Distinguished Sounds

December 29th, 2011 | by Jesse Hardman
Photo from Ethiopia


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:

  1. Walk, a lot. And when you are walking, listen, intently.
  2. Bring your recorder, preferably a small one, EVERYWHERE YOU GO.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Jesse Hardman is a reporter, journalism teacher, and international media development specialist. His work is featured on National Public Radio, TIME.com, and a number of other national and international media outlets. Hardman has also trained reporters in 10 countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and South Africa. He currently teaches at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and Columbia’s SIPA school.

10 Comments on “Distinguished Sounds”

  • Peet Sneekes says:

    Hi there!
    Make sure to check out http://soundtransit.nl . I posted some of my ‘travel and record’ clips over there AND you can book a virtual trip through all kinds of local recordings.
    Cheers! Peet

  • Bradley Campbell says:

    Jesse- Great sounds. I’m wondering… when do you, if ever, feel the need to use an external mic and or heavy recording heat ie. shotguns with dead cat covers, XLR jacks and the like? (Also: your story years ago on your dad was a huge reason many of my friends and I started in radio. It’s remains my favorite radio story ever produced. Not flashy… just raw and honest.)

    • Jesse says:

      good question, thanks for your thoughts.
      I guess…I started out using those things, and have come to a place now where I don’t as much. I like to be up close, in the mix, taking it in, which means I’m close to the sound. I guess, in the case of this posting, I’m thinking more like a writer with some advanced radio skills, as opposed to a sound engineer or producer. Does that make sense? I was just in the Badlands, it was 6:30 am, I was out in a field, amazing winter ambience, and I actually recorded it with my iphone, and it sounds great. My fear is less that I’ll screw up the perfect recording of the sound, more that I’ll miss experiencing a moment. But maybe I’m sounding like an old man, and I should be put out to radio pasture.

  • Barbara Dondon says:

    This piece inspired me! I am a dutiful journal keeper who also loves the way things sound. Last year I invested in a Zoom recorder as a way to capture sounds I love and experiment with podcasts. I love how deftly you’ve integrated the two.

    How can I hear the story about your dad that Bradley Campbell references?

  • Barbara Dundon says:

    Oops! Spelled my own name incorrectly!

  • Jesse says:

    This inspired and reminded me the other day of why I ended up doing what I do.
    Alan Lomax inspired it all, at least in my book.


Links to “Distinguished Sounds”

Leave a Comment