A pianist, sociologist and composer reflect on women migrant’s journeys through words, music and performance
We’re excited to present You Will Find Your People Here. A trans-disciplinary work transposing and transmuting migrant women’s words into music, performance and, perhaps, down the line, into change.
A collaboration between sociologist Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, composer Clare Loveday and pianist Mareli Stolp, it was first performed at The Centre for the Less Good Idea in July 2022 to a live audience. The performance is a creative reflection of the journeys of five women from Congo, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Malawi, who make their way to Johannesburg in search of security and prosperity.
In the performance, the stories emerge in snatches, spoken word, vocal utterances and music, interwoven to create a tapestry of sound evocative of the migrant women’s testimonies. Drawing on the senses, the project immerses the audience in the experiences of the women and taps into aspects of their journey’s that cannot be captured using words alone. The piece transgresses conventional storytelling methods which rely on literalism, or the spoken or written word. Transcending linguistic and cultural barriers, this kind of storytelling gets at the heart of our shared experiences. Rooted in the world of sound and sight and smell, the performance fills the gaps that words often leave behind.
“The performance is very powerful…The words, the music, the playing. It’s all tightrope stuff, but never loses its footing. The democracy of the collaboration is fantastic. Less empathetic composers and writers would have written too much… importantly, the distress that the women have experienced and the immensity of their humanity in the face of the trauma is always front and centre.”
Dr. Nishlyn Ramanna, Musicologist
Since I was unable to attend the performance in person, I had to wait for the recording. When the video finally went up, I watched it and pondered what it would have been like to be in the room for the performance.
The video cuts between two different shots of the stage, moving us around the space in a way that would be impossible watching the performance live. This movement disrupts the static nature of the performance, giving us a straight-on view of the stage as well as a closer angle over Mareli’s shoulder. Both angles keep the audience out of frame, centring the all-black stage, with piano and pianist bathed in stark lighting.
Stripped of context, of the sights, sounds and smells of the theatre itself, the performance becomes a more isolated thing, shared between pianist and watcher. I was able to reflect carefully on the words, to pause and rewind, and experience the performance in my own time. There is none of the immediacy of a live performance, the tactility or the sensory immersion. But the emotive quality of the music, the way Mareli’s performance conveys danger, discomfort and tension translate well. The music adds layers of feeling that might otherwise be missing from reading these stories.
That said, upon reflection, I found the choice of instrument curious. The piano, and in particular the grand piano, is an almost quintessentially European instrument. Although it has travelled, notably to North America and Japan, it is intimately bound up in three centuries of European upper and middle class history. Not only that, grand pianos are overwhelming in size and often in volume—designed to fill concert venues without amplification. They are not fluid or mobile instruments, though they have travelled they do not do so lightly or on the backs of migrants. The image of a white woman playing the piano is distinct and perhaps incongruous, if not incompatible, with Black African stories.
If the purpose of the performance, however, is to make the experiences of migrant women in Johannesburg legible to white audiences perhaps the piano is the perfect tool. Yet it’s interesting to consider the implications of using a different instrument. How would the sounds of an akoting or something in the idiophone family, which is so common across Africa, feel accompanying these stories? What about multiple instruments or multiple performers? What happens when the stories of multiple women are vocalised by one? Does it flatten or unify the narrative? Reduce or simplify?
These were questions on the minds of the three collaborators as they embarked on this project. Their intention is not to represent women, or speak on their behalf, but to offer a reflection of women’s experiences through their craft – words, music, and embodied performance. It was a three-year journey of grappling with what it means to produce an interdisciplinary and creative response to the narratives of five migrant women in a way that surfaces their humanity and dignity. In the end we hope that the piece strikes a chord, sparks debate, and brings compassion to our ways of seeing ‘the other’.
Frame45 actively and consistently invests in finding new ways of storytelling. Our hope is that by pushing the needle on the ways of telling, our stories touch different audiences in ways that inspire social change. Ultimately, we hope that You will find your people here cultivates empathy for, and curiosity about, the women who migrate to seek safety and a better life.
Ultimately, we hope that You will find your people here cultivates empathy for, and curiosity about, the women who migrate to seek safety and a better life.