Through her relationship to the radiophonic medium, her work on colonial archives and her performances as a DJ in events linked to the LGBTQIA+ community, Rokia Bamba draws a canvas in which sound waves and activism are tethered. We met the radio anchor, DJ and sound director at Café Congo in Brussels, for a conversation as part of Nuits sonores Brussels & European Lab Brussels.

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Auteur: David Bola

Photo Crédit: Marin Driguez

You began working with radio at the age of 12, how did that happen for you? 

It was a mix of circumstances. I was often alone with my brother, we were stuck at home. We had a private tutor who saw that we weren’t going out. He was working on the radio at the time and had the idea to get us to do a show. That was it.

We didn’t take him seriously, but when he showed us the place first, and then what we could do there, we immediately became passionate about the medium. My parents are from Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, where the radio is really part of the family clan life. We grew up with the radio set switched on 24/7, more so than the TV. 

My brother and I have a special relationship with the set itself – we still own the first radios we ever bought. It’s part of a family culture that’s passed on, my children also often listen to the radio. It’s one of our points of reference. It nourishes us spiritually.  

It’s a way of keeping in touch with those who are far away. A way of maintaining that connection.  

That’s how announcements are made in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. Deaths are not announced like here, in newspapers, but on the radio. There’s the radio spot for deaths, another for marriages… That way, people in the village find out that such-and-such is getting married in the capital. It simply replaced the tam tam, which signaled a fire (laughs).  

We come from an oral culture. The griots (West African bards) are the guardians of memory and culture; stories of princes and epic tales are transmitted orally by these history teachers. So it makes sense that the oral culture disseminated by the radio is of paramount importance.

Me, I come from two cultures. That of the Maraka* on my mother’s side, and that of the Samogho* on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, they come from a culture of traders, and on my father’s side, of breeders. Writing is not really part of our culture, it’s taught at school in a colonial context. It was also transmitted to us by priests. 

In my family, a few people had the good fortune to learn how to read and write. My father was lucky enough to benefit from this European approach to writing. But not my mother.

I imagine boys were taught to read and write but not girls? 

Exactly. So my grandfather knew how to write, but none of the women in the family did. They still signed their name with a cross. And yet we know that Mali and Côte d’Ivoire have quite a matriarchal social structure. It’s women who hold the purse, who cook the food, who know all the tricks to make ends meet.

Since we’ve mentioned colonialism, let me come back to a project in which you participated, involving images and sounds from the Belgian colonial era. What does this work help to convey?  

What’s important to note is that these are sound and visual archives that are completely hidden from view. When we say they’re archived, it means they’re buried, they’re protected and invisible. They are classified in museums.

Since these are public museums, I assume that they belong to all of us, and that I have the right to look at them. The first step is just that: redefining belonging within museums. Because those people look at you, they put roadblocks in your way so that you don’t start digging, making the dust resurface – a dust that they absolutely want to keep under the carpet.

The images we’re working on with the collective led by Antje Van Wichelen are unseen images, hurtful images. Our group is called Troubled Archive. My son came up with the name after seeing our work in Cologne. He found these images really troubling.

They’re anthropometric* images. They represent the study of the body. However, in a colonial context, it’s not a body, it’s an object being inventoried and forced to pose under difficult technical conditions. These images were taken with glass plate cameras, so you had to wait until the light was captured to be able to take a photo of the subject. Like in a dark room. So it’s hours and hours of waiting in the sun. 

The subjects are treated very disrespectfully. We feel the fear in their eyes, the lack of comprehension of what they’re experiencing, their inability to flee. They’re asked to turn their head to the left, to turn to the right, to turn around to the left and be naked; a ruler is used to measure their brain, their height, their breadth. They are a subject of study – an object

The subjects are not named. They’re numbered with comments like “A Berber woman carrying a vase”, or “A native with asymmetrical breasts”. What we’re trying to do is reorder these images into chapters. We created several chapters: one on the comments, then on the figures, then on how they’re made to pose, the aestheticism of it. 

