners influence you when you work on a new project?
Yes, totally. After my third album, I started to do listening sessions. I pick tracks I’m working on and share them with the audience. Sometimes these are online – reading and listening sessions.
Listening as a communal activity. I also wanted to ask about the aspects of cultural identity and feminism in your work.
In my region, it’s tricky for a woman, a Muslim Egyptian in the MENA region, to play sound. There’s the geopolitical situation, too. It also pertains to my Sufi research, which works with religious texts, connecting not only Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism. You can listen to my work and hear the female voice interpreting the male text. A female voice reading a religious text. All these things are under my skin; I cannot run away.
It is hard to break through the male dominance in these realms, and this is global, to an extent.
I agree. Now I’m in Berlin, and I’m totally into the game, you know? This endless game of females and males, the nationalities and the mother tongues. I just try to keep myself on track.
It’s changing, but women did have much more power throughout history, especially in pre-Christian times.
Women did have power in different spots around the world, in different civilisations. However, there is always some man who destroys this history. This is also one of the aims of my Sufi research, to search for this history. I’m working with texts by male writers, but there is a bunch of undiscovered literature by female authors. So it is there, but no one talks about it.
Women also often published books under male monikers.
Exactly. It’s in all civilisations.
And what are you currently working on?
I’m continuing to work on my Sufi research, which I would like to finish this year. It’s based on the female writers in Sufi history. It’s linked to what we’ve been talking about because it takes a long time to find the books and the history and the texts relating to these amazing women.
Can you tell us more about this Sufi research project?
My research began with a questioning of my own faith and thoughts, which seemed different from the common beliefs of the Muslim community in Egypt where I grew up. Apart from my political, economic, and social background, my passion led me to delve into Sufi philosophy and read ancient literature written in my mother tongue, which I also found difficult to grasp immediately.
My passion for invoking sounds and images of the past led me to develop my own way of reviving old texts audio-visually using hisāb ‘ljumal, or Abjad Numerals, wherein numbers and dates are represented alphabetically by assigning specific numeric values to each letter. Historically, the Sufi used this method to interpret holy words by analysing their respective numbers.
What is going to be the output of your research?
A sound composition. I would also like to accompany it with a long text.
Are you also travelling and recording in different places?
I wish, but I don’t have the money to travel. It’s really hard, especially because I’m working with Persian texts, so it’s Iran, Iraq…
So you basically have to do the research online?
Yes. Online and via friends of friends who write to writers who give me historical books. I’ve been doing this research for three years already, so hopefully this year I’ll finish it.
Is psychogeography something you are interested in when doing field research? The atmosphere of a place, the genius loci, as they say. You feel it is different in every place – with some places you connect, with some you don’t.
It’s a complex thing. Actually, since I started working on the soundscape of cities and their architecture, I believe that you can live in a particular city all your life, but the city still controls you. And you don’t even have to live somewhere for a year, and you can totally understand the city, the people, how you deal with it day to day, even if it’s not your home.
How do you play a city? It’s kind of like I’m a part of a game. You don’t win all the time. You don’t lose all the time. You have ups and downs, like sound waves.
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova