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Listening against the grain: in conversation with Kamila Metwaly
Tuesday, May 24, 2022 | Alifiyah Imani

Halim el-Dabh by James Vaughan



Curator, researcher and writer Kamila Metwaly’s dedicated long engagement with Egyptian born composer and musicologist Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017) has involved digging through university archives and libraries, connecting with his friends and family, and collaborating with a transnational group, who has followed El-Dabh’s work closely. Originally from Cairo, Metwaly moved to Berlin in 2017. She encountered El-Dabh’s work, Ta'abir Al-Zaar—one of the earliest known electronically composed workspurely through a chance encounter, and connected with him shortly before his death. “I knew all about John Cage, musique concrète and Pierre Schaeffer in Egypt, but I didn't have a clue about Halim,” Metwaly told me, as she talked about her work with electronic music and sound journalism in Cairo.

I attended the 2021 programme edition, Here History Began. Tracing the Reverberations of Halim El-Dabh, which Metwaly curated with SAVVY Contemporary, a community arts space and collective in Berlin. The five-year intensive artistic and curatorial research on Halim El-Dabh’s legacy, music and memory which spanned the African continent comes across as a thought-provoking labour of love and “reclamation of history-making.” His story, as Metwaly asserts, is “a celebration and remembrance of El-Dabh as a friend, mentor, elder, teacher—enclosed by his spirit both in life and in music.” Through relational narratives of archiving and unarchiving, performances, artistic endeavors, and scholarly contributions in the space are referred to as invocations and bring El-Dabh’s ninety-six years of musical and sound exploration to life. 

The breadth of the research challenges notions of erasure and time within Western discourses of music and sound studies. Metwaly practices this through decanonization, as a critical method of inquiry that dismantles canon-producing hierarchies, and advocates for alternative and embodied knowledge relations. Two key contributions of Metwaly’s long-term research on El-Dabh are The Dog Done Gone Deaf: Exploring The Sonic Cosmologies of Halim El-Dabh, co-curated with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung at the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal (2018), and the spoken word listening piece, A Sonic Letter to Halim El Dabh (2020), a personal work around ancestral memory that speculates on her relationship towards the archival.

I reached out to Metwaly because of the parallels between our sonic arts practices and shared interests in listening modalities and sound-focused communities. I was also navigating a daunting new move to Berlin, where she is based. We had a long conversation where I learned about the depth of what her research means to her, and how El-Dabh’s vision and spirit continues to inspire and guide her. She told me about her inquiries into untraining our ears, in which she dissects how we listen, in order to challenge conventions of time and issues of racism, colonialism, and violent sound histories.

During our conversation, we also shared about the interconnection of migration and movement in our lives, as well as the ongoing renegotiations of our postcolonial identities. Metwaly discussed how this experience influences her thoughts on the personal and political connections between sound and bodily history. What has stayed with me, is although Metwaly emphasizes research in her practice, she genuinely prioritizes her relationship to sound and listening from a deeper place of affectivity, vulnerability, and lived experience.



Halim’s lived relationship with the voice as something you embody and carry with you is quite special for me,



Alifiyah Imani: The last time I saw you was at SAVVY Contemporary; thank you for inviting me. I was there for most of the weekend programming and it offered a different dimension to get immersed in the work. I’d like to begin our conversation with your introductory speech to Invocations Part II - 4100 years Re/verberations with Halim El-Dabh. You mentioned moving to Berlin in 2017 and how you contemplated finding a purpose or direction for your interests and work tied to sound while exploring the city.  How did Halim El-Dabh’s heritage become important to you at this time?

Kamila Metwaly: I lived most of my life in Cairo, which is a very loud and lively city—although the word loud is not enough to describe what kind of city it is, or the city that I relate to and grew up in. When I came to Berlin, it became very interesting for me to start very differently considering what sound is, once I realized that it is also silent. My understanding of spatiality and the city’s movement, understanding where danger is, what is dangerous, and what sounds implied was completely messed up. It’s that level of cognition and experience that is quite difficult to explain. I would go through a park at night which is quite scary for me. In this new environment of silence, I felt uneasy. It was in such stark contrast to Cairo, which always has an ongoing hum. It is part of my sonic memory of the city, and it is loud. For me, this hum is a welcoming gesture. It could be understood as noise or frequencies that affect our body and our eardrums. I perceive it as a busy life that extends itself between night and day. In a way, it confuses the sort of Western precision of when the day begins and when it ends, when you wake up and when you work. I attach myself to this mayhem. When you miss home, the minute details of the sonority of how you grew up becomes quite a contemplative space.

