Playing with tape: A sonic journey with Halim El Dabh

24 Dec 2020
Mhlambi at South Beach Durban. Photo: Mandla Mbuyisa
Mhlambi at South Beach Durban. Photo: Mandla Mbuyisa
24 Dec 2020

Egyptian electronic composer Halim El Dabh said his musical awakening, happened after being struck by stroke of lightning — rather like the conversion of the apostle Paul, when he was still Saul, on the road to Damascus.

Back in 1944, when El Dabh composed his earliest work, The Expression of Zaar, there were hardly any electronic composers. After getting hold of a wire recorder (very uncommon at the time), which had been procured by the Middle East Radio Station in Cairo, El Dabh took the device to the streets. He did a field recording of a religious rite, an Egyptian “Zar” ceremony, which he manipulated and edited in the studio. He was fascinated by what he saw as a potential for electronic technology to provide a more interior investigation of the creative renditions of the spiritual ceremonies and to offer insight into sound and its transcendent elements.

El Dabh reflected: “I just started playing around with the equipment at the station, including echo chambers, voltage controls and a re-recording room that had movable walls to create different kinds and amounts of reverb.” 1 He then developed a method of selection from the material, focusing on those high tones that seemed too discordant; he removed the fundamental frequencies, so that the result was a sound piece in which the audio quality of the voices was blurred. It was then presented at a gallery in Cairo, where it was well received.

In 2020 I undertook a commission for SAVVY Contemporary, a non-profit art and performance space in Berlin. It was part of an ambitious project to take the measure of the archive of El Dabh’s sound pieces; it engages contemporary artists from around the world in a variety of responses, from radio commissions to book chapters and exhibitions — all of which will culminate in a live public program in Berlin in 2021.

I grew up in the era of the “boombox” radio-set, also known as the “ghetto blaster”. These were portable radios that people would put on their shoulder and carry around as it played. Many had these in the township of Madadeni, where I lived in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They amplified the urban soundscape with the sounds of the latest dance grooves. They also changed the way we listened.

I remember the many nights I spent as a teenager playing with tape on my radio. I was fascinated by the recording function on these domestic radios, which allowed one to record one’s own sounds using the tape. I remember how the tape itself would fluctuate after recordings on the tape. Sometimes, after recording repeatedly on the same Technics D90 cassette, the recorded sound would begin to sound warped as it became enmeshed with what had previously been recorded on the tape. At other times, the tape would get stuck in the machine, so one would have to pull out the reel itself. If the tape had developed a knot while getting stuck, one would have to physically trim that section with a pair of scissors and delicately stick the tape back together with tape. These calamities of tapes getting stuck felt frustrating at the time, but they were fine because they allowed, you as the domestic radio user, to “play with” and manipulate what could be heard. The process was so tangible!

The advent of digital technologies had an eclipsing effect on these earlier technologies.2

For this commission, I wanted to explore some of that teenage fascination with tape, unchecked by the process in which digital devices made way for pre-existing analogue ones in the 2000s. I wanted something I could touch and, as a consequence, believe. What I also craved were people’s responses to me shouldering a tape machine while walking the streets.

I felt that for me to truly respond to El Dabh, who was toying with tape in the northernmost parts of the African continent, I needed to respond in relation to my own context and history at the continent’s southernmost tip.

What came to mind for me was the fact that Southern African societies in the distant past were not structured in relation to centralised institutions of religion, unlike societies in places elsewhere on the continent. In this region, belief systems seemed to have played an important role in relation to the brokerage and politics that led to the emergence of social formations. And this was not simply in the peremptory enlistment of religious taboos, as found in the Judaeo-Christian heritage and others. Rather, what seems to have been the case is that certain beliefs were integrated into artistic-artisanal networks of expertise, as illustrated by the guilds of craft specialists, such as the izinyanga in parts of eSwatini, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Similar craft collectives are observable in the histories of many parts of Africa. For the Among the Mande in West Africa, for example, the group of crafters was called nyamakalaw. These were people who held a monopoly on certain social acts. The group of crafters included storytellers, bards, leatherworkers, potters, etc. They played a vital role in the economic, spiritual and political cultures in the areas where they lived.3

Notwithstanding these networks of specialisation, what one believed at a personal and interpersonal level seems to have been less informed by large, centralized religious orthodoxies and more by the independence of the individual, and those in his or her sphere of concern, and the variations that emerged.

