Mapping the Sounds of Protest from Around the World

From Trump and Brexit to Black Lives Matter, people are recording protests around the world to create a new soundtrack of dissent.

People protest against US President Donald Trump in Miami, Florida, US, November 11, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Javier Galeano

In Canada, a ‘casserole’ protest features the rhythmic clanging of pots and pans. In Hungary, the protest is relatively silent and has more ambient noise than raised voices. On Piccadilly – Unite for EU march, protesters chant ‘EU, we love you’ among other anti-Theresa May chants. In Los Angeles, supporters keep up a steady chant of ‘Trump grabs pussy, we grab back’.

The sounds of protest have never been louder. In the past few years, people have taken to the streets to voice their dissent against pertinent political and social issues, from global warming to Brexit. But these sounds are also varied and now they are being documented and archived in an online interactive sound map, titled Protest and Politics.

“No sound defines the age we’re living in better than the sounds of protest. Ever since the financial crash of 2008, and especially in the last two years, there has been more to protest about than ever. People have been finding their voices in ever larger numbers,” says Stuart Fowkes, who runs Cities and Memories, a collaborative sound art project which produced Protest and Politics. “It feels like this is important both to document, but also to reflect upon.”

​Protest and Politics has recordings – mainly of protests – from 49 cities and 27 countries, sourced by over 100 people. In an email interaction, Fowkes explains how the map came about. In February, a call for submissions was put out. Word spread around recording communities – and among people just interested in the project – and around 150 protest sounds were submitted. ​Many of these – depending on sound quality and other criteria – became part of the interactive map, which went live in August. All the contributions were voluntary and sourced from individuals rather than libraries. “I see Cities and Memory as an open collaboration between people, whether that’s musicians and sound artists or field recordists,” says Fowkes, a digital consultant and musician based in London, who himself has also recorded over 20 protests, in London, Oxford and Hamburg.

Visitors click on the plotted points on the map to listen to the sounds. An information button offers data on how it was produced and the creative context and ideas behind it. These recordings are also arranged according to theme – women’s rights, Brexit, democracy, education and austerity. US President Donald Trump has a whole section to himself, including a field recording taken in Whitehall in London on an evening of protest against an invitation of Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdom.

Each location on the map has two sounds – the field recording and a recomposed or reimagined version. This forms the ‘memory’ part of every Cities and Memory project. “In this, an artist has brought to bear his own experience, skills and imagination to create something new from the original field recording. Thus, the listener can choose to explore the ‘real’ sounds of the world or an alternative sound,” adds Fowkes. ​The original recording or elements remain the same but the new soundtrack either has an added techno groove, ambient music, abstract noise, movie scores, or even percussive elements such as plates and spoons. For example, the recomposed version of a protest around the rights of indigenous people in Canada has an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s epilogue to his poem ‘Howl’ added at the end.

India has a lone recording, and its not of protest, but the exact opposite-a celebration. It is of a pro-Modi demonstration in which supporters chant ‘Modi, Modi’ accompanied with the sound of the dhol, cymbals and whistling. Recorded by Protyasha Pandey in Shahpur Jat, it was taken after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s big win at the Delhi municipal elections earlier this year. The reimagined version by Odette Johnson is interesting. It recreates an imaginary Indian street scene, combining sounds associated with Indian cities such as birds, crows, a flute seller, street traffic and temple bells. She writes, ‘On researching Mr Modi, I found that he had two favourite films, Guide and Jai Chittod. I sourced a track from the film, ‘O pawan veg se udanewaleghode’ (Jai Chittod) and used it as if playing from one of the small shops, that I imagined I was standing outside of’.

Protests and Politics, in essence, is collecting and documenting history. The recordings date back two decades – the oldest is a Washington, DC protest against the Gulf War in 1991, but, a majority is of protests in 2017. “From where we’re sitting in the UK, it feels like we’re living in the most pivotal point of political history since the last World War, and decisions being made today will be reflected on as crucial to world history in 50 or 100 years’ time,” he says.

The map, which is still open to contributions, is not complete and is a bit skewed. There is little representation from Asia and Africa and nothing at all from the Arab Spring – most of the recordings are focused on Europe and America. In addition to the more liberal and progressive protests, there are also anti-LGBT, and anti-Muslim chants. ​“Protest is about freedom of speech – so that had to be reflected in the callout too. A reflection on a protest or sound that is out of your particular comfort zone or belief system can often be more revealing than one that resembles your beliefs more closely,” says Fowkes.​ “It can never hope to be comprehensive, but it can give a flavour of what it’s like to live and to voice your dissent around the world in 2017.”​

He firmly believes in the idea that all maps are political and no map is neutral. It’s a belief that’s at the root of the three-year-old Cities and Memory. And Fowkes does it all, curate the sounds, run the social media, collect recordings and reimagine a lot of the sounds. ​ ​He has been using field recordings in a musical context in bands for over ten years. “I’ve always been interested in that idea of any sound being potentially musical and potentially source material to do something interesting with,” he says.

As a sound recordist, he says he has a small part to play in helping to document, record and present history. “With protests, you’re recording a frozen moment in time, and a definable piece of history, which is vital and fascinating as an experience. This is a snapshot of the world’s protests as we are today.”

Fowkes is hoping to build a more comprehensive and inclusive map of protests and is inviting people to send in their recordings. Through the map, he wants people to feel they are a part of the global movement uniting people, communities and countries around the world.

To listen to more sounds of protest, click here

Joanna Lobo is a a journalist based in Mumbai.

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