Lamin Fofana

Ballad Air & Fire / Shafts of Sunlight / The Open Boat

Sierra Leonean artist and producer Lamin Fofana re-imagines geographies of the African diaspora through elegantly abstract sound design

Berlin-based, Sierra Leonean artist Lamin Fofana tackles our conceptions of race, existence and identity within the African diaspora by reimagining landscape through sound design. Ranging from the perturbing to the angelic, Fofana’s work is a journey of sensory experience. There is a vastness to his sound. It encourages an introspective interrogation of Black experience in a bid to vigorously question our understandings of what we have experienced, and what we continue to experience.

This trilogy of albums is elegantly abstract in nature, but with a clear intent to critique the impositions of Western rationality in music, and to re-imagine the geographies of African diasporic people. A carefully calculated fusion of synths, hums, chimes, static noise, and chords occur concurrently in a carefully constructed, intermittent fashion that unravels our feelings of uncertainty.

In Ballad Air & Fire, Fofana asks “What happened to us? How did we get here? Where do we go from here?” He guides us towards a lucid understanding of our philosophical paralysis, whereby African people find themselves in alien lands as a result of a history of forced movement and subsequent marginalisation. The static sounds bear resemblance to the hypnotic waves rocking to and from the shore, but with a slowness that suggests a more mundane kind of automation. The fractured being in occupation of a foreign space (the African diaspora) as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and European imperialism – what does this mean for the individual?

For thirty-one minutes, the titular opening track ‘Ballad Air & Fire’ represents the darkness of that frustration which comes from exploring the brutalised consciousness of Black experience. It forgoes classical music theory, rejecting contemporary Western thought through dissonance. The knocking of instruments, augmented by echoing, points towards a vast landscape of nothingness alluding to a sense of identity crisis.

At times, ‘Ballad Air & Fire’ is disconcerting and claustrophobic, with these knockings suggesting a feeling of being trapped within an existence unintended for African people, a questioning of one’s sense of belonging. The shorter second track, ‘Unfinished Elegy’ fluctuates towards a space more serene, offering respite from the mental war of ‘Ballad Air & Fire’. Gentle chords, encompassed by high celestial tones, facilitate an emotional resonance in the listener as they transition into this re-imagined reality, whilst lamenting the loss of those who fell along the way.

The second part of the trilogy, Shafts of Sunlight is yet another multisensory journey into the unknown. Fofana calls it a work “aiming at difficult things, difficult meanings”. Through a spectacle of piano chords and effervescent chimes, Fofana cites poet and thinker Fred Moten’s defiance of that “Western worship of reason” which “denies most of us [Black people] the right to exist”. Throughout opener ‘Shafts of Sunlight’, there are frequent tonal shifts intertwined within whimsical electronic synths. Chords and static noise, a little hazy, suggest a vague recollection of experience. The track ‘Ode to Impurity’ opens with a burst of static noise infused with occasional synth chords. Again, it errs on the side of unsettling and eerie. The common denominator here is resistance: a total rejection of the current state of being. The mood is contemplative while seeking, without remorse, the facilitation of a new idea of sentience for the Black diaspora.

Fofana has a tendency to explore dynamic range, and this is evident again fifteen minutes into ‘Ode to Impurity’ through a tonal shift to a more sanguine sound, as if to point to a re-awakening or philosophical salvation. But this is fleeting, with an inevitable return to sounds more uncertain, as if to revert back to the realism of the status quo. Together, these two tracks, around forty minutes in total, render the listener in a state of active contemplation, exploring the ways in which European imperialism has coerced and corrupted our understanding of our own being.

The title of Fofana’s third instalment in the trilogy, The Open Boat, is explicit in explaining its direction. A sense of vastness is ever-present, with significant emphasis placed on a feeling of disconnection from the source, just as African people find themselves displaced within the diaspora. The sound of incessant typing on a typewriter, waves of chimes and auto-tuned vocals greet the listener as the ‘Prelude’ opens, followed by the beating of snare drums that ominously pluck at existing perceptions of ontology, and form the beginnings of the search for a re-imagined form. The auto-tuned voices are scarcely audible, carrying a sense of mystery, as if faint in the breeze. What can be interpreted here is a desire for communication – perhaps someone or something from another space or another time seeking contact with the African diaspora, confined in a purgatory-like existence.

‘Poseidon’ is repetitive and sobering, again bearing the intermittent whispers of autotuned voices. In this and the following track ‘The unity is submarine’, Fofana crafts howling winds, alluding to a phantom presence, before breaking off into a calming piano chord and a beat that repeats over and over as if in search of something. This sense of exploration is furthered in the final track ‘And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms’. The howling winds continue and are then fused with the arrival of solemn chords that perhaps allow the listener to tentatively breathe a sigh of relief.

The Open Boat is a gradual journey towards a sense of ease, though in the final track the howling winds remain, as if to suggest danger is never too far away. There soon arises a labyrinth of static and electronic chords that serve to unnerve the listener again. The theme of revolutionary renewal is constant throughout Fofana’s work. It bears an unrelenting desire to obliterate the metaphysics of identity, being and time, manifested in this case by the notion of maps being redrawn and reimagined. In this way, the listener is invited to re-imagine their understanding of experience up until this point.

Lamin Fofana’s work may feel alien but his work shows that there are sonic ways of re-imagining the world. He yearns to challenge our common, socialised understandings of music theory, to critique our understanding of Black existence. Fofana’s trilogy is an interconnected masterstroke. Through its sound design, the listener can reimagine an entirely new landscape in which perceptions of self are entirely divergent from the present day status quo.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today