With no temples or big monuments in the name of religion, the natural features of our mountains, rivers and oceans became our places of worship. Even today, when one goes to the ocean in an area such as Durban, or other parts of the coast, you will see people going into the water to enact cleansing and other rituals. The Durban beachfront is the most popular beach in Southern Africa. Over the past few years, in South African public discourse, human presence at the beach has come under scrutiny.4 Whereas apartheid promoted the exclusion of African people from public spaces, the importance of the sea for local inhabitants preceded the advent of European “leisure colonialism”.5

On 14 October, while I did my fieldwork on the OR Tambo promenade in Durban, a woman walked past me singing. She sang a song about “uNyazi lweZulu” (literally, the lightning of the sky). This term immediately seized my interest — it was the same term El Dabh had used to relate his experience of being struck by lightning, which he related at the Unyazi Electronic Music Festival at UCT in 2008.

I probed the woman. Gogo Ndlovu, who had walking and singing, about what she meant by “Unyazi lweZulu”. She said that this is the way congregants refer to their great spiritual leader, Isaiah Shembe, seen as a great ancestor and prophet. Shembe was an early African intellectual who founded a church in the tradition of Ethiopianism, which swept Southern Africa in 1880s and then moved to other parts of the continent. As African people began to convert to Christianity, those who qualified as ministers and lay preachers were not given legitimate leadership positions in the established churches such as the Wesleyan Methodists and the Anglican church, in which European missionaries did not want to lose control. African Christians then started to establish their own, independent churches, which strove to combine the Christian message with Afrocentric ideas and modes of musical expression.



Figure 2 Walking with Gogo Ndlovu, whilst recording with my tape player. Photo: Mandla Mbuyisa

Shembe formed his own church in 1911, and began to develop a unique religious system that drew on African cosmologies.6 “Unyazi lweZulu” is an illustration of this. But such concepts are not easy to explain in a non-African language such as English. For example, the term Zulu itself can mean sky, the heavens, or rain. This Zulu is often personified too, and when it rains we say it is Zulu who is roaring. There is a sense that people who had been living in the area and called themselves amaZulu (the Zulus) were making certain claims about their power over the celestial elements (and as a consequence power over life itself). This may have been to intimidate other communities, to show them who was superior in physical and cosmic force. Many of the early missionaries in KwaZulu-Natal such as Bishop John Colenso and Bishop Henry Callaway struggled with such concepts as they tried to find a vocabulary for the translation of biblical concepts into local languages.7


[2] It did not, however, eliminate altogether the relevance of the preceding technologies of listening. Renaud Foucard et al have argued that the evolution of innovation, in which a digital device replaces an older analogue one, can have the inadvertent possibility of reviving an even older, vestigial technology. This is evident in the way the growth of vinyl sales since 2019 globally is outpacing interest in the more recent innovation of CDs, a digital technology. Foucart, Renaud, Cheng Wan & Shidong Wang, “Innovations and Technological Comebacks”, International Journal of Research in Marketing, 35/1, 1-14.

[3] Conrad, David C & Barbara E Frank (1995). Status and Identity in West Africa: Nymakalaw of Mande. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Blakely 2006, 174-175.


[5] Ndebele, Njabulo S (1999). “Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists”, in Fine Lines from the Box: Further Thoughts about Our Country. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2007.

[6] Khumalo, Simangaliso & Martin Mujinga (2017). “ ‘Now we know that the enemy is from within’: Shembeites and the struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembe’s Legacy and the Church,” Journal for the Study of Religion, 30/2.

[7] Mhlambi, Thokozani (2019). “Definition in Transition”, paper presented at the Archive & Public Culture Research & Development Workshop, April 2019. See