Sonic Mmabolela November 2018

I took part in the field workshop/artists residency, Sonic Mmabolela, where, together with 6 other participants and two guides, we made audio recordings and listened to the sounds of the ‘bushveld’. Mmabolela is a game reserve in South Africa that borders Botswana by the Limpopo River. It is run by Barbara Ellison and Francisco López, two esteemed composers/sound artists, who lead the two weeks of discussions, recording sessions, and direct listening to the sound environment. The entire game reserve is hired out for two weeks, including the Toyota Land Cruisers and guides that can tell you exactly what makes each sound, which scorpion is poisonous, and whether or not you should put your foot in the water. There are no lions, buffalos, elephants, rhinos which means it is safe to walk around the reserve and climb the Baobab trees. The things that we had to be careful of were crocodiles and hippos in the river and as long as one keeps a respectful distance it is safe.

Getting to the reserve from Johannesburg reminded me of going on holiday with my grandparents and was done in true South African style. The quantum mini-bus and trailor was loaded to the brim with food, wine, cooking/braaiing equipment, and recording gear. We made three stops, one for petrol, one for pizza, and one for biltong and droëwors, and then we hit the very bumpy dirt road. When we arrived on the reserve we were warmly greeted by everyone there.

As an example of a recording session -> Every second morning we would be up and out into the bush by 4am to catch the change over from night to day. We would choose a different spot each time such as the dry river bed, called Umzumbi, or a watering hole. Then we would find a place to leave the array of audio recorders, hit record, leave that area unstirred of human contact, walk to a different location, and, listen to the sound environment for a few hours. After two weeks of recording at various times of the day/night and at various locations we had each collected a large sound library of sonic material. For the listening sessions (aka concerts performed by the environment) we loaded the vehicles up with fold up chairs and found a suitable ‘auditorium’ for us to take on the role of the audience. On one of the sunset sessions we were hearing how the birds increased in numbers, how the melodic texture unfolded with pied kingfishers taking the descant voice, and while this was happening, the cicadas and insects slowly faded in with a beating drone. Then, after these gradual changes, we suddenly noticed that it had changed into night and that bats were flying over us with high frequency sounds and glowing fireflies were gently floating around.

The other participants were

  1. Clinton Watkins, a New Zealander and time-based media artist,
  2. Jun Mizumachi, a Japanese New Yorker and sound designer/composer,
  3. Steve Norton, a composer and improvisor from Boston, USA,
  4. Kim Foscato, a sound designer for Skywalker studios, USA,
  5. Andy Martin, also a sound designer for Skywalker studios, and
  6. Luke Pearson, a sound artist/ecologist from Kentucky, USA.

We each worked on a new composition that was presented at the end of the two week period. You can find their soundcloud pages by clicking on their names above. Also, listen to work by Barbara Ellison and Francisco López. My work was called the bat-eared fox because one night when we were sitting on the front porch we spotted him running down by the waterhole. I slowly walked a bit closer to him. He let me stare at him for about a minute before running off and carrying on with his night. Later, I found out from the owners of the Mmabolela reserve, Mark and Lesley Berry, that Mark had done research on their species many years ago but the foxes had then all moved off towards Zimbabwe. They are happy that they are returning to the reserve. Also, it was the time of year for them to be having cubs, so that night the bat-eared fox was probably off on a hunt to get some food back to the den. We all felt quite ‘bat-eared’ by the end of our time there, capable of hearing anything kilometres away. Mark is currently working on protecting and researching the stingless honey bee. There are many of these hives on their reserve. You can read more about it at the bottom of this page and watch a video of him explaining his work here.

On one of the nights we were asked if anyone would like to do an ad-hoc live performance. Luke and I decided to collaborate and spent the next afternoon working on a set. We collected bones from lost and forgotten carcasses in the bush. We retrieved thrown away objects from the rubbish dump and turned them into percussion instruments. We practised some singing by translating a nightingale call, two ascending minor second steps, into a repeated melody. The name of our duo, Heat Stroke, comes from the sound that is made by a hyena, “whoop”, when it gets frightened by the thought of a heat stroke attack. Watch video here.

Clinton and I made some recordings with contact microphones. We clipped his ‘cold gold’ mics onto the long barbed wire fencing and bowed the fence with a stick. We also buried them under the sand of the limpopo river and recorded the making of a sandcastle. You can hear those sounds ‘distilled’ into his music here.

Our cook, Neil Lowe, thought about each of us, and, knowing that I am South African, let me be the braaimaster and take hold of the tongs. One night, he slow cooked some ostrich fillets and then finished them off on the fire. He also made a true miso soup by soaking kelp over night to make the perfect fish broth. Francisco invented a cross between Spanish and South African tapas called – Biltongo.

Most game reserve experiences are tailored to the visual needs and what the people want to see. For example, making sure that on a game drive you get to witness all the spectacles and take a photo of the hyena being chased by a lion. It is rare to find an opportunity on a game reserve where you can get out of the vehicle and feel the sand between your fingers, brush your nose against the bark of a Baobab tree, and have someone pick up one of the ants carefully between their fingers and teach you about the ant colony while you look at its tiny hairs through a pocket microscope. It is even more rare to be able to sit on the bank of a river and listen to the uninterrupted flow of sound coming from the environment for more than two hours. The Mmabolela experience is definitely one I would recommend and should also form an example for an experience that can be hosted by other game reserves in Africa. An experience where the simple aspects of the bushveld life are the main focus, such as spending hours listening and watching things change around you and not the short-lived spectacles that only last in a photo.

One of the best things about Sonic Mmabolela is the relationship formed with the staff and local community on the reserve. We spent time learning some of the Tswana language, “Wafisa – it is hot”. The guides, William, Johannes and their families were invited for a lunch that ended up with everyone dancing together to local beats. Maria, Lethah, Queen, Gogo, and others make beautiful embroidery with animals, insects and birds and we each bought some of these. They also attended the ‘bushveld’ concerts with us and listened carefully to the sound environment.

Thank you to National Arts Council of South Africa for funding my participation.

You can read a blog post by a previous participant from 2016 here

This is what Mark Berry has to say about the Indigenous Stingless Bees

Indigenous stingless bees have the same social structure as the honey bee – with a queen, drones and workers. We have several species in the bushveld, most of which next in hollow logs or trees, but one species (Plebeina) makes a hive underground.
African stingless bees belong to the family Meliponinae. Our common genus on Mmabolela is Hypotrigona Ruspolii.

Cultivation of stingless bees is common in East and West Africa, Australia and in Asia – but I am unaware of anyone else doing it in South Africa. The project started with us trying to rescue log hives in firewood and to find a suitable shaped hive that the bees will take to. We now have about 20 hives in different shaped boxes and about 100 log hives. It is uncertain what role the bees play in pollination but it must be significant given their abundance. Once we have mastered boxing the bees, trials can then begin on their possible role in pollination in tunnel grown vegetables such tomatoes and peppers. It has been shown that they increase the abundance and size of peppers in the field.

The honey is really a by-product. There is very little honey in a hive – perhaps 50-100ml. The honey is highly prized and used for medicinal purposes elsewhere in Africa – the honey of different species being used for different ailments. In Australia there is large number of stingless bee keepers and the honey is produced commercially. All very interesting but good fun too.

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