Project + Process

Gulu SoundTracks curates a collection of eight audio tracks as a digital ethnographic sound project. The collection invites listeners into the sonic habitus and imaginations of their creators, based in the city of Gulu, Uganda. Individually, these tracks each tell stories about daily life in Gulu. Together, the compilation is not a complete story so much as a series of stories inspired by histories of listening to a place and recording its sounds. These are narratives evoked musically– without lyrics– through the aesthetic manipulations of densely-layered audio samples, software instrumental sounds, and grooves.  

We envision this site as an invitation to listen with us to the vibrant social worlds of Gulu. Based on field work conducted between 2014 and 2018, the ambient samples sound out Gulu’s qualities as a small city in northern Uganda animated by people’s activities in trade, transport, entertainment, and innovation. As acoustic markers, these samples sonically materialize Gulu as a city during a period when its official status as a ‘city’ remained in question. Each track remixes these field recorded samples with digitally-produced Afro-dance beats to create expressive narratives. Perhaps you too will come to hear these “noises” as vibrant acoustic expressions of Gulu City unfolding through life’s twists and turns. 

For academic audiences, the invitation to listen is also an invitation to further creative play at the intersections of experimental ethnography, creative arts, digital humanities, and sound studies. With inspiration from calls to “do anthropology in sound” (Feld and Brenneis 2004) and interest in contributing to the possibilities for “digital sound studies” (Lingold, Mueller, Trettien, eds. 2018), Gulu SoundTracks takes seriously sound production as a mode of critical public scholarship that privileges “openness” (Pandian 2018) and the de-centering of text-based knowledge forms, and which can amplify the work and ideas of those we think along with as we do ethnography. 

This compilation is the collective project of anthropologist and artist Joella Bitter and four Gulu-based music producers, Doctor Kaunda, Producer Usaih, Black da Massacre, and Mellix Skillz. Field recordings were collected by Joella in Gulu using a Sony PCM-M10 stereo audio recorder as part of her doctoral research. The tracks are the original audio productions of each of the aforementioned producers. The liner notes are textual derivations of storied concepts narrated by each producer, in conversation with the group, during our collective post-production listening session in Gulu in 2018. All collages are imagistic responses to these tracks and the original artworks of Joella, created using photographs of Gulu taken independently by Joella and Ojok Eddie. This digital site also benefitted from the contributions of many others.

Our process experiments with listening as a way of registering multiplicity: selections of Joella’s “raw” recorded listenings, drawn into the listening and music production practices of Kaunda, Usaih, Black, and Mellix via re-listening, memory, association, manipulation, and layering, and then shared amongst ourselves during a collective listening session in which we discussed each of the tracks and their respective narrative and technical compositions. What emerged from this process is a more-storied and less-cartographical way of mapping Gulu City—which we share here for further listening as Gulu SoundTracks

The collaboration yielded something more than these tracks themselves: we were reminded along the way that coming together and listening dialogically not only brings immense learning, but also immense pleasure. Thank you for joining us.