Who is talking here? What is being read out and why? How should we evaluate the cultural significance of what is being said? And what can we say about the speaker from his voice?
My research on colonial presences in Berlin’s Lautarchiv examines these and other questions. The audio archive of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) contains extensive collections of shellac records which were made for scientific purposes up until the mid-twentieth century.
The recording of Bayume Mohamed Husen is among the archive’s holdings offering acoustic evidence of colonialized subjects. In order to find out more about this specific source, I worked together with the social and cultural anthropologist Jasmin Mahazi to organize an audio workshop at the HU’s Institut für Europäische Ethnologie. We invited speakers of Swahili to discuss the audio recording and the nature of what they were hearing. The aim of the workshop format was to examine the historical material collectively and without pre-judgement by applying various skills, perspectives and audio impressions.
Audio workshop at the HU’s Institut für Europäische Ethnologie
An ambiguous historical source that is difficult to interpret
The voice recording was made in July 1934 at the then recently founded Institut für Lautforschung (Institute for Sound Research), a part of Berlin University. It contains a text on Swahili wedding traditions being read out by Husen in Swahili. The shellac record was primarily intended as a language teaching aid and was released a year later along with suitable accompanying texts as part of a series brought out by the Lautbibliothek, the Institut für Lautforschung’s library of sounds.
Although Husen was named as the narrator of the text in the accompanying booklet, it is unclear who was responsible for the content of the recording. Hearing someone’s voice gives us a particularly direct impression of a person or past situation, more so than with written, photographic or filmic sources. At the same time it is all the more difficult to reconstruct the conditions surrounding the recording of the audio holdings in the Lautarchiv. For this reason, Husen’s audio recording is an ambiguous historical source which requires interpretation from multiple perspectives.
A distance between narrator and content
After everyone had listened to the recording together a first time, the workshop participants agreed that there was a noticeable distance between the narrator and his content, suggesting he was speaking in an unnatural context. In the recording, Husen hesitates as he reads, stumbles over his words and makes linguistic errors. Moreover, the language experts agreed that the text dealt with subject matter that at the time would have only been discussed in private, and even then primarily by women.
Thus, the erstwhile practices for conducting research and making recordings were accompanied by a number of cultural and gender specific transgressions. It was the workshop group’s opinion that the narrator found the situation in which the recording was produced and the content of the text itself distinctly unpleasant. The discussion on people’s contemporary experience of sound underlines the fundamental necessity of categorizing voice and music recordings as the products of frequently problematic research and teaching methods that were bound to a particular era. Investigating Husen’s recording is therefore dependent not merely on linguistic expertise, but also on a critical contextualization from a post-colonial perspective.
Husen’s biography and the German colonial history
Husen’s biography is closely intertwined with German colonial history
Husen was born as Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed in 1904. Coming from Dar es Salaam, which used to be part of the former colony of German East Africa and is now in Tanzania, he fought as a child soldier on the German side in World War I. In the late 1920s he came to Europe on a passenger steamer operated by the German East Africa Line. After his arrival he settled in Berlin and initially worked as a waiter in Haus Vaterland on Potsdamer Platz, which was notable for its exoticizing brand of entertainment. In the 1930s he worked as a supporting actor in colonial exhibitions and film productions, which were intended to convey stereotypical images of black people to a mass market while glorifying Germany as a colonial power.
Husen also worked as a language and teaching assistant for Swahili at the Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen, whose primary purpose since 1887 had been to train young colonial officials, military officers and merchants. In 1933 he married a white German, and this was one of the reasons why he was subject to racial discrimination which culminated in his arrest by the Gestapo in 1941. After three years in captivity he was murdered in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in November 1944.
Husen’s sound recording and the accompanying written materials refer to colonial power structures which were also manifested at Berlin University. As a “language assistant” Husen was subject to precarious working conditions. As the narrator of the recording he was relegated to being the object of scientific study. Cultural scientist Britta Lange has described individual holdings of the Lautarchiv as “sensitive collections” because they were made under problematic circumstances and exploited unequivocal power relationships.
In the case of Husen’s archived recording, however, not only the context of its production should be categorized as sensitive, but also the content of the recording, for it describes intimate cultural practices in an inappropriate manner and using unsuitable words. A critical and collaborative exploration of this Lautarchiv recording, which has hitherto received little attention, can help to identify the sound document as both a product of colonial power structures and an example of how science and colonialism are historically entwined.
University research in the Humboldt Forum
In December 2020 the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin will inaugurate its own space in the Humboldt Forum: the Humboldt Labor. The opening of its first exhibition heralds the permanent presence of cutting-edge university research in the Humboldt Forum. This workshop, sponsored by the Humboldt-Universitäts-Gesellschaft and the Humboldt Labor, is one of many formats that will be taking place in the Humboldt Labor in future. It is an outstanding example of the research work examining HU’s collections and archives; the Lautarchiv is the sole example of these holdings to move into the Humboldt Forum in its entirety.