The sounds of silence

A special global acoustic art project is mapping the most poignant lockdown tunes

68-stuart-fowkes Listening closely: Stuart Fowkes captures sounds of lockdown in Burano, Italy

On the day of the Janata Curfew, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the nation to clang utensils for five minutes at 5pm in solidarity with those on the front line of the Covid-19 battle in India. Around the same time, in Brazil, people banged pots and pans and screamed from their windows and balconies. “Fora Bolsonaro!” they yelled. Get out, Bolsonaro! Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, had dismissed the pandemic as “hysteria and fantasy” and advised people against social distancing. As of April 15, Brazil had reported 25,684 cases of Covid-19; 1,552 patients had died. A global collaborative sound art project, called Cities and Memory, captured this relentless rage of cookware set against desperate anti-Bolsonaro cries that drilled through the darkness of the night. In an 11-minute sound piece recorded on a Zoom H5 recorder, downtown Belo Horizonte, Brazil's sixth largest city, howls like a wolf in despair. The project's #StayHomeSounds collection has more than 200 lockdown sounds and stories recorded and mapped from 38 countries.

“This is a unique moment in all our lives, and the world has never sounded like this, and may never again,” Stuart Fowkes, the creator of Cities and Memory, told THE WEEK. “So it is important now to share these sounds and stories so people can feel that there are others in India, Argentina, the US or Italy all going through the same thing together and, in doing so, feel a little more connected. But it is also important to document these incredible changes for posterity, so we can look back on the project as a record of importance.”

The project's #StayHomeSounds collection has more than 200 lockdown sounds and stories recorded and mapped from 38 countries.

Cities and Memory began collecting city sounds in 2014, and the current project is open for submissions as long as the global lockdown continues. Pointing to the several categories of lockdown sounds in his online archive, Fowkes whittles them down to four most recurrent themes. The novel sounds that never existed before, such as the anti-coronavirus songs, applause and appreciation for health workers and protests at how governments are handling the crisis. Then there are sounds of nature, wildlife and birdsong, which are more distinctly audible now than ever before. The third type is atmospheric sounds of previously crowded urban spaces that are now deserted. And the fourth contains the sounds of family, of home and hearth, of how people are keeping themselves sane and connected.

Anyone can contribute to Cities and Memory's #StayHomeSounds project as long as they have a good-quality recording, with the exact location and story behind the audio piece. There are 13 sounds from India so far, including a morning prayer from the Tibetan Bonpo community in Dolanji near Solan in Himachal Pradesh. But the most evocative one is a Mappilapattu by a 73-year-old from Pattambi in Palakkad district, Kerala. Mappilapattu are traditional folk songs from the Malabar region, sung in the colloquial Mappila dialect. The Kerala lockdown sound in Cities and Memory, sung by septuagenarian artiste Vidal K. Moidu, was recorded by one Ihsanul Ihthisam as part of a collection of corona songs being sung by the Mappila Muslims. These songs offer a general awareness of the outbreak, along with its religious connotations, ultimately putting forth a belief in the goodness of a higher force. Vidal, who has been performing for the past 55 years, only recently became popular with an anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act song, with its lyrics penned by Badaruddin Parannur. A father of nine, he became a singer when he met a Sufi saint as a 17-year-old. Since then, Vidal has been singing songs penned by others who come to him for his sonorous voice, which makes instrumental backup unnecessary. “But because of coronavirus, not many songwriters are coming now,” Vidal said. “I have begun writing my own songs.”