Troubled Archive @ We are Europe
Troubled Archive at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Köln © Massimiliano Di Franca, Free Art License

They are projected in 16mm film. Imagine the noise it makes, it’s disturbing! The idea is to trap people like these subjects were trapped. With the light, the projection of images, the noise, the sounds. This is where I come in, I work on the sound.

We exhibited at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, which is a colonial museum. At that time, Felwine Sarr was there, and he advised us to apply for the Dakar Biennale. We answered the call with this project, and it was selected. So we’re going to represent Belgium in Dakar, between May and June 2022.

I get the impression that for you, this project on memory is the first step towards more developed activism and resistance. Resistance is, in fact, the subject you tackled (through music) in the exhibition Resist!, still at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne. What link can be forged between music and resistance? 

Music is like a Proust’s madeleine*, it’s part of each moment in our lives. We associate it with a period of our life. You associate it with happy moments and moments of encouragement, it’s like an escape, and it also allows you to recentre yourself. 

It helps you find meaning, gain strength, fight; it nourishes you. Intellectually, at the level of the mind but also of the heart. The rhythmic tempo of gospel, blues, repetitive songs and guitar riffs are a kind of call to hook onto a slogan or an intention. It’s like a subliminal message that you assimilate, an amoeba that you swallow and then expel after absorbing it into yourself. You can then impart a message onto others. Music is the easiest way to get things across. 

Troubled Archive @ We are Europe
Troubled Archive et the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Köln © Massimiliano Di Franca, Free Art License

And remember that there’s also an issue when it comes to writing. Back then, not all people could write and read, so the best way to get a message across was by singing. In the cotton fields, when groups contacted slaves to set them free, they would call them through song. 

There was a particular song to say “get ready to go”, another to say “the plan’s aborted”, another as a warning. It’s incredible that we’ve lost sight of it, it was truly a weapon. Masses of people were saved thanks to songs.

Although music has accompanied you all your life, on the one hand through radio, and on the other through your music-related projects, you started deejaying quite late. What prompted you? 

My children had grown up, that’s all. But people were expecting me! Antje came to find me for this project, then another friend wanted me to put her book to music, and finally the black LGBTQIA+ community came to get me.

Massimadi, the LGBTQ + black film festival, contacted me because they needed a DJ. Those friends saw things in me that I didn’t see for myself. That’s when I told myself that this sorority is a truly powerful force. They waited until I was mature enough and ready, then came to get me, saying, “Okay, now’s the time, go on, wake up!”.

If they came to get me, it’s because we have a long road to walk together in this community. And yes, the LGBTQIA+ community made me who I am. It welcomed me in. It gave me opportunities. It woke me up. It nourished me, and I thank them for it. That environment decolonised me, it completely deconstructed me; they made me realise that difference, and working on difference, should not be a barrier. On the contrary, you have to go for it. 

If you ask Afro-descendants or racialised people to tell you “when did you know you were black?”, they’ll instantly answer, “it was on that day”. Because you can refer to an image that doesn’t belong to you, that was never you.

I have a French culture because I was at the French Lycée Jean Monnet. I have a French culture because I was colonised by the French. I have a French culture because my father had a French education. I have a Belgian culture because I was born in Belgium. I have a Malian culture, an Ivorian culture, and others on top of that. I also have a Jewish culture because my ex-husband is (Jewish?) Belarusian and I went to Israel to show my children what Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are like. 

I accept these identities. I don’t fight against them, I incorporate them into myself and display them when necessary and depending on who I’m with.

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Griots: The griot, also called bard, is a person who specialises in singing the praises of historical characters and reciting tales. 

Marka: A people present in West-Saharan Africa, mainly in Mali, along the Mauritanian border. Also called Soninkés. 

Samogho: The Samos or Samoghos are a West African population of farmers, hunters and wrestlers who live in western Burkina Faso, northern Côte d’Ivoire and south-eastern Mali.

Anthropometric: Techniques for measuring morphological proportions applied to the human body.


David Bola is the content editor of We are Europe Media. Formerly working at Radio Nova as a freelance journalist and hosts a monthly residency on Piñata Radio‘s sound waves, with Ludotek, a show focused on video game music.

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