I travel a lot, for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes I’m reporting, sometimes I’m training reporters, sometimes I’m just trying to absorb and understand what’s out there. In the past 15 months I’ve been in Pakistan, South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Cuba, Mexico, Egypt, Tunisia, the Dubai airport a half dozen times, England, the Sri Lankan airport (got deported), Thailand, China, and Ethiopia. It’s never been easier to move about the world than right now, which is truly amazing. But it also means that places begin to blur from one to the next. Cities, deserts, refugee camps, all places that have repetitive roles in my life, begin to feel indistinguishable.
Sound is often the element that helps me archive my adventures in my head.
Cuba is the sound of a couple of trombone players sitting on the sea wall that surrounds Havana.
South Africa is the singing at a Methodist church that houses thousands of migrant laborers from Zimbabwe.
Thailand is my taxi driver singing karaoke, and the list goes on.
Each one of those sounds takes me back to a place, time, and often a character that I’ve been lucky enough to engage.
A couple of international aid workers I met recently were explaining to me their strategy when they arrive in a new place. They have an acronym for it, DBWA, or Development By Walking Around. Essentially, the first thing they do to get a sense of a place is to walk, for hours, and take in the people and place as best they can. Walking does a few things. It puts you on the same level as the locals; rather than appearing as many foreigners do, blasting down the road in an SUV with some sort of logo on it. It also allows you to take your time, and to listen.
So I walk, and walk, and walk some more. And in my pocket is my H2 Zoom recorder. I know more ambitious radio types pack heavier recording heat when they are out in the world. But I really like the H2 Zoom because it’s inconspicuous, it’s self-contained, and it gets good sound if you are close enough to your intended target. When you pass through airport security, military checkpoints, hostile neighborhoods, etc., the H2 Zoom rarely raises an eyebrow. It looks non-threatening.
So, in review, my 4 point plan:
- Walk, a lot. And when you are walking, listen, intently.
- Bring your recorder, preferably a small one, EVERYWHERE YOU GO.
- Take mental notes (or if you are more literal, write em’ down, or record notes) of the details around you, the colors, the architecture, the materials, people’s habits, people’s expressions, smells, and the list can and should go on. When you get back to your hotel room, sit down with a coffee or a beer and make a list of all these details.
- Listen back to your sounds when you get home. See how they make you feel. Do they match the details you wrote down in your notebook? What does it feel like when you put them together? Does it take you back?
When it came time to document my most recent adventure in Ethiopia, there was really only one option. I had to use sound. It distinguished the place for me, doing it justice in a way that images did not. The sounds of Addis Ababa best reflected the dignity, diversity, history, and curiosity of the place. Visuals would have given an audience a feeling they likely have felt before, of abject poverty, crumbling buildings, a decaying overcrowded metropolis.
The sounds that guided me, literally around the city, were the following.
- Old piano at the Taitu Hotel
- Espresso machines, EVERYWHERE!
- Torrential Rains, it was rainy season
- Young boys playing soccer in the old communist plaza
- Religious feast ceremony at St. George’s Orthodox Cathedral
- Jazz music revival at Jazzamba lounge in the Piazza neighborhood
And here’s what it looks like and sounds like when I added my notebook details to my sounds.