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Spiritual Resonances

Call to prayer, sacred chants & glossolalia in sound-based practices

September 2015
Published in the 10th issue of Afrikadaa

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James Webb, Al Madat, 2014
James Webb, Al Madat, 2014. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Imane Farès (Paris) and blank projects (Cape Town)

Considered one of the most accomplished expressions of devotion and fervour, holy sounds accompany believers from all faiths in their spirituality. From Buddhism, Christianity or Islam to Judaism, including syncretic rituals and pagan cults, sound is a key element to transmit divine teachings and transcend the earthly world. Vocalisations, instruments, melodies or even body clapping create a language and soundscape unique to every religion.

Yet, beyond their invitational aspect, these rhythms can be misused. Under the guise of pious discourses, they may serve as demagogic channels. Taking root in the mind as an integral part of daily spiritual practice, they might contribute to internalising doctrines without engaging the individuals’ critical analysis.

African and Middle-Eastern artists capture these ephemeral and evocative tones. They mention the dangers implied by the duplicity of language; the constructed nature of belief as well as its genuine expression. Still, their acoustic researches do not concentrate on religion per se but rather use this motif as an entrance point. Through intense sensorial sound installations collating and blending raw field recordings, they reflect broader contemporary issues by interweaving complex social layers to the competing narratives coexisting within the sacred. The sound tightly placed in the exhibition space is activated by the viewer’s body as a parallel to the aural occupation and circulation of religion in public space.

Plural to Singular Streams

Growing up during Apartheid, James Webb (South Africa) saw how racial and geographic divisions impacted on religion and society. He developed an interest in tracing what people believe in and how they practice. Studying systems of faith brought in anthropology: what is sacred, what is the relation to culture? Along that, hearing discussions about religious extremism was another clincher to start a long-term exploration of expressions of belief through a sonic lens.

James Webb, Prayer, 2002-ongoing
James Webb, Prayer, 2002-ongoing. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Imane Farès (Paris) and blank projects (Cape Town)

In this, since 2000, he has been expanding a multi-channel sound installation conceived as a site-specific and in-situ experience highlighting religious pluralism. Relying on worships sung by spiritual communities from the host city[1], Prayer changes according to the urban context where it is broadcasted. The work consists in a red carpet and 12 disseminated floor-based speakers simultaneously emitting the recorded praises.

The result is powerful as the prayers are accumulated and looped in an everlasting flow. The audience can stroll; get dazzled by the polyphony of voices or decide to hear one of them distinctly by kneeling down in front of a speaker. Viewers are part of an acoustic choreography; their choice to listen and their movement of descent can be seen as acts of humility and openness. Prayer is a transcultural endeavour building bridges between different communities and art institutions; and evidencing the meeting points of various faiths.

Conversely, Magdi Mostafa (Egypt) questions religious rigidity and partiality in his multi-channel sound installation Sound Cells (Friday) (2009-2012). 50 dismantled speakers on a minaret-like structure transmit an abstract Friday’s sermon -sampled from two-month recordings in Ardellewa, Cairo- interspersed by old washing machines’ humming intensified by microphones.

Magdi Mostafa, Sounds Cells (Friday), 2009-2012
Magdi Mostafa, Sounds Cells (Friday), 2009-2012. Courtesy the artist

The discomfort felt incites to interrogate the function of both the oration and the devices, which are a metaphor of the never-ending household chores devoted to women -while men go to the mosque. In his speech, if the imam describes the value of women as procreative vessels[2] (reproductive subjects divested of their bodies), he also explains they are not responsible for the baby sex. Mostafa evidences the role of religion in producing morals and in maintaining established social consensuses based on patriarchy and stiff gender relations.

Sonic Memories

Recordings of a specific place hint to its history as much as they question the portability of such charged sound reproductions. They reveal geographical and political stratums. Al Madat (2014) by James Webb, for instance, subtly and poetically refers to demographics and ancient religious migration routes. In this project, he recorded a Sufi dhikr: a traditional Islamic recitation, where holy names are chanted with special breathing techniques, often creating trance-like effects. Four standing speakers surround Karachi rugs creating a space for taking shoes off and being inside the textured space shaped by those powerful voices and breaths.

Al Madat is only one of several dhikr recorded by Webb with patients from the Sultan Bahu Rehab Centre run by a Sufi mosque. This recitation which means ‘help’ and implores the assistance of the Prophet and Sufi saints specific to Cape Town particularly touched him. Dhikr is used as a curative tool in this context. The drug rehabilitation centre is based in Mitchell’s Plain which was a township during Apartheid after the destruction of places like District 6. The area is predominantly of Cape Malay and Cape coloured descent. Webb explains ‘Islam and Sufi practices came to the city from South East Asia with the Mardykers and Malay slaves from Mid. 1600. Religion was a powerful tool of slaves during that time as it metaphorically helped them break free from their shackles’.