Berlin was my first lengthier encounter with a European city. I was completely perplexed and lost. It's interesting that you bring Halim into this process, because I would not consciously think of it like that. But of course, it was and is a part of the process. I, like many others who have stumbled across Halim, came to know of his work purely by coincidence and curiosity. To answer your question on heritage, the piece, Ta'abir Al-Zaar (Expressions of Zaar), stayed with me from the moment that I came across it, and up until today it keeps expanding. It's as though Halim moved with me to Berlin and that we have somehow merged our consciousnesses. Through these years, his story and his work have been accompanying me and have also expanded a lot, especially as I got acquainted with and understood sound, sound-producing movements of the body, and my relationship to time quite differently—as well as the trajectories between movement and othering of communities.

AI: Could you tell me more about the coincidence that resulted in you learning of his work?

KM: I was interviewing different sound artists and musicians in Egypt for an independent publication called Mada Masr. They commissioned me to make feature interviews with sound artists and composers in which the conversations I had delved into the details of the scope of their sonic references, looking at the context of the sounds and how they drafted them. I interviewed a sound artist and composer, Nur Emam, and she was exploring the effect and physicality of sound as a member of a Sufi family and community. They would gather for dhikr (ذِكْر ), which means remembrance and is a part of the Sufi Hadra ritual in which participants repeat the names of God in accordance with the Tariqa (school or order of Sufism) they follow. Within this collective space, she was inducing different electronic and electroacoustic sound textures to see how people would respond. I found it very interesting—how she talked about the spectrum of how sounds relate to bodies, how many bodies are in a space, how they touch through sound, and what kind of responses they create. I was particularly intrigued by how she made the connection looking at what kind of sounds accompany a ritual and how contemporary composers can work within their communities to some extent to elevate the experience.

As I was preparing for that interview, I started googling for references and links, and this is when I came across the piece Ta'abir Al-Zaar by Halim. I assumed that he was no longer living, as this work was from 1944. I felt extremely disappointed in myself and my ignorance and was shocked by my rigid ear training and that whenever I did these interviews, I was unable to move beyond the more widely known Western-centric references. Afterward, I felt drawn to question my knowledge and also, what sound is.

AI: As I understand it, the piece Ta'abir Al-Zaar comes from a ceremonial rite. Could you elaborate on the context?

KM: Zaar comes from the word Zeyara (زيارة) which means “visitation.” It is a very closed-off ritual, mainly practiced by women in certain communities, and is considered a visitation of the spirits to heal you. It is another ritual used by Islam but it's not just an Islamic one; it's a ritual that happens all across the African continent. There can be different ways of making the Zaar, but it usually involves bringing in the person who needs help. It has a very specific goal and a wide range of customs and instrumentations. Musically speaking, it's quite inaccessible because Zaar isn't a healing ceremony that's designed to be a festival, so it's not meant to be shared with a larger community. It's about the kinds of rituals that are in some ways medicinal but don't alienate you as a person from society. Rather, it's the community recalibrating itself and reintegrating the person, instead of, let’s say, creating spaces that repel specific energy as alien, to cast it out.

Halim specifically composed Ta'abir Al-Zaar while visiting a Zaar ceremony in Congo, where it is called zebola, which is closer to Egypt’s Nubian community heritage. The expressions were recorded on a wire tape recorder and a shorter extract of the work became known as the Wire Recorder Piece, later to be digitized on oxide tapes. Here, Halim plays with the overtones of the female voices performing a Zaar healing, particularly with the elimination of certain frequencies played back in the space through speakers that then create other connections and sounds through reverberation that were not there in the original recording.

