Kinshasa Electric (2014)

Ula Sickle, Popol Amisi, Daniela Bershan, Jeannot Kumbonyeki & Joel Tenda
Performance 60 min (2014)

Concept, stage direction Ula Sickle
Creation, performance, style Popaul Amisi, Daniela Bershan, Jeannot Kumbonyeki Deba, Joel Makabi Tenda
Musical direction & live sound Daniela Bershan / Baba Electronica
Scenography Ula Sickle & Daniela Bershan
Light Design Ula Sickle & Gwen Laroche
Techincal coordination Elke Verachtert
Production Assistant Kinshasa Dada Kahindo (Platforme Contemporain/Enda Mbele Asbl) Dramaturgy Sebastien Hendrickx
Excutive Production Caravan Production Co Production Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels BE), KVS (Brussels BE), Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival (Groningen NL), NXTSTP with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union, Spring Performing Arts Festival (Utrecht NL) With the support of the Flemish Authorities - International Projects, The Flemish Commission of the Brussels Capital Region

Interview with Baba Electronica. April 29, 2014, Brussels by Sebastien Hendrickx

What I’m trying to do, rather than applying music , is applying a certain mechanics of how this music is constructed. All kinds of pop music that circulates through Kinshasa but in particular Coupé-Décalé. I would like to have a Coupé-Décalé mechanics applied to the whole piece.

What is so specific about Coupé-Décalé?

First of all there’s the cutting and shifting. That is one possible English translation of Coupé-Décalé. Second there is the repetitive percussive and bass-heavy structure that in a quite minimal way shifts all the time.

Cutting means: you cut a song and you shift to a next one?

No. You have differnet elements songs are composed of… Like a lot of dance music, this music is sample based. It’s built up and constructed from samples and loops that compose certain patterns and combined then create different scenes. You have different patterns and one or several samples in every pattern, and then single structures or combinations of structures that reappear. So it is a repetition of the same rhythm or the same sound seemingly, but this process also creates small differences every time. Very simply spoken, you add an instrument or you take away an instrument, you add another sample or take it away. And through this create a quite complex net of repetitions and also of differences. This is what I mean with Coupé-Décalé mechanics. It’s almost like a rubicube you turn and it’s always the same elements re-emerging but then slightly in another colour. So you can access a part of the cube that you haven’t seen before.

I understand this within a song, but what do you mean when you want to use this mechanic in your way of dealing with the music on the whole?

In terms of the whole piece, I would like to have pieces, quite concretely, that appear in one of the beginning moments, in an ephemeral way so you might not even notice them. And then throughout the piece they will come back. And develop actually into a main sample on which we could build a scene. I also want to cut and shift different elements, like samples. What I’m trying to do is to use sampled materials from the songs and also to remake samples by using quite generic stuff from sound-banks that a lot of pop-composers around the world work with. So the sample itself is already a copy because it comes from somewhere. Then when I remake a sample it’s already a copy of a copy. Cutting and shifting not only applies to the elements of the different sounds but also to the relationship of dominance, of power, the different elements have towards each other. So there might be a telephone appearing in one of the first scenes and you might not even notice someone is taking it out of their pocket and putting it on the table and maybe it will have a sound that will be swallowed by all the other sounds. But then later it can come back and really become a thing which becomes actually the main theme on stage. So this cutting and shifting mechanics will be applied to all the elements of the piece.

So it’s possible a song will come back, or a rhythm or…

A song can come back, a voice can come back, a melodic sequence can come back, a rhythmical pattern can come back or an utterance… But obviously also the combination of all the things, which you will be able to recognize and which will always shift. So in a way you’re dealing with a kind of repetitive structure but in every repetition you see another difference.

You think this principle could also apply to the choreography?

