Fewer ghosts to talk to, but more worlds to connect: An interview with Jonathan Uliel Saldanha

Based in Porto, Portugal, Jonathan Saldanha has been a pivotal figure in the Portuguese scene, for both exploratory music and performance. He founded SOOPA, a music and art collective active in Porto since 1998, and has directed the ensemble HHY & The Macumbas since its debut in 2009. He works as a sonic and scenic constructor, within the interception of sound, gesture, voice, stage and film, operating elements of pre-language, resonant choirs, cyclic percussion, cybernetic systems, unfathomable presence, pressure, haptic memory, allopoiesis, echo and intra-cranial-dub.

You just got back from Haiti. What were you doing there?

I was there for the Soukri ceremony; I’ve been interested in Vodou for more than 15 years, so it was a very intense moment. I’m working on the mix of the new album of Haitian Roots music group Chouk Bwa Libete; its a collaboration with friends and long time partners in music The Angstromers, Frederic Alstadt and Nyko Esterle. It was a very special invitation, and we filmed and recorded during the seventeen days of the ritual, all moments, every day. We’re thinking, with some of the key figures of this community, of working on a series of documentaries about contemporary Vodou in Haiti. It’s a very welcoming system that brings together all who are interested, and where all outcasts and any sexual orientation or life vision is respected. Like one initiate told me, they have no concept of hell, so this for sure changes how punishment, expectation and liberation is comprehended. It’s a very special time for Vodou at the moment, because there’s a lot of pressure all around the country from neo-evangelical corporations, trying to label it an evil thing, when actually it existed at the foundation of Haitian independence and is still now a powerful world symbol of freedom. It’s a point of resistance and liberty in a very hard political moment in the island and it signifies a cosmovision that sustains elements that are vanishing from all around the world.

These rituals are embedded in the culture there. How is it possible to connect to that as an outsider and observe it from a point of view that’s not voyeuristic?

Well, culture, and specifically Haitian Voudo, is syncretic, so it’s already a hybrid that is the result of dialogues and tensions between African-born rites, Catholic imagery and indigenous sacred sites, in a complexity that is a prototype of most of the cultural construction of the XXI century. We were very welcome; part of the power of Vodou is that it’s open to all kinds of connections. The drummers from Chouk Bwa are the main percussionists for the Congo Division, that is the main rite operating on Soukri, so we had a special entering point to the community. The place itself is away from the city, in a beautiful palm tree landscape, and it’s uncommon to see people from abroad there, but the Manbo immediately received us with warmth. I’m interested in Vodou, in the life that breathes now on the amazing people that inhabit its cosmology, it’s a living thing not a historical curiosity and we weren’t anthropologists analysing a distant social mechanism or a team of documentarists doing a job assignment, but participants of a cosmovision that is present now and with a lot to say.

What attracts you to voodoo in particular?

It presents intriguing keys for reading things and ultimately people and the landscape. Its a complex agglomerate of languages that communicate through objects, smells, colours, diagrams, touch and rhythm. So its not just a visual, cosmological or sonic system, with rituals, choirs and percussion, but it is also something that is really connected to how you read time and the dimensions encapsulated in what we call reality. The first single we released with HHY & The Macumbas ten years ago was a tribute to a specific Vodou Loa called Papa Legba, the mediator of dimensions. The operational aspects of this Loa influenced a lot of the music I’ve been doing since then, it connects space with other dimensions, which is very interesting for music, in the way you can combine and collide acoustic spaces and sonic characters, building complex bodies and cross-referential languages of vibration in a multidimensional listening space. The concept of multilayering reality influences my music, but also my stage pieces and installations. It is a mutation of time through different axes.

There’s also the aspect of the choreography, how the body operates in space.

In the particular space where we were there was a temple. This space has existed for more than 200 years, since before independence in Haiti. It’s a space with a lot of sacred elements, gods and portals that are camouflaged in trees, rocks, holes and a river. You have special points in the landscape that you can trigger with vibration or attention. This kind of connection with space has influenced me a lot, especially in my choir works I always encrypt the score in movement, architecture or objects. The singers memorize their voice parts through space, with each voice attached to a different physical point. I find this very resonant with the landscape that unfolds in Vodou. You attach a point of density in the landscape and you can distribute time through space.

HHY has a Kampala Unit. You have been working with the label and collective Nyege Nyege for some time.