It's an extremely important early electronically composed work that's pretty often skewed towards the history of the Western contemporary music canon but it's actually about something very different.



 A canon is a myth, an economy of exchange rather than the reality that reflects what the world is about and who is in the world.


AI: It seems like you spent a lot of time following Halim El-Dabh, looking and searching for traces, listening to his music, and locating archives. You also wanted to connect and deepen the relationship with him personally. How did this connection come to be and what does this exploration mean to you?

KM: That is so true. Initially, I just sent him an email asking if I could have an interview with him and had something like sixty questions. I didn’t expect him to respond, and he didn’t for around three or four months. Then his wife responded warmly on behalf of him, where he had said “I think you are going to write a book about me.” We then scheduled to have a Skype conversation. I was a bit intimidated but also inspired, realizing I was going to talk to this ninety-five year old man. At that time, I was living between Cairo and Berlin.

During our conversation, I was mesmerized by how much he had to say. Later on, as I explored his work and connected with his circle of influence, I kept coming across more and more of his adventures in musical and sound inquiry. This is the fascinating thing about Halim: It is like turning a stone, seeing a side and thinking “I didn’t know that side of your stone.” Then you turn it again and it just continues. I'm saying a stone because you can flip it in many directions and it doesn't have a perfect shape or containment. So, for me, Halim’s story is like turning a stone that constantly reveals something new. You follow it and you continue to follow it.

AI: How do you think Halim El-Dabh’s musical acumen contributed to experiments within the sonic spectrum?

KM: I think that Halim is one of those composers who can truly understand sound as a living experience. It's also fascinating to me how he relied on the history of his surroundings, like that of the African continent. What draws me in about Ta'abir Al-Zaar is how Halim recounts his entry into a Zaar ceremony, but not as an archive, because he denies us as listeners access to it by altering that experience into something else. I like this sensitivity because it could have been a so-called archive, but it's not. Instead, he plays with time by introducing his role to diffuse the translation of the recorded material from what could have been static and glorified.

Later in the process of researching and sitting with his works arose a question of how Halim makes the connection to the voice almost like an electronic instrument. He never says it explicitly, but you realize this through the readings and the thinking around his composed works, where he frequently uses his voice expansively and experimentally. This is very much part of his work Leila and the Poet from 1959. I believe this was nearly non-existent at the time for men, particularly within early electronically-composed works. Voice, in the way it is used, has generally been contained and staged, specifically that of the composer. Perhaps as a composer, you would write a score for a voice artist, which means you externalize what you want to perform through someone else where you are not at risk as a body. 

Halim’s lived relationship with the voice as something you embody and carry with you is quite special for me, because I think there is something about the language and history of electroacoustic processes that to some extent denies the potential of the human body and voice to carry through emotions and stories. Halim, to me, embraces it as a memory of orality that also has a very long history in the cultures and traditions of Africa and Asia.

AI: I understand you have Egyptian as well as Polish roots and ancestry. Were you also raised between the two countries? What kinds of tension and conflict does that experience have? How do you ascribe meaning to mobility and migration, especially concerning diasporic and creolized lives, identities, and experiences?

KM: Yes, my mother is Polish and my father is Egyptian, although I can’t say that I have connected with my Polish identity to a large extent. I was mostly brought up in Cairo. Even though in my family, Polish culture and literature are always a part of the conversation (my father spent many years there, and his work centers around the translation of literary works by Polish authors such as Kantor and Szymborska to Arabic and Arabic authors to Polish), so it is part of the upbringing within the family, but I’ve spent quite a little time in Poland. 

Egypt now is a very sad story. On the one hand, I don't want to live there, and on the other hand, I also don't see myself living in Europe forever. It’s complicated, although what has become more important during this distance is how I relate to Egypt, and how I have experienced a certain education of who I should or should not be. Because of Egypt's multi-layered complex past, it's always a given that this is who we are, although you don't know who you are. Egypt's south is vastly different from Egypt's north. These struggles and divides you feel on the streets, between classism and racism, between how you move and where you move. Travel between the countries you have access to and the countries you don't. For me, it's cheaper to come to Berlin than to go to Dakar in Senegal. How then can I understand my relationship to that part of the continent if my movement is restricted? It's also these divisions that are quite politically-implicated ways that we have inherited through colonialism and how these structures of power have segregated the world by creating borders, political tensions, and alienating communities. I began to realize this more with Halim, who celebrated his numerous identities as an Egyptian with his research spanning across the African continent and African diasporas around the world.



