Symphony Of The City: Nigerian Artist Draws Songs From The Bustling Market Emeka Ogboh's exhibition, "Market Symphony," brings listeners the rich sounds of a Lagos market. "There are stories in the soundscape," he tells NPR's Michel Martin. "There are stories from the city."
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Symphony Of The City: Nigerian Artist Draws Songs From The Bustling Market

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Symphony Of The City: Nigerian Artist Draws Songs From The Bustling Market

Symphony Of The City: Nigerian Artist Draws Songs From The Bustling Market

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, are you by a window? If so, open it up. What do you hear? Go ahead. If you're in a big city, you're probably getting horns honking, maybe dogs barking, traffic moving, the boom of construction. To most people that's noise, but to Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh, the city is the co-creator of symphonies of sound.

EMEKA OGBOH: You know, there are stories in the soundscape. There are stories from the city. You can tell more about the city from just listening to the soundscape, and that was what happened. I started finding it really interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: So let's close that window now and listen to how Emeka Ogboh creates compositions that whisk you to another time and place. Ogboh starts with the idea that every city has a unique sonic signature. That's certainly true of the Nigeria mega-city of Lagos, one of Africa's fastest-growing. Ogboh recorded hours of sounds to pull listeners into the bustling open-air market for his new project called Market Symphony. It opens later this week at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art here in Washington, D.C. It's the first time the museum has featured a sound art exhibition. I paid him a visit as he made his final preparations for the show.

Hello, nice to meet you. Gosh, you're taller than I thought. I don't know...

OGBOH: I'm wearing high heels (laughter).

MARTIN: ...And you were supposed to be that tall. OK, that's great - tell us what we're going to hear. What are we hearing?

OGBOH: The ambient sound - it's sound recorded from different markets. But the main market is this market called Balogun Market in Lagos. It's one of the biggest open-air markets in Africa. So you're going to hear, like, voices, vehicles, music. Everything is happening there right?

MARTIN: What are some of the goods that you would find at the market?

OGBOH: Well, you know, you would find everything in this market. But with the hawkers, they are, like, navigating there - like, itinerant around spaces. So they are selling water, handkerchief if you're hot. Like, it's really everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: That's great. What am I hearing now? What are they hawking now?

OGBOH: Gala is like a sausage roll. It's very - it's the most famous sausage roll in Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: What are they saying? Are they saying...

OGBOH: Gala, Gala, Gala...

MARTIN: Gala, Gala, Gala, Gala?

OGBOH: It was really about, like, projecting your voice in a unique nice way so you hear it above all this noise. That's what they do. So because there's a lot of sound happening in the space, the hawkers also want to draw your attention. They find a nice interesting way to call out there's good Gala, Gala, Gala. They pitch their voice, they play with their voices. They also play with what they are saying. It's really about rising above the den (ph), you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: After spending some time at the exhibit Emeka Ogboh and I stepped away for the den of the market soundscape to find a quiet place to speak, and I ask him he came up with the idea for the project.

OGBOH: It's the heart and soul of many African cities. They're like - everybody goes to the market. So I thought if I want to bring Lagos, that is where you find everybody from different ethnic groups, different languages, different religions all coming together here. It's also, like, this place with this intense energy. There's so much happening at the market, you feel it. If they drop you into this market, you will know you're in somewhere different.

MARTIN: You were quoted as saying "a lot of people would consider Lagos' soundscape as being very noisy, and they call it noise. But I stopped calling it noise since I started listening to it."

OGBOH: Yeah, I realize the city is a composer. The city is making music with the soundscape. The city is putting things together. And the sounds are happening because of the way the city is, so it's no longer noise. Even the power generators that were common when the electricity goes off, a lot of people consider that a nuisance. But if you listen closely, there are different power generations with different sounds. At some point, you realize this is actually like a symphony of electric generators.

MARTIN: (Laughter) A symphony of electric generators?

OGBOH: That's what it is. You know, if you really, like, be aware of it.

MARTIN: How have the sounds or have the sounds of Lagos changed since you've been doing this work?

OGBOH: I'll start with saying in Lagos, there's really no loss of noise. But there's also something I started noticing, like the sound could disappear at some point because Lagos is undergoing a lot of infrastructural changes, right? So you have places where they finish some construction and go, like, no hawking.

MARTIN: No hawking - so you can't sell stuff.

OGBOH: Yeah, you can't sell stuff. And even the horns, too, they put down signs, so the soundscape of the city will change at some point due to these infrastructure developments, yeah.

MARTIN: Has it changed - doing this work kind of changed the way you walk around the world and live in the world?

OGBOH: Yes. I think more in sound these days. I also realize it's also affected my music tastes. I'm listening more to a little bit of electronic music, which has no lyrics per se. It's really about the beats, the rhythm, the tempos. Also, it's changed the way I navigate spaces. I pay attention to what I hear more than what you see.

MARTIN: Emeka Ogboh, thanks so much for speaking with us.

OGBOH: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: That was Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogbog. His new exhibition is called "Market Symphony," and it opens this week at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

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