I was invited by Nyege Nyege to go to Uganda some years ago, but this was possible only last year and I was there for almost two months. I started by helping to design Boutiq Studio in Kampala, which was being built at that time, and that was cool because I could build a studio and immediately occupy it and start recording. Then I started working with Omutaba, developing a particular rhythm system, a bit like what I do with the percussionists from the Macumbas; building a way for the rhythm to have agency. So we arrived at a very special mutant drumming style, played on traditional acoustic drums, but also using electronic pads and triggers and parts of drums. Within this, I took some rhythms that I like to work with which are part of HHY & The Macumbas language and with Omutaba we found similar rhythms in the traditional repertoire from the mythical kingdom of Buganda.

These traditional rhythms are impregnated in Omutaba’s muscular memory and could be a core cipher that is then driven and totally reconfigured in a mutant drumming machine. We then started recording and adding the horns from Florence, which come from the background of local brass bands, playing a very abrasive and exploding sound. I also recorded the horns of the Uganda Prison Brass Band, in a very intense cluster of brass. We’re going to release an album for Nyege Nyege in the beginning of next year; the first video will come out this year. In parallel to that, I’ve also worked with MCs from there and I’m going to continue this collaboration next year. One track with Biga Yut is coming out this year on a Shape compilation and, later on, Hakuna Kulala.

Nyege Nyege’s sublabel Hakuna Kulala is a good example of these new, hybrid sounds. This hybridisation is something that’s spreading across the globe.

There are so many possibilities to listen to music from everywhere. Even when I think about my background in music, I see this: my first instrument was Tabla, and I was playing in a Indian classical music ensemble when I was 15, and that’s music that wasn’t traditional or identifiable with Portugal or Europe, in terms of its construction, rhythmic notions and even tuning. There’s so much amalgamation in the learning curve of any human, that’s part of the way each of us opens to alterity. Especially now, there are many lines being actively broken, lines that were dividing humans, things and dimensions are now crossed at great velocity by constant exchange and the deterritorialisation of knowledge from its centre of power. It’s crucial to dislocate, move out of a stable comfort zone; the internet doesn’t substitute the complexity of a place or community. The process of exchange and knowledge demands presence. Were living in a very complex, but very interesting moment for creating music or art of any configuration, the way we see form and language is changing fast. Resonance and vibration between humans and objects and sounds is accelerating into deep hybridisation.

How would you describe your musical vocabulary?

It’s a shape shifting alien. Continuing to go in the direction of mutation between formats where I can work with improvisation one day and work with a score and ensemble the next. All of this has different densities but equal value in the sense that I’m equally interested in listening to a club session or to a piece made for an orchestra. The expansion of all of it into synaesthesia, how images inform sonic narratives, how gestures and bodies can inhabit a world that is sonic, is very interesting to me. I work more and more with hybrid formats between stage and dance, video and installations, like the one I did in Palais de Tokyo two years ago called OXIDATION MACHINE. It was a vibrational landscape, colour and sound were operated by a machine that regulates density, with a massive sound system playing the sounds of choirs that were moving in impossible Doppler- driven acoustic spaces. Clusters of voices singing inside an accelerating space in a massive industrial space full of oxidative colours and water vapours. This reconstruction of synthetic meanings is very exciting to me. An image informs a sound, and vice versa. My perception of form is driven by synaesthesia.

When you work, do you have a grid, a scheme, a plan. Do you prepare it ahead?

For many years, that was a big part of my creative process. Investigation and putting things together, making schemes and diagrams. I’m very much interested in early cybernetics and systems theory, autopoietic systems, systems that self-regulate and fail. Much of my work with choirs is based on that, like systems of voices that rely on touch, and not actually memorising the melody. I prepare the diagram, the system, and then I try to see how the system survives with people and space. With percussion I also usually go with this process. There’s always this translation process. I think about Beckett a lot in that sense, he was writing in French and translating it into English, making a word survive on a stage, a stage develop in a video, or vice versa, always trying to go back and forth until something particular emerges.

Some of the videos that you’ve made are very cinematic. There’s a sort of remnant of something having happened there, a post-script.

Post-script is a very interesting concept. Especially in video, to have access to only an extension of the story. You have an indirect glimpse of something that has happened or something that has an energy or vibration but exists and moves in a different dimension than yours. You only have access to one of its manifestations, to the outline, the post-script. I really love it when there’s space between the imagery and the aural, then the environment, the landscape builds its own mythology.