What kind of oppressions still keep colonial cartographies and divisions intact between movement, new and fake borders, land as a space of connection and disregard of other relationalities?



AI: Can you tell me more about the nature of your collaboration with SAVVY Contemporary in relation to this?

KM: Originally, I wanted to make a film on Halim. I was talking with my sister about the possibility of going to the US and filming him. Other people I spoke to also said that it's not just about writing an article or accumulating a collection of his life’s work, but also capturing the certain energy of such a person through film because it's a story of a person who lived for ninety-six years on this earth, in this life. I'm not trained as a filmmaker, so I felt extremely insecure.This was also the beginning of my collaboration with SAVVY Contemporary. I was introduced to SAVVY through a colleague, Antonia Alampi, who was familiar with my work in Cairo and encouraged me to propose a sound-related research project. I proposed Untraining the Ear in a conversation with SAVVY’s founder and artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and he said to me, “if you want to talk about sound art from the Global South, you should start with Halim El-Dabh.” Bonaventure had been researching his work for over ten years, so it was this powerful moment of connection. At the same time, we also formed a research partnership. 

I also sensed that Bonaventure felt he had had a genuine responsibility to commit to Halim’s work and legacy personally and intellectually on the one hand, but also politically, through questions about ownership of and writing our history as people of the so-called Global South, remembering the struggle of who we are, and making more effort towards this reclamation of knowledge. Already in the mission statement of how SAVVY is called “The Laboratory of Form-Ideas”, is the ingrained sense that things float in and out. There is no one knowledge, especially if we consider what knowledge implies or what it means in different contexts. This shift I have experienced with Bonaventure and my colleagues over the years through our many conversations and it has pushed me to open up a lot more.

AI: I have been digging into SAVVY’s work and I came across this line on their website that I want to read here as it illustrates the power and beauty of a community that turns to wisdom traditions and transgenerational knowledge. 

As much as we reference scholarship circles, we also cultivate the “academia of the fireside,” i.e. all those stories, folktales, recitations narrated around the fireside as our legitimate sources. The idea hereby is not to create another/ parallel canon, but to decanonise the notion of the canon as a whole.

How do you personally connect this with your work?

KM: To me, it's really about the expansion of questions around decanonization, a term that I have been introduced to through Bonaventure’s writing. It’s not about negating decanonization as we cannot escape from it anyway. Rather, it's about embracing ways and possibilities of sharing and being in knowledge with others, which are very often non-documented forms of knowledge that are lived and embodied as an archive in the body itself that to a large extent has gone through quite rigid and violent histories of colonialism.

When SAVVY poses questions around decanonization, it goes beyond an archive as “the archive.” The emphasis here is not on how we can relate to certain formal institutional archives. It's about questioning what an archive is, where an archive is, how knowledge is bound to canonical systems, and how we might unlearn them.

I also think a lot about Western violence against the body, which constantly pushes you towards certain movements: how you sit, how you behave, and how you carry your body through space.  Hospitality and hostility are always in relation to each other. SAVVY is concerned with this idea through and around Jacques Derrida's notion of hospitality, which argues that unconditional hospitality is an impossibility, and the idea that hospitality is always linked to a condition implies there is always a party that is more powerful than the other. For me, especially when I moved to Europe and witnessed the European myth of solidarity, and the European failure of hospitality, thinking about the so-called “new waves of refugees” and of the history of migration of people as an impossibility of openness became integral to the way I curate. 

Questions arise concerning what hospitality is when you curate or when you work with artists, or with people in general, to what you reveal as part of the curatorial process, what you hide from the public and for what reason. What kind of oppressions still keep colonial cartographies and divisions intact between movement, new and fake borders, land as a space of connection and disregard of other relationalities?

These are the questions I want to be sensitive towards and always keep in my surroundings and to not deal with time and history as something that already has happened and isn’t happening in the now.

