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Hajra Waheed’s Sound Installation Amplifies the Hums of Unheard Voices

With 'HUM,' the artist, alongside Club Chai's 8ULENTINA and Lara Sarkissian, comments on how marginalized voices are misrepresented and silenced.

Perched along the River Main adjacent to Alte Brücke, Portikus—a contemporary art institution in Frankfurt—houses Hajra Waheed’s large-scale, multi-channel sound installation entitled HUM, which translates from Urdu to “We.”  In the installation, the Montreal-based, multimedia artist—who originally exhibited HUM at the Lahore Biennial 02—employs a striking simplicity: a conceptual minimalism that’s full of intricate excavations of micro-turned-macro-narratives crafted and compiled by Waheed and her collaborators for this musical composition.

While the artist’s minimalist approach might lead some viewers to gloss over these intricacies, to do so would be an enormous disservice to the history of music activists and authors whose subversive and far-reaching aural traditions have stood the test of time.  Under the surface of its simple construction, HUM tackles crucial questions:  What constitutes freedom of speech and expression in a capitalist system that promises equality, yet withholds it at every turn?  And how can we deconstruct—and even imagine—sounds to challenge our vantage points towards creating a more just and equitable world?

Sixteen overhead speakers in a 4×4 formation dangle from the ceiling of the acoustically blessed space.  The precision of sonic grain and contour throughout the 36-and-a-half-minute sound composition elicit a wondrous, audio-haptic intimacy to the various singers and authors uniting in monophonic melody.  A continuum of fleshy, yet meditative sounds of inhalation and exhalation ebb and flow through the sound installation’s eight hummed songs of resistance from South, Central, and West Asia, and Africa—songs which have proven to be consequential in “shaping the sonic memories of social movements across the Global South during the mid-20th century—melodies which are now finding a resurgence on the streets in solidarity struggles today”, Waheed explains. Language and words are made indistinguishable and even unnecessary in deciphering the spirit of such impassioned and emboldened hums. 

Waheed goes on to expound on the phenomenon and medium of humming, eloquently writing, “It [humming] is, after all, an utterance we are all capable of making even when our lips have been sealed shut.  Humming asks us to give our bodies over to it.  It’s what we do when we want to memorize and later remember.  It’s potent, legible yet insidious, irrefutable and infectious.  When I think of humming, I think of the soft power of doing so while sweeping the floors of the state building, a mother’s protection as she hums her child to sleep while the fires burn outside, the powerful vibrations of humming while walking shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with a 1000 people down a street.”

All the while, I pace back and forth—alternating from sitting cross-legged in a corner to hovering from one speaker to the next.  Radiating, yet hauntingly bittersweet melodies bookend the musical arrangement.  These folk songs are performed by Nûdem Durak (b. 1991), a Kurdish singer from the border town of Cizre, Turkey.  Imprisoned for singing in her mother tongue and teaching Kurdish folks songs to children in her community in what the Turkish government deemed as promoting Kurdish propaganda, Durak says in an interview with AJ+: “The songs were passed onto my mother and father, and they passed them onto us.  And we make sure we preserve that identity.”  Durak goes on to make light of this situation with her friends, as they reminisce on a memory of Durak assembling a make-shift guitar out of a halva box.  Durak, along with others involved in the Kurdish movement, has been cited as a key source of inspiration for Black activists and organizers internationally, including Angela Davis.

Durak sets the stage for other iconic voices from the likes of Pakistan’s Iqbal Bano—in her rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge—and Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam, humming in unison.  As I return to my corner to absorb the choral-like euphony, the clichéd philosophical conundrum “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there, does it still make a sound?” struck me as an impasse.  The answer is clear, and it always has been.  We are now far beyond the comforts of this hypothetical question.  Instead, the question should be: what is heard or unheard, seen or unseen, felt or dismissed?  And more importantly, can a society exist where marginalized people can not only hum in unison under the scrutiny of political subjectivity, but revel in the notions of liberation and freedom of expression?

I looked to none other than forward-thinking, Oakland-based label Club Chai for answers on how cofounders Lara Sarkissian (A.K.A. FOOZOOL) and 8ULENTINA thrive under the looming theme of political subjectivity in their musical practices.  Club Chai has duly made its mark internationally by dishing out experimental club music infused with non-Western sonic narratives, and the label is frequently found in conversation regarding the intersections of club music and community building.  Describing this impartiality as nothing short of a double-edge sword, 8ULENTINA divulges, “At times it can be frustrating and restricting that my work always falls into a political context when that’s not always the point.”  Lara Sarkissian adds, “It’s almost as if diaspora artists’ work is only acknowledged (and written about) through a political- or identity-based lens, and never written about as a talent, skill, artistry, or how it sounds musically—like the rest of our peers.”  On the other hand, they both cite an immense local and international community, along with the friendships they’ve gained in “understanding each other’s intersecting struggles and frustrations,” in 8ULENTINA’s words. 

For 8ULENTINA and FOOZOOL, redistribution of resources within the music industry and more independently-run platforms and spaces are the keys to progress.  The goal was never mainstream recognition, rather “seeing people create their own platforms and spaces so that artists no longer feel like they need recognition from major institutions that still haven’t done the work to make their spaces safe or comfortable for marginalized people,” 8ULENTINA writes.  Another solution in dismantling political subjectivity in the music industry, Sarkissian asserts, is “to continue very transparent and public conversations in our industries around anti-Blackness, pay, equity, and resource-sharing.”

In these COVIDian times, where both structural powers and inequalities have only been amplified, the misrepresentation of being incorrectly politicized limits the reach of a voice—especially when the “frameworks were never designed with us in mind,” Sarkissian states.  Fighting against the intolerable and ever-encroaching limitations of freedom of speech and expression have been a constant struggle for marginalized communities for centuries. Waheed contends: “The stakes remain so high for so many, and freedoms of speech, expression and the right to remain silent are riddled with legal pitfalls and loop-holes.”  Now is not the time for political correctness, but the time to bring forward intentional conversations, action, and reflection—and to center the narratives that have long been overlooked, silenced, and rejected. 

Jocelyn Yan is an artist and writer based in The Hague.  Follow them on Instagram @midnightbisou

Published August 06, 2020. Words by Jocelyn Yan, photos by Diana Pfammatter.