Well, the way I’m thinking about the sound now is very sculptural in fact. It’s much more connected to sculpture than it is to music. And I feel it’s very essential to the piece that information is travelling from one materiality to another. It can come out of Popol’s physical movement, through his voice, into the music. And it can travel back from the music onto a dance style, into the fashion or some of the movements. And yes of course also into the choreography. If you look at the four people on stage now and what they’re doing, you could also almost treat them in the same way, like you treat a pattern or a rhythmical element.

This mechanics, applied to the whole piece, according to me we saw a little bit with this 1-2-3 build-up. Something also David (Helbich) saw I think. Do you already see it happening in other elements of the piece right now?

I see what you mean but one shouldn’t make this mistake… It doesn’t have to be so obvious. It doesn’t have to be the 1-2-3. It think it can also become something that actually becomes clear maybe only towards the middle or the end of the piece and then you can shift your attention accordingly, hopefully. Maybe some elements can be like immediately constructed in a way that they can be recognizable. But I think it’s more interesting to actually have the structures appear, as the structures of everything unfold… or rather shift. Cut and shift. It’s not really an unfolding of things but a cutting and shifting… Everything is already there from the beginning and it unfolds to the viewer at a certain point that this kind of logic is applied. And maybe at one point in the piece the viewer or listener will be able to follow certain elements in a different way than in the beginning. I think you cannot really seperate sound, movement, composition of the scenography, fashion,… You cannot separate these elements. Just like in a pop song. It’s not a pop song because it’s musically reinventing the wheel, it’s not rocket science, but it carries also other layers of information, like attitude, swag, panache,… It carries other layers of information that make a song a hit or not. It’s not about ‘oh this song is melodically or rhythmically so genious, no. Someone who makes a great hit, manages to tap into a certain mechanics of a time, of something that is relevant, something that gets carried with the material and becomes something else. It’s not just music you know. So in this piece you cannot say ‘this is the music, this is the movement, this is the style… It’s a mechanics that applies to all these factors equally and that feed each other. It’s not: here it starts and there it ends. It’s an open ended sampling process where you cannot distinguish anymore what’s the original, what’s the copy. Where do materials come from, where do they go.

The stuttering is also an important formal principle.

I like stuttering, because stuttering is a sort of accelerated form of cutting and shifting. And when you stutter it means it has some kind of resistance that you have when information is travelling from one material into the next. That’s why I think there’s a resistance and a suspension and at the same time it appears as an acceleration, because it’s quite fast.

It’s fast and slow combined.

It’s a slow piece of time that is stuttering and resisting and which makes a suspension tangible of one movement into the next. I think it’s a meta and micro consequence of the whole idea of cutting and shifting.

That’s what a lot of DJs work with, no? First there’s this stuttering resistance before… finally… there’s a release… there’s the melody of the chorus or something full on. Like: finally we have what we want to hear!

How I imagine the piece musically is that large elements are an everlasting suspension and the orgasm never comes. This release-moment that you would have in a party atmosphere, I would like it that it doesn’t really happen in the piece. Or if, then just in the beginning. And for the rest, you are constantly waiting for it, longing for it, but it never happens. So to make clear it’s not about the going somewhere or the what that is played but the mechanic in which it functions, how it is played.

Two last questions. The ‘how’ is indeed very important but in this piece the ‘what’ is also. So first I want to ask you: which principles guide you and the others when selecting music materials? And the other question is: what are your ideas on this ‘other DJ’ you could become in the piece? There is already the idea of the ‘silent DJ-ing’… Are there already other things you think about?

So, I’m trying to select materials that circulates through Kinshasa and at the same time this material in itself is already completely globally distorted. You have this frequently in common dance culture or at least in a lot of underground styles, that they jump from one continent to another, go back. Let’s say they come from the U.S., they jump to Africa, then to Brazil, they go back to the U.S… And then the sound has cutted and shifted. Many, many times. That’s what I love for example about Baile Funk. In general, as a DJ, I’m collecting this globally distorted material from all over the world. But in this case, yes, the focus is on Kinshasa. The material will remind me of other existing material that I found in other places of the world. I want to show that even if the people don’t travel, the sound does. The sound gets shifted and distorted, sometimes to an unrecognizable amount on the way. You can not answer this question: where does hip hop come from? You can not answer this question: where does Coupé-Décalé come from? At least not anymore. Yes, it originated in Cote d’Ivoire but by now the question of origin is irrelevant. It’s the chicken/egg game. That’s a very important criterium of the selection and how to deal with the material in general.

