“Sometimes you only have to listen…”
About the sonic entanglements of our colonial past

I met meLê yamomo in June 2019 to talk about the very successful premiere of his sound-performance Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in Berlin.1 In the performance, that will return to the stage from 16-19 December, 2019, the spectators enter the grand ballroom radiating the representative aura of the 19th century. Technical objects such as phonographs, turntables, radio or tape devices are displayed on tables covered by white table cloths. The spectators move through the hall as if in an exhibition. From a safe distance, meLê yamomo and its co-performer Pepe Dayaw observe the interested appraisal of the objects. They wear suits reminiscent of uniformed museum guards. Later, when the spectators have taken their seats, they enter the stage area and start to use the machines by playing sound recordings from various Berlin archives. In the concrete performance situation, these sound recordings from the colonial period in Southeast Asia produce noticeable tensions. What do we hear in these recordings today? What does it mean to listen to these “trophies of a colonial sound appropriation”2 today? What do they mean for the construction of our image of Europe? Who do they belong to? What cultural appropriations are manifested in the re-staging of these sounds? In what ways do the technical devices overcome the volatility of sound building a bridge to the historical past? And what strategies of reappropriation of those sounds are pursued by and linked with the personal stories of meLê and Pepe?
I had the chance to see the performance and was very impressed by the critical reflection and differentiation of ‘music’ and ‘sound’ as colonial projects. Above all, I was interested in meLê’s artistic work because I had only encountered him in an academic environment as a former IRC Fellow. Numerous topics opened up in our conversation. In the following interview, we speak about the critical handling of archives, the different levels of impact of science and art, re-evaluating the critical potential of the arts as the recomposition of new utopia.

Official advertising poster of Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations
©meLê yamomo3

In your works as “artist-scholar”, you engage with topics of sonic migrations, queer aesthetics, and post/de-colonial acoustemologies. You are doing both: you teach as Assistant Professor of Theatre, Performance, and Sound Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and you create performance/theatre and sound/music. Where does your interest for sound come from?

I did my PhD in the context of the Global Theatre Histories project of professor Christopher Balme at LMU in Munich, Germany. My proposal was about a history of European opera in Southeast Asia. I collected a lot of archival documents from Southeast Asia. There was so much material that no one has ever written about! However, when I looked at my dissertation, it felt like what I was doing was simply contributing to this historiography of European opera. It’s as if I was just adding a footnote to this big history. I realized that this was not what I wanted to do.

What did you want to do?

I asked myself: Am I just contributing to this existing one-sided colonial history? When we talk about an imperialist history of opera, we assume that there is only one way to listen to it. When these musics and performances arrived to what is now Indonesia (what was then the Dutch Indies), or the Spanish Philippines, the British Singapore and Malaysia, conventional or even hegemonic historiography assumes there is a universal way of listening to this music. That is what I wanted to problematize.

This is why your research became a sound research?

Yes, because by resisting the universality of music in the European sense, I opened my research to something else. I did not want to write about the history of opera, but about the history of listening. I am still working with the same archives, the same material, but my questions shifted.

In what direction?

This has a lot to do with Spivak’s question: Can the subaltern speak? Sure, there was Aida performed in Manila. But what was the local audience hearing? Where do I find materials in which they explain about what they heard? These questions illustrate two problems: 1) History often takes the form of a written medium. Histories that are not written disappear in history; 2) One of the problems is also literacy. Because who can write? And in what language? In Southeast Asia most of the colonized cannot write in the language of the colonizer. Or in many cases, they cannot write at all. Western epistemology is premised on written knowledge. This is why acoustic epistemology, or acoustemology, is so important for me; because sound materials are also sources of knowledge. In consequence, I stepped back from music and focused more on sound. I wrote about these ideas in my book about music and theatre in nineteenth-century Asia Pacific. In Echoing Europe, I reflect further on these topics performatively in relation to the colonial sound archives.

As an academic you have different ways of working. You collect material, you rearrange it and put it – mostly in a written form – in a new frame. What was your interest in changing perspective again and negotiating the debate on these topics on stage?

As an academic, I am part of the practice of creating or developing understandings: Epistemologies. And within this world, within the structure of epistemologies – this knowledge making and knowledge production – I see my job as having to break things apart.

In the way of really deconstructing something that is already there? Or do you mean, also in a way of destroying…

Exactly. To me, science is exactly like this. It’s like looking through a microscope to see the tiny parts. You take them apart, you comment on these parts and describe how they operate. This is what academics do: idenitify the parts that you do not see. For example, how patriarchy works, because such social structures arrive to us as invisible systems. We look and analyze microscopically, pointing out what is the problem and then we critique them. That is what I do when wearing my academic hat. But what I feel is missing in the academic context is something that the arts can do: How to make the parts a whole again. To me, an artist is someone capable of seeing these disassembled parts and creating a new whole out of them. I do think about arts as a rehearsal for utopia: When science has taken things apart, an artist can recompose a new utopia.

In your performance Echoing Europe what were the parts you were putting together?