I guess you leave it up to the audience to inhabit this space that you create.

To inhabit is actually the right term. Inhabiting a space, dealing with its presence. All these protocols of inhabiting spaces that are sometimes acoustic, but often cosmological, mental or meta-physical.

What about technologically enhanced realities, virtual and augmented?

I’ve never explored it much. Some years ago, I collaborated for my stage piece O POÇO with a sound engineer and researcher Eduardo Magalhães, who works a lot with sound-design and spatial technology for games, so we used a couple of technical elements from gaming to shift the aural landscape – like when a character in a game goes from one place to another, so we designed a vertical sound system that translates sounds falling and moving in a vertical axis and then we used some of this spatial technology to actually navigate inside that synthetic reality. I’m interested in technology in the sense that it can be bent into a live moment where you can experience shifts of perception, spaces or movements around you in real time. Collective listening is something appealing to me.

Where would you like to see you work develop in future?

It’s hard to pinpoint. There’s some specific stuff that’s happening. I have a couple of records to finish that have been stuck for the last years in my hard drive. This year has been very hectic. I’ve had a lot of commissions, things that took time to develop. I couldn’t release the amount of music I wanted to. So in the next month, I will start to finish some cycles, like a collaboration with Moor Mother that is almost ready. Meanwhile, there’s the recording of a live concert by HHY & The Macumbas that is coming out on House of Mythology these days. At the end of next year, I will start a two-year residency at the Rivoli Theatre in Porto, which is for me one of the most interesting theatres in Europe.

It’s very active in contemporary dance but also in all stage performances. They will be co-producing my new pieces, and I will be able to work on spaces and develop some mutant stage work. It’s all quite overwhelming. I will have time to explore a lot of these relations between sound, dance and staging. I will push the envelope as much as I can and come back to work with a very particular team of engineers and philosophers. This process will also give me sound material to play live shows and release more music. The work with HHY & The Macumbas and HHY & The Kampala Unit will continue with new releases and also some other percussion and choir work. Maybe some of the people I met in Haiti can come here and work with me on new pieces. There’s a lot of exchange that can be done.

You once said about your project HHY & The Macumbas: “This music stems from a deep connection with the streets of Porto and its undertones, nights and drags. Is the project still connected to the city?

Very much so, but in a different way. The city has changed a lot, the Porto of ten years ago had a rough vibe, a kind of end of Europe feeling, a place of ruins and invisibility, charged with a strange sensation of insularity. So this inspired a lot of the music and cosmology, and it was very precious when the SOOPA collective was founded in 1998. We were making shows of exploratory music at a moment where there was nothing like that there. All this was the back bone for HHY & The Macumbas, the core of musicians came from that time and we walked a long distance to where we are now. Some of the powerful character of the city got scattered, but the city has transformed into something that I feel can deliver more opportunities for people and artists living there right now. Fewer ghosts to talk too, but more worlds to connect.

As an artist, do you feel this is a good time to be in?

On many levels, this is a special moment. The more disorder you have in the way the expectations of the world come to unravel, the more artists have something to do while negotiating with the forces of chaos. They can operate on a very important level of communication, contact and presence, reconnecting broken links, or proposing new ones. Even while we see the burning of the Amazonian forest and a new rise of nationalism and populism in politics. Even in Haiti, a place that has had many natural calamities and is being destroyed on so many levels, people are making music and through that making magic and changing their landscape. Even if everything is destroyed, the more destroyed it is, the more important it is to do what we do. What you do can be meaningful.

Are artists a medium capturing what’s around them, are they a medium mediating realities?

Mediating dimensions. Like Harry Smith transforming milk into milk. There’s something in the process of the capture of the surrounding mental or visible landscape that triggers perception in a cluster of associations, and this is enough to inspire people. It tilts the lenses of what we see, It shifts the perspective just enough to refresh the shape of things and re-boot meanings. It operates at various levels and can trigger skin and gut reactions. It’s almost haptic. And that informs your mind in a very sensual way. Sometimes with dissonant information. You assume something, but your body triggers a different reaction. This dialogue is a big part of the perception of the world, and it’s present in music because of all of its deep physical connections, dancing and riding the vibration. Pushing the complex body back into the equation.

Jonathan Saldanha plays Unsound with his HHY & The Macumbas project.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

Photo by: Carlos Melo / Arquipélago – CAC