Sirine Fattouh, still from A Night in Beirut, 2008
Sirine Fattouh, still from A Night in Beirut, 2008, 8”. Courtesy the artist

Rituals’ repeated rhythms, pulses or gestures pervade memory. In a sober documentary style, the video A Night in Beirut (2008) by Sirine Fattouh (Lebanon) follows closely an all in white figure playing the drum and singing. This man is Beirut’s last El Tabbal[3] as his sons will not pick up the torch. One of the time markers of Ramadan, each night he crosses the city to wake people up for morning prayer before the sun rises and the fasting starts again.

This mysterious nocturnal scene evokes the artist’s childhood when, during Lebanese civil war, hearing this spectral voice scared her. In this poignant imaginary space, Fattouh touches on nostalgia by using sonic memories strongly associated with the trauma of war. For her, El Tabbal becomes a symbol of all the landmarks, traditions and memories vertiginously disappearing in her country: ‘all vanishes so fast that we even forget it existed’. She activates concealed narratives making us twitch as the drumhead whose echo we hear long after.

Peripheries of Language

Spirituality meets humans’ quest for meaning. The uncertainty and metaphysical anxieties linked to existence push to find sense in an immaterial dimension going beyond the ‘word’. Ironically, Younes Baba-Ali (Morocco) confronts the viewer with a megaphone broadcasting five times a day the Islam call to prayer, Adhan, in Morse code. Erasing verbal communication, he presents the call as a universal emergency alarm signal. At first, the audience has no idea what the code stands for. It generates a feeling of alert as its waves keep on reverberating.

Of Moroccan origins but raised in France, Baba-Ali contemplates cross-cultural ties and his relationship to two cultures and educations. Call to Prayer (2011) was conceived when the artist first visited Brussels, a third cultural space, as a way to rediscover his community (mostly North African expatriate Muslims) in a new context. The series of Morse on-off tones is ambiguous because it sounds common. Using dual language, the artist ‘questions the relation of a migrant with his religion when he is disconnected from his context and his culture of origins’. He looks into education out of context and how customs and behaviours inherited through it are linked to an adamant religious practice whilst the bond with spirituality is lost and absent. While never provoking directly, his proposal changes according to the exhibition’s environment: when in Morocco, the high-pitched beat was perceived as a warning against the dangers of proselytism.

Younes Baba-Ali, Call to Prayer – Morse, 2011
Younes Baba-Ali, Call to Prayer – Morse, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Arte Contemporanea (BE)

Combining four speakers with neon light, Aleph (2010) by James Webb presents a phenomenon rarely sounded out in contemporary art: glossolalia. It is a continuous out loud praise in an unidentified idiom seeming real. Often mumbling a sequence of syllables, the speaker cannot be understood or deciphered. In the region of Stellenbosch, Webb recorded young Pentecostal Afrikaans women ‘speaking in tongues’. The atypical rhythm pouring forth elicits a visceral and mesmerizing feeling. Such a flow of unusual words slips out of ordinary definitions on language. The singers abandon themselves in this space at the periphery of sense where their expression is neither constrained nor judged. They believe they are the custodians of angels’ language -opening up a channel between themselves and the person they are praying to.

For Webb, Aleph has a cousin in Al Madat. Both relate to ‘a specific city and context; include demographic enquiries and formally rely on powerful methods of spiritual work using intense breathing and vocal skills’. For the vocalists, dhikr and glossolalia are communication techniques going both inwards and outwards. Yet, from the outside view, these practices are often misunderstood. Sharing and disclosing those recitations in an exhibition space enable the audience to learn more. The viewer can interpret and complete the work.

James Webb, Aleph, 2010
James Webb, Aleph, 2010. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Imane Farès (Paris) and blank projects (Cape Town)

The aural presence of acoustic installations based on analysing sounds mediating divine presence reveals the spatiality and secrecy of sound. While musing on the visible and invisible realms, artists’ remixes of sacred tunes also work as doors to historical, psychological and social issues such as conservatism and morals; migration and multiculturalism; memory and loss; subconscious and awareness.

Preconceptions as suggestive music can mislead us. To avoid deceit, listening carefully and being attentive to what we cannot see becomes a shared collective responsibility.


James Webb, Aleph (2010)

James Webb, Al Madat (2014)

James Webb, Prayer (2002-ongoing)

Magdi Mostafa, Sound Cells (Friday) (2009-2012)

Sirine Fattouh, A Night in Beirut (2008)

Younes Baba-Ali, Call to Prayer – Morse (2011)

© Clelia Coussonnet

[1] Such as Cape Town (ZA), Copenhagen (DK), Huddersfield (UK), Johannesburg (ZA) or lately Malmö (SE) in Barriers, Contemporary South Africa at Wanås Konst. May 17-Nov.1, 2015

[2] Anneka Lenssen, ‘Magdi Mostafa: Townhouse Factory Space’, Artforum International, vol.53, n.1, September 2014

[3] This disappearing tradition bears the name of Boutbila. El Tabbal were men from low-income families who had the responsibility to announce the daily beginning of the fasting during the month of Ramadan, in their neighbourhood. Nowadays, their call is heard only exceptionally.

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