Art has the capacity to make an understanding of the world we live in. We assemble the (fragemented) world in very specific ways. But I’m also reflecting on how art can be instrumentalized within an agenda. In Echoing Europe, I’m interested in finding this balance. On the one hand, in the performance, I opened up this idea of silence and speaking as two sides of one whole. How there is violence in this, too. How, for example, certain bodies are allowed to speak and certain bodies are not allowed to speak. In Echoing Europe, the museum guard characters, both people of color, are tasked with watching over and protecting the displayed museum objects. These recordings are from a certain culture that were brought to Europe. But who is allowed to speak about them? The people from where these recordings come from are culturally more connected to these objects, but they are often not allowed to speak about them. In the performance, there is this huge imbalance made noticeable through the physical absence of the museum director while he is practically simultaneously white- and mansplaining everyone in the museum through his orders, certain hierarchical structures and ways of displaying the objects. Even in his absence he is so present. And you have the security personnel who may have more connection to these objects, who are constantly being silenced.

Pepe Dayaw and meLê yamomo © Zé de Paiva

I read in an interview about Echoing Europe with Deutschlandfunk that you said what is defined as music is still decided in the West.4 How did you mean it?

The idea of music is very problematic in how certain musical practices have been defined. I use the term “sound studies” for its more democratizing framework. I find possibilities in it for a transcendental epistemological approach to auditory cultures. In the same way that performance studies is also re-thinking the idea of theatre. When I was a student of theatre, we read James Brandon’s The Theatre of South East Asia. In it, he labeled certain performative practices as “proto-dramatic forms”. Such framework is implicitly stating that drama is the highest form of theatre. This is analogous to calling certain sound practices “noise”. This is even found in academia until today: you have musicology and you have “ethno-musicology”. If you want to study Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, you go to musicology. If you want to study everything else, you study “ethno-musicology”. It is an extremely colonial practice. And these practices are transported to the post-colonial spaces. In the University of the Philippines, for example, you now have Filipinos studying ethnomusicology who go back to their villages to find case studies for their dissertations. They would ask their uncles and aunts, what kind of traditional music do you have here? And then their uncles and aunts would say, we don’t have any. And they’ll later hear them singing and be like “yes, that!” but to them it’s not music. Obviously, music is a very fraught term and you wonder to what extent these aunts and uncles in their villages were thinking that they don’t call it music because they think of it as something else. Very similar dynamics and power hierarchies operate in today’s music industry working with labels like “world music”. There is violence in this. In the 19th century in Singapore, for example, the British complained about the ‘noise’ of the Chinese funerals. They are noise to the British but these are sound practices of another culture. At the core of this problem is in the power relationship of who defines what music is throughout history?

There were very different colonial times. In addition to the Dutch and Spaniards, and later the British, there was also an US-American era. But it was the European colonizers who were bringing ‘their’ opera to Manila. They were also making sound recordings with the local population that they brought back to Berlin, where – until today – you can still find the world’s most extensive archives, in which sound recordings were stored as trophies of a colonial sound-appropriation…

Actually, there are two important archives founded at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century: The Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv and the Lautarchiv at the Humboldt Universität Berlin. These two archives have two different intentions and also two different ways of presenting themselves assembling very different kinds of recordings and sound samples, such as songs, prayers, speeches, folk tales, a linguistic collection etc. Often it is not possible to apply a category.

Why were these sound recordings made?

What happened is two things: Carl Stumpf, the founder of the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, encouraged European travelers to record sound and music, but there was also the question of how these recordings can be preserved. Stumpf asserted to do it in Berlin, so that’s why many of these materials came here. It was the end of the 19th century and many ideas like the theory of evolution, for example, were still very important science at that time. Comparative musicology was actually Ethnomusicology following a Darwinian thinking. What people like Stumpf wanted to do was collect as many musical recordings as possible, but it’s already framed within an agenda. And that agenda is to prove that “European” music is more superior than the rest. They assume that because in diatonic harmony is so complex which is not present in non-European music then they conclude that they are less evolved.

  1. Produced by Kultursprünge at Ballhaus Naunynstraße gemeinnützige GmbH. First production financed with funds from the Land Berlin, Senate Department for Culture and Europe. []
  2. Quote from the program of the performance. See also: http://ballhausnaunynstrasse.de/auffuehrung/66636798. []
  3. The photo is a collage by meLê yamomo, based on the original photo: “Bewoners luisteren naar een platenspeler te Batavia” (c.1915, unknown photographer, from the KITLV collection). Metadata available here: https://digitalcollections.universiteitleiden.nl/view/item/844060 []
  4. From a report on Deutschlandfunk, 16.5.2019 by Christoph Möller: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/sound-performance-echoing-europe-der-klang-des-kolonialismus.807.de.html?dram:article_id=448881. []


  1. “Sometimes you only have to listen…” About the sonic entanglements of our colonial past | [meLê yamomo], January 30, 2020

    […] Sometime in summer, Stefan Donath and I were sitting at the glass-window-surrounded kitchen of the International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures”, soaking in the sun and chatting about the premiere of Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations. You can eavesdrop on our conversation which is now an article on the Textures online magazine. […]

  2. “Sometimes you only have to listen…” – Sonic Entanglements, May 15, 2020

    […] Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in Berlin.1 In the performance, that will return to the stage from 16-19 December, 2019, the spectators […]