As for the second question… Ah, the ‘other DJ’. For me it’s important, we have a lot of elements of a party on stage. And a DJ is usually a dominant actor within a party. It would be nice to shift the mechanics around. Me, I’m also getting a lot from dancers that I am reacting spontaneously to. The really good Djs they do this at parties too. They don’t give, they get. You see? I want to find a more conceptual angle of doing this. It’s a lot about intensity. How can the intensity be there without immediately exploding without giving the orgasm? You usually do a peak at a party but how can I find other ways for this? I’m trying to DJ everything. I’m now trying to DJ Popol’s and Jeannot’s voice when they’re speaking. It’s quite subtle shifts but gradually I’ll take the bass out or I will put a delay which is another form of stuttering. I am trying to do this with high intensity and I hope this will be tangible in what I talked about before, the more sculptural approach to sound. Maybe sometimes you don’t always hear something but still the intensity is different then if I would ‘press play’ and just let something autoplay, no? I’m the whole time manipulating and sculpting the material and again I feel the functionality of this is important for the whole processing of sound and the piece in general. When does something become your own? Something becomes your own when you litterally touch it. You start manipulating and comprehending by being in connection, in a constant dialogue with your materials and by this also become part of them.

Maybe a last question still. What about the copyright issue. How does it work with DJ-ing? From what moment on is a song so much ‘sculpted’ or worked on that it’s not an issue anymore?

Well, I’m not a lawyer or an expert on this. But I know I want to make the material as much as is possible my own, not in terms of apropriation but through ingestion. A lot of the samples used I produce myself or I use generic factory samples as a base to build up certain scenes. Others I take from existing songs or from somewhere else like ringtones, voices, etc. Even the ones I produce myself is probably something I’ve heard before. You see? You cannot really say where samples come from. My goal is to make everything as much as digested through our collective body. If we use existing material as a point of departure we are in contact with it, remix it in a way that it actually becomes our own, part of us.

This makes me think about this Nouchi translation of ‘Coupé-Décalé’. It’s not really ‘stealing and running away’ but ‘cheating and running away’… Could be connected somehow… Maybe…

Yes, it feels we’re sampling the whole time. It’s very difficult to determine from where a program is written or from where a program writes you or a sample writes you. It’s like this with a lot of stuff. For example the Jeremy Scott outfits. The knock-off of it becomes unsharp and gets a Givenchy label and moves on to somewhere else and transforms again. You don’t know anymore. Even if it was the original, the sources of inspiration come from somewhere else, so I think pop is the playground where this can happen and it can really happen in a shameless way. In a fearless way. I feel that this is interesting, an interesting link to our time.  

“Kinshasa Electric relies on a series of references […] which continuously branches off in the audience’s mind (and thus strongly differs depending on the context). Ultimately however it always “postpones” a fixed beginning or ending, a fixed origin or shape. What is traditional and what is contemporary? What is Congolese and what is Western? What is authentic and what has been construed? In Kinshasa Electric identity is “always on the move” and constantly undermines this type of opposition.”

“Identity has […] become a more flexible and more complicated concept. Because how can you find your own voice in a mediatised and post-national society, in which references travel faster than light? How to relate to all this cultural heritage, whose origin is sometimes lost? How can this cultural cross-pollination give rise to a more inclusive concept of identity and community, which is tailored to the twenty-first century?”

Charlotte de Somviele on Kinshasa Electric in “Ass Talk and Clubbing Vibes” - Etcetera Performing Arts Magazine, September 2014