Sydney- and Paris-based artist Angelica Mesiti is interested in the resilience of culture as it is preserved, protected and manifested through the migrations of language – not necessarily speech or literature, but vocabularies formed from sounds, gestures, non-linguistic languages, folk songs and the unofficial music of rhythmic traditions.
From a background in performative practice before her now-predominant mediums of video and sound, Mesiti demonstrates a particular appreciation of the entrainment that exists within the singular and collective bodies. This, in turn, compels her to investigate the ways in which performative gestures create and define a sense of the individual and community.
This study of the private–public interface in the migration of sounds and people is beautifully and meaningfully brought together in her ground-breaking video ensemble work, Citizen band, which reveals the unique trace of specific musical and aural languages. On four screens, arranged to form a quadrangle of space, the audience witnesses distinctive monophonic performances, one after the other, as well as one final movement of cathartic cacophony. The filmed performances were created by people Mesiti discovered in various urban settings who work outside official structures of musical presentation – buskers, street performers and people who perform more privately and as a form of remembrance and reverie.
Cameroonian Loïs Geraldine Zongo drums water in a Parisian public pool, calling upon the traditions of the Baka people of Africa, particularly the women and girls who maintain the water-drumming rituals in rivers. By trapping air between the hands and the water’s surface, Zongo is able to produce a variety of sounds that are syncopated, patterned and repeated to form rhythmical music. Zongo’s performance exhibits a kind of rapturous form of remembering through the ecstatic and exuberant pleasure she creates, made palpable at the end of her sequence when she takes in breath, smiles and then permits herself to swim in the water that holds the secret of her rhythm.
Algerian refugee Mohammed Lamourie sings and plays his Casio keyboard in the Paris Metro system. Lamourie is sight impaired and feels his keyboard, to which he has attached certain touch-activated memory cues. His singing – a combination of sweet, pure tones and murmuring hums combined with the techno blend of traditional and electronic, the rhythms of Raï music – sends a melancholic vibration into the viewer. Lamourie is part of the Algerian diaspora, as is the hybrid Arabic–Western musical form Raï, which became outlawed in Algeria because of its provocative social commentary against Islamic fundamentalism. In a place such as Algeria, musicians have died to maintain their music and message, so Lamourie’s singing becomes a form of memorialisation, protest and a potent act of survival.
Sudanese immigrant Asim Goreshi whistles in his Brisbane taxi-cab, conjuring up a remembered place of vast spaces, night sounds and spirituality. Educated in musical composition, Goreshi has perfected a technique of whistling that enables him to blend in his music the sounds of his homeland with sacred Sufi melodies, attempting a rapturous connection to his God. His ethereal performance, set in the twilight of a Brisbane landscape, reaches to another dimension. And Mongolian, Bukhchuluun Ganburged (Bukhu) plays the morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) and throat sings on a Newtown corner in Sydney. Each player delivers a distinct sound with a particularity of technique inflected with its cultural origin.
By asking her collaborators to sing their songs and form her ‘citizen’s band’, Mesiti celebrates the importance of aural traditions in the diaspora cultures of displacement and migration. Songs and sounds, unlike written literature or artefacts, are virtually impossible to police, compound or destroy. A song or rhythm, even if it is outlawed, remains in the mind and body, and with it remains the memory of origin. Reflecting upon this idea, musicologists Stephen Blum and Amir Hassanpour have remarked: ‘Those who tell [the Kurds] that their language does not exist create conditions in which singing or listening to a popular song are a sign of life’. A new life and a new band of citizens is announced by Mesiti’s final movement – the cultural cacophony that imagines a world in which a multi-ethnic, multi-faith harmony can create a beautiful kaleidoscope of community.
Juliana Engberg is Senior Curator, Global Contemporary Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
 Stephen Blum and Amir Hassanpour, ‘“The morning of freedom rose up”: Kurdish popular song and the exigencies of cultural survival’, Popular Music, vol. 15, no. 3, Middle East issue (October, 1996), pp.325–43.