AI: The term “decolonizing” itself has gotten a lot of traction. I believe there are so many intersections of this deep work that get lost in keynotes, academia, and in the current cultural zeitgeist. 

KM: I hear you. There is a lot of thinking, research and labour of people who are building on that decolonizing knowledge that has largely gone unnoticed between privilege and extrapolation of trends. We had a great piece by Theo Eshetu, an Ethiopian filmmaker and visual artist at the exhibit on Halim. His work is about the projection that happens in Egypt for instance through Hollywood, where you have Elizabeth Taylor playing the role of Cleopatra. But, on the other side, you also have Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal who traces the Pharaoh’s bones towards Blackness and reclaims Egypt as Black. Through the years, the West has developed an image of Egypt as something that does not belong to Africa, almost as if it is not a country on the African continent.



There is a lot of violence in sound and music that we have been trained to accept as well as the legacy of colonialism within it.



AI: Tell me more about the project Untraining the Ear. The statement reads that it is “an attempt to bring a pause to this storm of frequencies and vibrations to explore what we are willing to listen to,” and in saying so, has a focus on cultivating new ways of listening that can expand our understanding of sound. With regards to this, can you talk about some of your methods of inquiry? What are your learning and unlearning trajectories?

KM: I am wondering to some extent about the authenticity of the ear, and why independent composers, musicians, and sound artists produce a certain body of sounds and not other sounds. I feel there is somehow a clash between sounds and where they come from. Here, I'm talking about the sonority of the city and not so much about melodic or tonal structures in composing alone. It became interesting for me to think about ways to rewrite and unlearn from this sonority in a way that is more sincere.

“Untraining” is to pay attention to how we identify sounds, how we understand sounds, and what kinds of cultural surroundings, political history, and colonial history are altering the way that we are listening. I think there is still more radicality in the visual arts domain where we have been so trained but also aware of, for example, how problematic image distribution can be, even in the mass media sense. People are a bit more sensitive towards the history of images and image-making. So, a post-colonial history of images that documents the colonizers’ violence but also what is linked to the neo-colonial era where there's this exploitation by the NGOs. I think that has shifted a lot since the late nineties.

I thought, how can we shift ourselves radically speaking, within our sonorous domain? I don't think that we are that capable of identifying, for example, the racism in sound. There is a lot of violence in sound and music that we have been trained to accept as well as the legacy of colonialism within it. Working with a few artists, we tried to identify this through listening and understanding how the tools of the artist can support this process of untraining. Although I wouldn’t say untraining just for the sake of erasure, because you cannot erase what you already have embedded in your memory and your body. Rather, how can you untrain yourself to shift towards something else, because you can unlearn to learn something else? This is where I was very much intrigued by the space of sound that does not belittle sound and music to questions of diversity and cultural representation, which is a European problem but not my problem. My problem is something else. 

AI: Is there something you’d like to tell me about your own relationship and practice surrounding the voice?

KM: I would say that I genuinely have a problem with my voice—not just in the way I sound, but I also have a problem with the way I use it. I think it's so limited and so trained through cultural conditioning. This is also where Halim’s work spoke directly to me and also what I'm exploring further: how to use the voice differently and how to understand the voice differently, as something you own, emit and that always comes back to you, and is always in relation to you.

The artistic work that I am doing with my sister as part of Voice of the wind is not a metaphor, is to research this by meeting with different activists, artists, among others, who use their voices with a different understanding of voice, where some are in spaces of protest, some in a concert hall, as well as researching the voice in the historical and political sense, where you give your voice for a vote or to a cause. Within these political questions, this constructs how we listen but also constructs spaces of legibility and illegibility of the voice; and the sonic gender divide: how voices are defined within the binary and the very narrow understanding of pitches and how this relates to political positions of power and media today, and contributes towards the legality of speaking and towards discrimination.

AI: I also listened to A Sonic Letter to Halim El-Dabh and was particularly moved by the way you kind of encounter the listener through the voice, drawing on Halim El-Dabh and your life experiences as these sonic mementos of exchange, memory and intergenerational storytelling. Can you tell me about what this work means to you?

