Introducing SA28'S Guest Curator, Kyla-Rose Smith

In conversation with Nate Wooley

NWAlthough we’re mostly concentrating on your work as a “cartographer” in this issue, your journey started as a very successful musician in South Africa. What drew you to music in the first place and how did that evolve into your current life, which makes room both for music and your work with Found Sound Nation?

K-R SI love the idea of curator as cartographer! Well . . . how many lines on this page?! I grew up in a musical home. Not that either of my parents were professional musicians, but there was always music and musical instruments, dancing, family sing-alongs, a vast record collection, and my father blaring Vivaldi’s Flute Concertos when he delivered tea to our bedsides and woke us every morning as we got ready to go to school. When I was about six-years-old my mother suggested I take up a musical instrument and immediately followed it with, “I think you should try the violin, and here one is, and you have a lesson next week.” 

It was interesting because growing up in apartheid South Africa as a white person and attending a government elementary school, which ultimately only really provided to the needs of the minority white population, there was the privilege of having a well-resourced music department. So, I got music lessons at very little cost to my parents. A bitter pill. I played from a young age—violin and piano—under the strict and watchful eye of my mother; you know how that goes! To her credit, as I grew older and felt stifled by classical training, she was really encouraging and actively sought out other musical forms and teachers for me. And I think growing up in a very eclectic household where creativity was in some ways the highest state—and very much encouraged in all things—shaped me and the path I ultimately took. 

My first working gig as a musician was writing music and performing with a contemporary dance company in Johannesburg—The Vuyani Dance Theatre, which is led by the incredible South African dancer and choreographer Gregory Maqoma. This experience was deeply profound for me for a number of reasons: I think dance is one of the highest art forms; I am completely enthralled and inspired by the way great dancers make work and the deep excavation and study that takes place in order to finally whittle something down to only its essence—to shadows and gesture. I also love the intense space of working: long grueling hours of development and rehearsal, a finite time on something, and then it is done. It’s something I am still aspiring to as a maker. 

This gig, and also my work with South African hip-hop band Tumi and The Volume, led me to meeting the founders of Afropop band Freshlyground. I joined the band and stayed for fifteen years. We were wildly successful—selling hundreds of thousands of records, touring the world, collaborating with Shakira on the global smash hit “Waka Waka”—in some ways dreams come true. But somewhere along the path of commercial pop success, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t the thing that lit a fire in me. It wasn’t that “higher state” space of creativity. And I had to do some searching, and some circling, to find where I was in all of it. And that’s when I met the folks from Found Sound Nation (FSN) and became aware of their work with OneBeat and a global collective of socially engaged musicians: folks all around the world who shared an ethic in their work. I felt like I had found my creative home, a community that could support me in continuing to strive for that higher state. And now I live in New York City, working with FSN, on OneBeat, and all of our other projects that engage musicians from all over the world.

NWFor many of our readers, the work of FSN and OneBeat will be new, as will many of the insights from the contributors you’ve chosen. Can you talk a little bit about the mission of the organization and how it goes about getting people from around the world together to share their practice?

K-R SFSN is an artist collective and non-profit production house that uses music- and media-making to connect people across cultural and social divides. We believe that collaborative music creation is a deeply effective tool for awareness of others and the beauty, trauma, and hidden potential in our communities. We partner with local youth, social organizations, music festivals, and artists across all disciplines. Our work emphasizes a mobile approach to recording and producing professional-quality music. This technique combines the art-music traditions of musique concréte, hip-hop, audio journalism, and contemporary composition. Our method is adaptable to different environments, based on finding the sounds and resonances of each space, drawing upon the talents of musicians in the local scene, and examining issues most relevant to each community. Our aim is to enliven a global conversation about how creative collaboration in music can address issues we face locally and collectively, while doing this all in the most funky and harmonious way possible! 

We have worked and collaborated with many institutions, music festivals and musicians over the last twelve years, from running pop-up studios at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland to capturing street sounds at Big Ears in Knoxville. We have led audio production workshops for Cine Institute in Haiti, worked extensively with Carnegie Hall in New York as well as in Indonesia, and Mexico, and developed music composition workshops with incarcerated youth in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the field of cultural diplomacy, we developed the Dosti Music Project1 with U.S. Embassies in Pakistan and India which brings together politically divided artists to create and tour original work. 

Since 2012, we have partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Bang on a Can to produce OneBeat, our most ambitious initiative. OneBeat convenes young, professional musicians from around the globe to develop initiatives that use music as a tool for the betterment of our communities, forming a growing web of interconnected musical change-makers from around the globe. It’s a unique program and methodology because we do not want musicians to come and perform already-written work. Really, we take these artists out of their home contexts—out of their comfort zones—and we actively explore what lies in the uncomfortable spaces, in the awkward silences of new meetings. ​

NWFSN’s methods “emphasize a mobile approach to recording and producing professional quality music [and is] adaptable to different environments, based on finding the sounds and resonances of each space, drawing upon the talents of musicians in the local scene, and examining issues most relevant to each community.”2 It sounds perfectly designed for a global pandemic. How do you feel you were ahead of the curve in “virtual” music making, and what challenges did you—do you still—face in fostering collaboration with the ups and downs of Covid?

K-R SInteresting question. I am not necessarily sure we were “ahead of the curve” in virtual music making because, as you and all other musicians are aware, the virtual space of music creation leaves much to be desired! However, I think where we did have an edge in this was our willingness to be experimental and, as I said before, to embrace awkwardness—to step into the virtual world and treat it less as a platform and more as an entirely new medium. As FSN, we love exploring alternative space for musical performance and presentation and treating the virtual space as a new stage, as a new world to present in; I think this allows us to view it not as a hindrance, but as a new palette for creation. I think another strength is the incredible network of artists we have developed through our programs: how they become part of our team, help us expand our pedagogical approach and give us a much broader perspective on all of this. We can see the world and these challenges from many different angles simultaneously. As for continued challenges, definitely Covid is still with us globally, and it makes the work of global exchange challenging—from basic things like flights and visas to the challenges of an unequal world where some folks have more privilege than others! 

NWYou chose the idea of mapping as your way of structuring this issue. Can you talk about why that particular concept is important to you, and how you used it to choose the contributors for SA28?

K-R SI am really interested in cultivating spaces where musicians can speak to the “why” of music-making more than the “how,” which is where I feel the conversation usually falls—especially non-academic spaces. I am also very interested in ideas of experimentalism and contemporary music that come out of non-western traditions; particularly given the world we work in as Found Sound Nation. I think this space is dominated by western practice and thinking about music, and yet there are a plethora of cultural traditions and practices, not necessarily rooted in western thought, that embrace modernist approaches to music making. I think that very simply brought me to the idea of mapping—when we are looking at things from a global perspective. At the same time mapping and cartography are all about the investigation of the unknown and the representation of that unknown so it can be known, revealed on a surface for others to see—here for eyes and mind in this SA28!

Introducing SA28'S Guest Curator, Kyla-Rose Smith