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Column by Josh Rogosin

Engineer's Notebook

By Josh Rogosin

Capturing the Exotic Sounds of West Africa

photo gallery View a photo gallery from Rogosin's West Africa voyage

View this item Radio Expeditions: West African Voodoo

Feb. 10, 2004 -- NPR sound engineer Josh Rogosin shares highlights of his recent trip to West Africa to explore the roots of voodoo and spirituality. Rogosin captured much of the experience using a four-microphone recording rig that creates a quad surround-sound -- read the equipment list below for a hint at how he pulled it off:

First, I got the gig. My assignment: travel to West Africa to record voodoo rituals and festivals. Wow.

I couldn’t help but imagine spirit possessions accompanied by uncontrolled gyrations and vocalizations next to a roaring bonfire. What I actually encountered was more civilized than what I envisioned, but still more fascinating than anything I had ever witnessed.

Everywhere we traveled in Togo and Benin, the sounds were rich, and completely foreign to my ears -- I couldn’t help but record constantly. In eight days, I managed to record 52 hours.

Recording voodoo festivals and rituals in West Africa was a dream come true. It was also the hardest gig I’ve ever been on. The hours were excruciatingly long and challenges presented themselves at every turn. But I wouldn’t trade any one of them.

Goats and chickens often made it on tape during interviews. The sound of the traffic in Togo’s capitol, Lome, was layered with street vendors, scooters, trucks, cars and beeps. The wind was so ferocious in the coastal village of Ouidah, Benin, that I wasn’t sure if any of the tape would be usable. In the end, those 52 hours were edited down to about 25 minutes of on-air content. As one can imagine, there’s a lot of great stuff that had to be left out.

I traveled with two separate recording rigs, using digital audio tape recorders in both instances. The first rig uses a technique called mid-side, which yields great results for mono and stereo recording.

The uni-directional and bi-directional microphones are encapsulated by a "zeppelin," which offers a great deal of protection from the wind. In post-production, I was able to determine the exact width of the stereo image to re-create the experience of actually being there as best I could.

The second rig consisted of two digital audio tape recorders and four omni-directional mics to capture quad surround-sound. Although this audio format is not currently broadcast, the technology is not too far around the corner. Festival sounds of singing, dancing, drumming and chanting came from all directions, and provided ideal source material.

I’ve heard a few scenes from this trip in surround sound, and it was astonishingly vivid -- almost like being at one of these remarkable festivals in person. The moment the "scared stone" is revealed at the Epe Ekpe festival made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end listening back in surround... just like it did when I was there.

Recording voodoo festivals and rituals in West Africa was a dream come true. It was also the hardest gig I’ve ever been on. The hours were excruciatingly long and challenges presented themselves at every turn. But I wouldn’t trade any one of them.

Equipment List

Recorders:
2 - Sony D-8 DAT
2 - Sony D-7 DAT

Preamps:
3 - Sonosax MS-X2

Microphones:
1 - Electro-Voice RE50
1 - Sennheiser MKH-50
1 - Sennheiser MKH-40
1 - Sennheiser MKH-30
4 - Sennheiser MKH-20
2 - DPA 4060

Accessories:
1 - Rycote M-S zeppelin
1 - Rycote pistol grip
4 - Shock-Mounts (MZS-40)
1 - Avenger stand
4 - Tent poles and mic mount
1 - Fishpole extension rod
Fur and foam windscreens for mics

Miscellaneous:
1 - Apple iPod
2 - Koss Headphones
1 - Sony MDR headphones
7 - 6-foot XLR cables
1 - Cable snake with 4 ins and outs
3 - Female XLR-to-mini connectors
3 - Stereo mini-to-mini connectors
4 - Boxes of 125 minutes DATS
4 - Boxes of 12 “D” cells
4 - Boxes of 12 “C” cells
4 - Boxes of 12 9V batteries
1 - Box of 24 AA batteries
1 - Portabrace gear bag, small
1 - Portabrace chest harness
1 - Tamrac Belly pack
1 - Pelican medium road case
1 - Minimag flashlight
1 - Leatherman Pulse tool w/case
1 - Digital Camera
1 - Bag of rubber bands
1 - Bag of Velcro
3 - Rolls of tape

The three-part Radio Expedition report on West Africa's spiritual traditions will be broadcast February 9-11 on NPR's Morning Edition.



   
   
   
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Radio Expeditions: Voodoo in West Africa