KM: While we have collectively contributed towards a certain body of the archive that we came across through the work of Halim, and through conversations and collaborations with artists, the method of consolidating the process argues and denies the institualization of an archive. It's about taking the responsibility for focusing on one thing that we are interested in as individuals and the relationship towards dealing with an archive that questions formal archival and non-archival understanding. 

AI: What is the meaning behind the title of the exhibit Here History Began: 4100 Years Re/verberations with Halim El-Dabh?

KM: Bonaventure came up with the title. It is a reference to ( هنا بدأ التاريخ), translated as Here History Began, a piece that Halim co-composed with Georges Delerue and has been installed at the Giza Pyramids Complex since 1961. In Egypt, no one even knows that Halim composed this work as his name was never properly attributed to it. It plays at the pyramids every single day. Through this we may say that Halim, who would have turned 100 years old in 2021, would have continued to carry the 4000 years of pyramids with him. 

Bonaventure is not referring to it as nostalgia, but the idea of time that is bound to the time of the West and through which we are denied access to what happened before time and the pre-time relations that have been in Egypt as one of the earliest civilizations—which is African and Black. He wants to shift and experiment with time in order to avoid fetishizing Egypt as a thing of the past, bringing the political question back into the present and relinking those histories to remember how we got to where we are now, and how these imposed racial divides haven't always been a part of African history. I also feel compelled to fight for and question, why should I have to pick between being an Arab or an African?

AI: How is living outside of time important to you, given that we are all defined by time in some way?

KM: What runs through the back of my head is how can we refuse time as capital, as a political question, not only to romanticize history and the past but also as a conscious way of refusing a certain system of oppression.

I love this story of my grandmother on the Polish side: she was on the factory assembly line where she had to work during the German occupation. An assembly line marks exactly the beginning of modern time and the inception of how we began to understand time differently within the industrial shift. For every tenth or fifteenth assembly production piece of hers that contributed to the big product, she would not put her screw in, as an attempt to resist the work. It's a simple gesture; she didn’t go on strike and she couldn't even do so. That, for me, is the politics of the time and playing against the current time of what's going on around you. I think this is where we can potentially desync, within the very little things we do. And remember: if there is no time, or if we refuse time, authorship collapses.

AI: Lastly, what other names have you come across and would suggest we look at in order to have a broader and better understanding of contemporary music and sound art?

KM: It's never-ending. I came across José Montserrat Maceda, a Filipino composer whom I had never heard of before. He not only has very intriguing works as a composer and sound artist, but also a very radical approach to his work, where he was outspoken about colonialism in sound. I also came across Julius Eastman and did some research around his minimalist works through the exhibition We Have Delivered Ourselves From The Tonal – a project at SAVVY. One could claim that he is one of the most influential figures in music, especially from an American standpoint. I learned of Alice Shields, whose cross-cultural practice experimented with opera. Halim’s work has been a great inspiration for her in connection to the voice, especially the works Leila and the Poet and Dog Done Gone Deaf. She has worked in both the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and the Columbia University Computer Music Center. There has also been some effort in Europe to remember the work of female composers like Éliane Radigue. 

Again, I think there are many obscured names working on the fringes of the canon and it is important to think with them and through them. This also implies that there is no canon in a sense. A canon is a myth, an economy of exchange rather than the reality that reflects what the world is about and who is in the world. That's why coming across different composers who could align with a certain definition of a canon be it electronic music, minimalistic music, musique concrète or any other genre is not enough to situate the person somewhere. We want to remember because we have been taught to forget, but how do we remember without categorizing names into modes of knowledge systems? To reclaim that person's history or memory we very often fall into the problem of comparison and tend to think in categories. This I want to pay attention to and not participate in; not by refusing the canon but by resisting it and the economy of exchange of culture bound towards a certain pattern, and the insistence on consumption rather than multiplicity. 

The above conversation was conducted by Alifiyah Imani who is a freelance writer and researcher currently based in Berlin.

Cover image: Photograph of Kamila Metwaly sourced from: SAVVY Contemporary

Editorial support by Mielen Remmert and Christina Hajjar.