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Stories from our Programme

Sounding an echo-chamber of African and diasporic music: An interview with Zara Julius

Talking Drum



We speak with artist and researcher Zara Julius about Talking Drum, her podcast and sonic library project supported by a Breathing Space grant. An experiment in speaking, listening, community and grooving, the project includes 6 recorded episodes with guest participants from across the continent and diaspora and a live event in South Africa. 

What has been your experience collaborating and exchanging across contexts?

Collaborating and exchanging across contexts has been an invigorating and inspiring experience — especially after being in lockdown. In many ways this process has reminded me, through practice, the importance of collaboration and building across contexts as a way of harnessing pan-Africanism beyond the theoretical. It has also re-rooted me in my practice as a social practice artist who is interested in sharing in the stories and experiences of my community. I get really excited when I’m able to learn with friends from different contexts and generations, and draw these sonic and socio-political lines of solidarity and similarity through folks’ narratives.

What informed your selection of the participants for this project and how did these exchanges unfold?

All the collaborators on the podcast are folks I’ve had a great deal of respect for over the years, both intimately as friends and from a distance as cultural and political comrades in the broader creative industry. Whilst I knew most collaborators prior, Brenda Sisane was the only person I had worked with before through her radio show. Additionally, Alsarah was the only person I had met for the very first time through putting this project together, but we quickly realised where our communities overlap. On a practical level, it’s important for me to able to collaborate with folks who I don’t just have “access” to, but also with folks with whom I can build sustainably going forward; where the recorded podcast conversation exists as just one of many conversations I have had and will continue to have with the selected participants. And then on a more spiritual level, the energies have to align. There were some people I’ve wanted to collaborate with for a while, and reached out to, but then quickly realised that this project was not the right fit for the exchange and potential sustainability for the creative relationship. Someone can be incredibly talented musically and opinionated about music within their contexts, but not necessarily have a socio-political framework in which to speak about that music, and that analytical framework felt essential in a project like this. And so those collaborations have been parked for a suitable project that plays to those folks’ strengths. It’s important to be able to honour people where they are at, and I think that’s what’s made the episodes so diverse in their approach, but equally engaging for me as a host/producer. Another big selection criteria for me was reaching out to folks in different parts of the African continent and diaspora, and mainly in parts of the global south that South African audiences aren’t used to engaging with (politically or sonically). It’s for this reason that Anglophone African countries didn’t feel like urgent contexts to explore this season. I definitely wanted to engage North African sonic traditions in some way because of the proverbial “split” between North and sub-Saharan Africa, and also the Caribbean because it’s a region that I have a big personal relationship with. And of course it made practical sense to do an episode with someone locally in South Africa.

Can you share with us some examples from the project of “worlds connect[ing] through sonic performance and musical conversations”?

A big part of the project was trying to find ways for cultural producers and creative practitioners to be “in-conversation” and “in-collaboration” without having to be in the same place due to the travel constraints of our COVID times. It has always been a dream to facilitate in-person workshop sessions or a residency of this nature, with folks from around the African continent and its diaspora coming together to improvise and share with one another. Of course, that was not possible, but turning the project into a podcast, with a live music component allowed for certain types of collaboration to still take place. In working with Tumi Mogorosi and SideBar (previously The Ancestors), I gave him the playlists from each episode and asked him to choose 5 or 6 tracks that resonated with him, and the band interpreted each track in their own style, instrument arrangements, languages etc. Whilst all the podcast collaborators were anyway engaged in a protracted conversation with each other through myself and the KONJO platform, this live music performance element extended this to an in-person audience that might not even be interested in listening to the podcast. Music is anyway already engaged in a constant journey of adaptation and exchange, and this project just extended this by placing sonics alongside one another in ways that are highly personal to the individuals who curated each initial playlist. This type of on-going echo chamber is really what has made African and African diasporic music what it is today, and is what drives me to work with sonics in this way.

What challenges and learnings did you encounter and gain from this project?

A big thing for me during this project was surrendering to the fact that I’m no sound-engineer and that sometimes developing and capturing the stories and meaningful content is of more importance than the technical production quality. A lot of our stories or analyses aren’t recorded or published in the global south, and it’s always important for me to privilege ethical storytelling over any other aesthetic concerns I may have around production standards. Whilst I’ve never done podcasting before, I’ve been conducting interviews and facilitating conversations with folks across contexts for years and I think I’m always just reinforced in my position that planning interview questions or doing thorough pre-interviews really often just isn’t the way to go about doing this type of work.

In what ways can engaging with archives inform and enrich current cultural understandings and expressions?

I initially hoped I would be able to work with African music library archives in conjunction with the personal archives of the podcast collaborators, however due to COVID I was not able to gain access to do research at ILAM. I think the focus on the personal curation of sonic archives really allowed the podcast to reflect a type of intimacy and life that isn’t usually explored in relation to African sonics.

Yes, we can and should continue to study our own music as African practitioners, but music from the African continent shouldn’t be and isn’t just an object of study — especially not solely from outside the continent. I think it is important to remember that sonics play vital roles for the folks that listen, make, and experience the music within very situated contexts. These archives are simultaneously personal and political; and that tension can only really be explored with nuance from someone who has intimate knowledge of this context. Sonics perform gestures in highly situated, subtle and sentimental ways.

Please tell us more about the talking drum metaphor and how this reverberates through the project and your work generally.

The talking drum is an hourglass shaped percussion instrument that has historically been used to communicate messages from community to community, without folks having to physically carry the message personally as the sound of the drums travelled faster than a human could walk or travel by horse. The tonality of the drum is also meant to mimic the tones of the human voice. The drum itself is a bearer of archives and stories across various West African regions, and the project is intended to function in very similar ways; carrying sonic stories across regions in Africa and the Caribbean faster than we can physically travel to each other at the moment given travel restrictions. Of course in an ideal world, these collaborations and conversations would have happened together, in person as a group, but the project also harnesses the notion that the sonic itself holds stories and histories, not just the people who speak about the sonics.

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