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Lamin Fofana, organizing sound for ambient meanings

Sierra Leone born musician and sound designer talks about the nature of his free-formed projects, informed by his changing environment and evolving worldview and culminating in his latest work, Here Lies Universality.

It’s one of those things…” Lamina hesitates, somewhere far away, “it depends where I choose to begin.

Sinking into a disc from Lamin Fofana is like stepping into an electric bog. There will be cues encrusted on titles like “Searching for Memory” or “Rehearsal of Truth” but these can be esoteric and misleading. The balance between ambient noise and elevated music is hinged on the fulcrum of experience. “I grew up in Sierra Leone, in Freetown. And very early on I guess I had an appreciation for sound and music.” Lamin explains. “Just being surrounded by the cacophony of Afro-diasporic influences this sound from Congo and that sound from Haiti…” Lamin has a way of wandering off into thoughts with bouts of silence. Searching for memory… “It’s not a simple listening experience or environment.

No, Lamin’s catalog is in no way “simple”. It’s challenging and obscure. Sometimes a wallflower, others a snap trap. “I like trying to find different small pockets of sounds that you can amplify and loop, and layer with other pieces of music. This is everything.” Repetition to make clear what’s there. Repetition to make obvious what’s missing. Lamin’s little pockets of “everything” are ear-benders.

It began with listening,” he explains. “And the thing is, even before you hear the organized sounds that we often call music, all the noises you hear, there’s already music in that. I learned this from writers like Nathaniel Mackey and Fred Moten.” The key here being not all environments are equal. The cacophony of Sierra Leone’s Freetown isn’t the same as the tranquil alleyways of an early morning Berlin. “In all these places Freetown, Harlem or Alexandria, Virginia… There’s a way sound appears or emanates and a way people move, you know? The way sound travels in those places, it’s distinct.” So Lamin can carry not only his homegrown zouk with the gogo hip-hop of the United States’ Near South in his ebbing subconscious, but the parallel movements of people and fauna, machine and mockingbird, into his work.

Ink Agop

Though Lamin’s early 2010 work, What Elijah Said, is more of an electro-bop; tracks like “I will admonish you and give you absolution” resonate with late 20th century West African dance music. Moving through the Africans Are Real EP and the two track package “Like White Lightning Up a Black Snake’s Ass” we find much of the same. Steady electro rhythms imbued with sounds that herald from afar. The titles are just as wonky and punchy as ever. However, Lamin doesn’t fully embrace the ambient sphere until his first full length project, Doubleworld. As a whole it feels like a coming to terms with Lamin’s duality as a producer. “When the Fever Breaks” could be used on indie dance floors around the world, while the telling “The Ultimate / Outsider” has a church-like soundscape and a poetic interlude that escapes form. This deconstruction continues on his 2018 Brancuse Sculpting Beyonce and the 2022 Unsettling Scores. The process has become centered around sound samples and the pockets and loops Lamin described earlier; the emotive synths and carefully organized noise replacing percussive foundations.

Perhaps the best example of this deconstruction process comes from one of Lamin’s conversational detours during our interview where he describes the three water features that surround his Manhattan home. “I’m back in New York and I’m in between three bodies of water,” he begins, looking past the computer into some mental space. “There’s the East River, then, in Central Park, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. It’s this reservoir we call the pond. And on the other side of that, there’s the Hudson River. Just taking it slow and walking around listening, the air feels different around each of those places. The light is also different… These are the things that inform production and choices. How you listen to the atmosphere… just being sensitive to the surrounding world. And it’s not just when you are there, experiencing that air, that atmosphere in that moment, but it’s informed by what came before.

And so, sonically, the work unfolds, abstract as nature. Informed as much by the great authors Lamin effortlessly cites in conversation as by the history and flow of nearby bodies of water. On Lamin’s latest EP, Here Lies Universality, we’re again on a foggy walk into strange meanings. What came before and what’s happening now, poking fun at Neo-Liberal assumptions with an “emperor has no clothes” approach. “Here Lies Universality rubs against liberal universalism and reflects on how the pandemic exacerbates existing contradictions and violence significantly and puts them in high relief for all to see…” Lamin reads from his notes. For Lamin, our diversity without equity and progress without compassion left a pie on the face of the globalist order post-pandemic. The crisis highlighted existing violence and inequity, pulling the curtain down from Mr. Oz’s intricate system of projectors, whistles and smoke machines. “It’s exhausting and tiresome to listen to people trying to be reasonable with their analysis and sense making exercises when we don’t live in reasonable times,” Lamin laments. Though even the most attentive listener might find those specificities hard to hear between the vibrating lines. And maybe this resistance to “sense-making” is more a referendum on the psychology of his ambient work. Or perhaps better to let these ideas impregnate the sleeping mind. In Lamin’s words, his is “background music that refuses to be in the background.

I’m reminded of one of Lamin’s live sets in The Hague during the Rewire festival. It was a Sunday night in a concert hall that felt more like a gymnasium. Lamin hid behind giant screens and black shades, unseen to an audience that lay sprawled out across the floor in all directions. He projected thunderstorms, periodic percussion, the poetry of dub master Linton Kwesi Johnson, and the cacophonic peaks of noise crescendos. Eyes open or closed, it didn’t much matter. Message sent and received.

So we continue to follow Lamin into the vapor for meaning that evaporates and forms like heavy dew. Explicit or implicit, with or without beat, we can find something witty and subversive in the sound and speech.